If anything can convince you to compost & recycle, this will


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While it is certainly commendable to use compostable products whenever possible, unless they are actually going into the compost bin (and not the regular trash), they aren’t much different than any other type of trash. In fact, once they end up in a landfill, their compost-ability goes down, and they can stay there for decades.

The reason even the most compostable products can remain intact inside landfills is because by design landfills are meant to bury trash so that it is isolated from groundwater, kept dry and will not make contact with the air. As any avid composter would know, moisture and oxygen are key ingredients for a successful compost pile, so organic materials have little help breaking down without them.

The lack of understanding of how little garbage breaks down in landfills may be one of the reasons why much of the waste we throw it out is compostable or recyclable. According to the EPA, paper and paperboard account for 29% of municipal solid waste (or trash to you and me), and yard trimmings and food scraps make up another 27%.

There are signs that more of us are starting to get the importance of recycling and composting whenever possible. The EPA reports that recycling and composting prevented 85.1 million tons of material from being disposed of in 2010, up from 15 million tons in 1980. And HowStuffWorks notes that the United States sends about 55% of its trash to landfills — far better than the United Kingdom, for example, which buries about 90% of its solid waste in landfills.

So how do landfills work, anyway? Here’s the short version:

A landfill built into or on top of the ground will contain a bottom liner system to keep trash and contaminated water (leachate) from getting into nearby groundwater, cells where the trash is stored, a system to collect rain water that falls on it, a system to collect leachate, a system to collect the methane gas that forms during the breakdown of trash and a covering cap to seal the whole thing off.

Fitting so much garbage in a landfill can be a challenge; so to do this, 2,500 tons of trash is compressed at 1,500 pounds per cubic yard so that it will fit into a cell. Once the cell is made, it is covered with soil and compacted further.

Inevitably, some water does make it into the landfill, and this leachate needs to be dealt with carefully so it doesn’t cause health problems for nearby populations. To make sure landfill contaminates are kept out of our drinking water, leachate is collected in a special pond tested for acceptable levels of various chemicals and treated like any other sewage/wastewater.

For more information on how landfills work, check out HowStuffWorks.

Once a landfill is closed, the work doesn’t end. Long-term care must continue to ensure the environment is protected. In fact, some closed landfills, such as Freshkills in Staten Island, are now serving as beautiful green spaces.

Now that you know how landfills work and how little trash breaks down in them, you might want to do more to minimize what you throw out. Recycling and composting are a great way to start.

Tell us: What do you do to limit the trash you send to the landfill?