Every morning, after numerous unsuccessful attempts to throw off my covers and get up, I make myself a bowl of oatmeal, discard the trash and then start my day. What happens to the fate of my waste never even crosses my mind it is the whole concept of out of sight, out of mind. In fact, I never really consider the final destination of any of the trash I produce. Except that trash does have to go somewhere. Early into my science, technology, engineering and math education I learned the law of conservation of mass, which posits mass cannot be created nor destroyed.

From food to toys, necessities to nonessentials, almost every product comes with its share of trash content. For this reason, on a typical day the average American citizen will produce 4.40 pounds of trash. Of the trash produced, 2.91 pounds is waste as the other trash contents can either be recycled or composted. Multiply that by the 327,200,000 people you have living in the United States, and you are left with 476,076 tons of trash produced daily. With my elementary knowledge of science, I can ascertain that, though my trash is out of my hands, it is not off the planet. Additionally, with my rudimentary understanding of American infrastructure, I can assume my trash ends up lining a landfill somewhere on the outskirts of my community.

If you have ever been to one of these landfills, chances are you have seen the hundreds of birds that frequent the area and feast on the waste created from human consumption. Honestly, I never even thought about the implications of these birds until I read a study published by researchers at Duke University. The study shines a light on just how detrimental the birds may be to the environment. The reason why this is the case relates to a pretty juvenile concept that I learned in preschool: Everybody poops. Duke researchers estimated that over 1.4 million seagulls feed at landfills across North America, but Scott Winston, one of the lead researchers, believes “the actual population is probably greater than 5 million.” These birds consume our trash and evidently have to poop it out somewhere. This somewhere is not just the back of our brand-new shirt, but often bodies of water like lakes and rivers near our homes. Estimates from Duke say this trash ridden fecal matter deposits an additional 240 tons of nitrogen and 39 tons of phosphorus into our local waterways every year and as mentioned, the effects are drastic.

The added nutrients defecated into the lakes and rivers supplement eutrophication, which causes a dense growth of plant life, such as algae, limiting the oxygen contents needed to sustain healthy ecosystems and maintain aquatic life under the surface. This suppression of oxygen content to the life below the growth suffocates the animals and kills them as they do not have access to enough dissolved oxygen. The effects are ecologically and economically tragic as they degrade water supply and destroy aquaculture. This then means government money will be allocated to the problem, which results in financial losses. As the U.S. and global population continues to grow, these problems will likely only become exacerbated.

Therefore, change is pertinent, and solutions must be found to mitigate the transportation of these excess nutrients in our water. According to the study, researchers believe the best solution is to reduce the size of landfills, cover trash more quickly or reduce the gull population. However, these solutions feel temporary and I believe for long lasting impact we have to mimic nature. What I mean is that in the real world there is no landfill. Instead, materials are consistently reused. Additionally, as species die, their nutrients are given back to the Earth and create more life. Animals live in a closed-loop: Nothing seems to enter or leave the system, everything just cycles back. This cyclical model has sustained life for billions of years, yet the modern era of humans has instituted a linear lifestyle as we take, make and dispose.

Which poses the question: How do we disrupt this cycle and fight the problem at its core? From an early age I was told taught the three R’s as a way to solve this problem. My teachers encouraged me to reduce, reuse and recycle, but this solution just doesn’t cut it. As a capitalist society fueled by materialistic gain, reducing looks great on paper, but it is not a feasible solution. Since 1950 the average home size has almost tripled, making more room for material goods and in turn moving in the opposite direction of reductions and making for an “irresponsible American dream.” In terms of reusing, for that I prompt the question, when is the last time you actually recommissioned a product instead of donating it to the dump? Additionally, we are getting better at recycling, but with China’s ban on foreign waste recyclables, used products are forming stockpiles and going to waste before they are even repurposed. Moreover, when they are repurposed, it is typically only once before they eventually end up in a landfill.

This all prompts the question: What can we do to mitigate trash intake and in turn save the world? There is no simple answer or perfect solution. Humans are needy creatures who constantly take while leaving. The trash issue permeating America and beyond reminds me of a 1971 Pogo Earth Day comic strip from Walt Kelly. Porkypine says, “Ah, Pogo, the beauty of the forest primeval gets me in the heart.” Pogo responds, “It gets me in the feet, Porkypine.” Then, looking over a forest of trash Porkypine despairingly says, “It is hard walkin’ on this stuff” to which Pogo responds “Yep, son, we have met the enemy and he is us.” With no radical changes to our consumption or material habits, we will soon live in a world of trash and deal with the effects on humanity, the environment and every other facet of society imaginable. Trash does not leave the Earth — I know this from elementary school. But what if trash could never enter?  

Sam Sugerman can be reached at samsug@umich.edu.

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