MAY 27, 2017 5:16 PM PDT

Should we burn our trash?


If you are the average person living in the United States, according to the EPA you generate about 1600 pounds of waste every year. That's a lot of trash - and where does it all go? Well, the two most common strategies of "getting rid" of garbage is either burning it or burying it. In the US, we generally opt for the latter; about 55% of our waste ends up in landfills. But is that the right choice? Let's take a look.

Landfills are responsible for about 18% of man-made methane. Methane, as a potent greenhouse gas that is about 25 times stronger at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, is not something we want to be generating more of. While burning trash does of course emit carbon dioxide (and strictly by the numbers, these emissions are even higher than burning fossil fuels), burning garbage actually comes out on top because much of the carbon emissions released from burning is coming from materials that were very recently a part of the carbon cycle (as opposed to fossil fuels, which have been out of the carbon cycle for millions of years). And the big plus is that burning trash doesn't create methane.

Although...it isn't as simple as that, because while burning may not release as much CO2 or CH4, it does release sulfur dioxide, dioxins, mercury, and other pollutants, none of which we want in our atmosphere. So while there there may be a better of two evils, the best option by far is to produce less waste and recycle more!
About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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