When digging through hundreds of pounds of trash, it’s best to be on your guard. “There’s always the chance something will jump out at you,” says Jack Chappelle. Mice, rats, and raccoons have all burst forth from garbage heaps Chappelle that has waded through. “We’ve only had one or two snakes.”
While the last time you probably went rooting around in rubbish was back in your middle-school cafeteria (in search of a retainer), Chappelle undertakes this unsavory task for a living. A solid-waste expert with Kansas-based Engineering Solutions & Design, he dissects trash to determine what people are pitching in order to help stem the flow of refuse to landfills. Right now he’s wrapping up a project for five Nebraska communities that want to be able to send zero waste to landfills.
The United States has plenty of room to trim its waste. Every year Americans produce 251 million tons of trash. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, about 164 million tons end up in landfills or incinerators, where it spews greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as it breaks down or burns. Yard trimmings, food waste, paper, paperboard, and plastics comprise nearly 70 percent of this trash (the remainder is a mix of metal, textiles, wood, and other stuff). Recycling and composting have helped make a significant dent: In 2012, the practices diverted nearly 87 million tons of municipal solid waste, preventing the release of about 168 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the air—equal to pulling 33 million cars off the road for a year. Still, we could do better.
To find out how, towns and solid-waste management companies in Nebraska, Ohio, Missouri, and Kansas have hired Chappelle’s company to analyze their waste streams.
Chappelle approaches malodorous trash mounds like a geologist confronting a hunk of sedimentary rock. But instead of shells, pebbles, and coal seams, he’s picking out weedwackers, tater tots, tampons, and Chinese-food containers. On any given day, he’s at the landfill, waiting for a garbage truck to dump a load from a residential or commercial area. Then Chappelle makes his first move. He walks around the fresh—perhaps too fresh—delivery clockwise and then counterclockwise.
“Whether you’re inside or out, the light will hit the waste differently, and you’ll see different things from different angles,” he explains. Chappelle is looking for “seams,” or large quantities of one kind of waste, such as cardboard. He’ll also note large objects like lawn mowers that might skew the results but are still important to note.
Then his team will transfer about 300 pounds of trash to tables and separate it all into bins. “That’s about it,” says Chappelle. “It’s a relatively simple process, but it tells you a lot about a community.”
Once everything is tallied, he sends his recommendations to his clients. Sometimes the town’s solid-waste managers are interested in building recycling operations and are looking for guidance on what kinds of facilities they’ll need. Most of the time, however, they want to understand exactly what people are getting rid of so they can launch targeted campaigns to encourage inhabitants to siphon specific goods out of the waste stream, such as by removing compostable foodstuffs or recyclable plastic milk jugs.
Doing the dirty deed over and over again has allowed Chappelle to get a sense of the varying trash habits of rural and urban communities. Those differences are largely food-based. Suburbanites and city dwellers tend to eat more processed foods (those mac-n-cheese boxes and McDonald’s bags give them away), chuck out less food waste overall (probably due to the use of sink garbage disposals), and have diets that incorporate more exotic fruits and vegetables.
In the nearly 15 years he’s been at it, Chappelle has seen trends both encouraging and disturbing. E-waste has dramatically dropped over the past decade (EPA stats back up his observation), as has the volume of newspapers and magazines (a sad fact, ahem, if you’re a journalist). The skyrocketing quantity of disposable adult diapers, on the other hand, Chappelle finds worrisome. “When we first started, in the early 2000s, diapers were exclusively the domain of babies,” he says. “Now it’s probably 50-50, but by weight, you’d need three or four really solid baby diapers to match one adult diaper.” Single-use nappies might be convenient, but they take 450 years to decompose.
On nearly early every project his company has undertaken, somebody—a community member or an employee of the client—has volunteered to pitch in as Chappelle’s crew sorts trash. “They want to see what is going on and help out,” he says. Chappelle is always happy for their interest, but notes that they tend to be more tenderfoot, less trash hound. Not one has lasted an entire day.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.