Most people only get half the point.
Today there was a report about plastic plant pots. There are millions of them being used only once, and too many end up in landfill.
Landfill is a fact, it is the receiving point for whatever doesn’t get recycled, so unless we develop technologies that can recycle absolutely everything, there will always be something for landfill.
So let’s examine landfill. Take a single item, like a plastic plant pot that ends up in landfill. The lessons will apply equally to every other item.
The plant pot is a material that is either recyclable as a resource to use again, or it isn’t. It’s at the landfill site, so it isn’t. It is either bio-degradable or it isn’t. What do we want with it in the future? Will we want to use it again when it has bio-degraded? Lots of things bio-degrade in landfill, but what for? The plant pot is one of those things that take five hundred years or more to bio-degrade. During this long process what or who benefits from the plastic as it degrades? Is it supporting a vital colony of microbes? If it is, then by recycling everything are we creating a long-term problem by depriving these vital microbes, and thereby depriving humanity from whatever those microbes are vital for?
No, I think probably not. The five hundred years of plant-pot bio-degrading has only one benefit, it removes the plant pot from recognisable existence. The molecules still exist, but in some other microbe-digested form. This appears to be the worthy end, the holy grail of man-made product disposal.
But let’s look at it differently. Granite. There’s tons of it, and it doesn’t bio-degrade at all. No microbes, nothing. Just rock, and just there. Deep beneath your feet there is a massive block of it. It has been there, out of sight for eons. The last time it saw the light of day was before dinosaurs roamed the earth. It is no trouble. Imagine that you could go back in time 500 years, go down to the granite and cut out a cubic metre from it’s centre, and replace it with a cubic metre of compressed plastic flower pots. Coming back to the present, what difference would you see? Now go forward in time 500 years, what then? Nothing. For all you know someone has already done exactly that, in hundreds of years time. How do you know that there isn’t a cubic metre of compressed flower pots fifty feet below you right now?
We do not need to be so hung-up on bio-degrading everything. Silbury Hill in Wiltshire is a man-made hill, and people love it. They walk up it and enjoy the view. What’s in it’s heart has been a mystery ever since someone first wondered about it. Without digging it all up, no-one can really determine what if anything is there. So what difference does it make what it is? It might be a burial mound, it might just be a pile of rocks and soil, or there might be a pre-historic Volkswagen parked in the centre, or a cubic metre of compressed flower pots from 2318. What difference would it make?
There are parts of the country where it is very flat, and a hill or two like Silbury would be quite a welcome feature. People could walk up and get a view, and maybe toboggan down it in the winter. Sheep can graze it (it’s surface area would be greater than the area it sits on), and as it becomes a visitor attraction it might support a little cafe or at least an ice-cream van. How many landfill sites offer so much?
So what would be wrong with tightly compressing and baling non re-cyclable waste into blocks, and building a few good sized hills? Cover them over with soil so that grass grows, and leave it it for ever. Value the rubbish beneath our feet, it’s no longer rubbish, it’s the building material of our very own mountain. We’ve no complaints about Silbury, the Pyramids, nor of granite.