15 Feb

From kitchen to landfill: the journey of your trash

Meet Ruby, the rubbish bag. You met her when the packing staff stored your groceries in her, remember? She’s been keeping your food safe for you. At least until you tossed her in the bin.

This is just the beginning of her journey as she navigates the waste management process in South Africa.

But first she’ll stew in the bin for a couple of days, hobnobbing with an array of other high profile friends of the ‘waste’ persuasion (paper, tin cans, glass bottles, jars and last night’s leftovers) until dump trucks do their weekly rounds.

From there, she’ll be emptied into the dump truck among an assortment of other people’s “collections” before making her way to the central collection area. There she is dumped in an enormous warehouse. It is here that rubbish is piled – often reaching the ceiling – before being separated and prepared for possible recycling. Some of this garbage that which has the qualities required for recycling will be sorted on a dirty material recovery facility or MRF (pronounced murf, for short). This is where the magic happens. For Ruby, this could mean a longer lease on life, for organic waste, not so much. Organic waste can’t be recycled.

For this unrecyclable waste it means one thing. Yup, you guessed it: The dump. Those juicy, toxic landfills bursting at the seams.

The logic behind landfills is to bury (or hide) the unsightly and odorous waste in the most contained way possible to prevent the spread of potential disease and pests that threaten public safety. Modern landfills are lined with material to keep toxins inside from leaking out (but there is inevitably leakage from the organic waste). Rubbish is heaped upon and upon itself and compacted to reduce volume and extend the life cycle of the landfill. It’s then covered with soil at the end of the day to prevent further contact with the air – nobody wants the stench of garbage juice wafting in during dinner, after all. Even so, rubbish will rot in the airtight landfill, releasing methane (a greenhouse gas) that adds to the other gasses that lead to global warming.

South Africa discards over 10-million tonnes of food waste each year from both local produce and imports. Maybe that’s not an easily digestible fact. Let’s put it this way, we’re running out of landfill sites to put our waste in. What will happen then?

How can we change the cycle? Well first of all remember that while reducing your packaging waste is important – it is not the most important action we can take. A great place to start is by reducing your food waste by:

Perhaps, best of all, think twice about whether we really need that item that’s lighting a burning hole in your wallet or purse.

Want to shine a light on waste-wise actions? Take the pledge!

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