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Watch Video: After Landfills and Recycling, a Third Option

The waste stream, full of cardboard and plastics, has to go somewhere. Should we burn it for power?

By Matt Hrodey and Knowable Magazine
Apr 28, 2023 2:00 PM
Trash bins with recycling symbol and different garbage near white wall


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Prehistoric humans discarded precious little garbage, only about 200 pounds a year of food waste and other cast-offs.

Modern-day humans produce about 10 times that, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

With good intentions, we send much of our refuse to recycling facilities, though it's a struggle to sort the good recyclables (glass, aluminum) from the bad (batteries) and the items that belong in other facilities. We've also struggled to adapt to changes in how humans read the news.

"A system that was designed around 80 percent newspaper is now receiving something that looks different than that," says Michael Taylor, director of recycling operations at Waste Management, which provides environmental services and solutions across North America. “We’ve had to adapt."

While a great deal of trash still winds up in the landfill, Marco Castaldi, a professor of chemical engineering at The City College of New York, advocates for diverting more into waste-to-energy plants that burn rubbish for power. This dirty-sounding sounding method is actually much cleaner than it seems and doesn't warrant the public opposition it receives, he says.

"This burning is in a much more controlled environment," he says, adding that the ash produced can be used in road construction and other projects.

This video originally appeared in Knowable Magazine, an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews.

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