Sustainable Missoula: Montanans simply throw away too much trash

Upward Bound students visit the Missoula landfill. (Suzie Flint)

Editor’s note: TRIO Upward Bound is federally funded by the Department of Education to provide the requisite academic skills and motivation that qualifying students will need to succeed at the postsecondary level. The summer program is one component where students participate in a college-simulated experience by living and taking classes on the UM campus for six weeks. This summer’s theme is “sustainability,” where students will learn about their carbon footprint and how their choices will directly impact their future.

Our lifestyles are hurting the world, but we can change that. During the Upward Bound trip to the Missoula landfill and Home ReSource, we learned that we make a lot of trash. Montanans throw away 7.26 pounds of trash per person per day, but the rest of the country only throws away an average of 4.38 pounds. It’s time to start reducing the amount of trash we make.

The United States creates the most trash in the entire world, around 251 million tons every year. So what happens with all that stuff?  The majority of the U.S. sends its unwanted trash to a dump. Even when presented opportunities to recycle or donate, most unwanted items are thrown away.

Landfills haven’t always been the problem that they are now, and prior to landfills people used to just burn their trash in open dumps.  Early landfills were created as an alternative to combat the pollution created by burning and feeding waste to pigs. Especially after WWII, open burning became a large concern for human health. Local governments soon began to create an effort to dispose of waste in a more sanitary manner.  Even our own landfill here in Missoula didn’t stop burning trash until the 1970s, but eventually converted to the style used today.

People began to realize the impact of burning trash and tried to find a way to make their lives safer and healthier. When early landfills started to appear they made an effort to compact and cover up the trash, and that’s what they still do today.  Our local landfill in Missoula, Republic Services, works hard to follow laws, and take care of the thousands of pounds of trash they collect every day.

Landfills are convenient and the methane that is released can sometimes be collected and converted into energy. Private landfill companies like Republic Services employ thousands of people across the country and work to keep our cities and towns clean of garbage.

But landfills aren’t the answer to our growing trash problem. Toxins build up in the piles of trash, leaching water, chemicals, and other contaminants have to be collected and disposed of, and special lining systems have to be used to prevent leachate from reaching groundwater. Republic Services talked about how they have to collect and burn off the methane released by each landfill cell, and while we were there, we watched as gulls and possibly other animals were attracted by the huge piles of waste. We need to do better.

U.S. recycling programs have been hit hard in the last two years as China refuses to take our recycling and it becomes cost-prohibitive to collect and recycle in the US.  Montana especially has had trouble keeping recycling viable. Recycling and waste rates have risen all over the state and some companies have either closed or refused to take items that they previously recycled.

So what can we do?

Well, don’t stop recycling what you can. The more we recycle, the better off we’ll be. But really we should think about the things we use and buy. Do we need that plastic bag at the store? Can we buy that item second hand? Can we donate that piece of furniture instead of throwing it away?  

We don’t have the answers, but we want to do better and encourage you to join us.

Augustus Bullsoe, Aaron Curran, Alex Granbois, Shawnna Jiminez, Kaleigh Kulaski, Kabryn Lamb, Adeline Michels, Natalyn Miller-Meyer, Talia Mittens, Kirstan Potts, Marcus Raines, Iverson Roundine, Phoenix Sands, Alexis Tailfeathers are students in the 2019 Upward Bound Sustainable Journalism class at UM.

This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every Friday by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Upcoming Sustainability Events:

The summer scatter is in full effect and sustainability events are few at the moment. You can always Join the Logjam Presents Green Team. The Green Team will assist with teaching patrons how to use Zero Waste stations at events. Sign up here.

View more climate and energy events via Climate Smart Missoula’s Calendar.

There are many more conservation events for 2019 HERE.