The three main waste management options (recycling, composting and landfill) are sometimes confused. Understanding the difference between these waste management methods is important as they each have different benefits for the environment.
Landfill: Landfill method of waste disposal means that the recyclable components of the waste are separated out before deposition.
According to Wikipedia “the usual motive for landfilling is to avoid public nuisances arising from unsightly high volume trash accumulation.” The best thing about landfill is that it takes up very little space. However today most modern landfills are lined so that any contaminants in the waste do not seep into the groundwater. Even so there is still the possibility of such leakage and this has to be addressed by regular monitoring.
The downside of landfill is that it can take up quite a bit of space both at the landfills themselves and also because landfills often have long term environmental impact. Most importantly, landfill sites contain non-decomposing hazardous material which can remain toxic for many years.
Recycling: Recycling involves treating waste materials or products so that they can be used again to make new products without any decrease in quality (or even improved). Recycling involves sorting the waste by type and quality, which is then separated into different groups of organic and inorganic materials.
Inorganic materials can be further classified as those which are safe for landfill (such as paper) and those that are not, such as hard plastics. Organic wastes include solids from household sources such as food scraps or yard waste.
Some of these need to be treated first before they can be recycled – a good example being yard clippings – whereas others do not – a good example being paper waste.
Recycling organic material does cause environmental benefits because it reduces greenhouse gas emissions by keeping carbon locked up in the soil rather than adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere via decomposition of non-recycled organic matter.
Another environmental benefit of recycling is that it keeps material and energy usage down. This means that less natural resources need to be used in product manufacturing – both for the original products and for new ones resulting from recycled material.
Recycling does have its downsides as well, with the most obvious one being cost. Recycling options only make sense economically when that price difference between virgin materials and reprocessed materials is significant enough to warrant transportation costs over long distances.
The quality of recycled material can also be an issue as very poor quality can sometimes reduce the value of the recyclable product below the cost associated with its transport and reprocessing (the latter often requiring specialized).
Finally, recycling still requires energy – but recycling itself cannot be a replacement for reducing energy demands, which is the other side of the carbon footprint equation.
Composting: The process of decomposition and then recycling organic material into a soil conditioner that can be used as a fertilizer or an amendment to improve soil quality. This method is better known as “composting” from which you get the term “compost.”
In regular composting, decaying organic waste such as kitchen scraps are collected in a bin where microbes found naturally in the environment break it down over time. In industrial composting facilities, organic waste may be pre-sorted before going into large high-heat shredders that expedite the breakdown process.
After breaking down, the chopped-up organic materials are then transferred into large piles that are turned periodically with hydraulic equipment to allow even decomposition.
The process of composting converts organic waste into a rich soil amendment that can be safely used in gardens and houseplants while also improving plant health because it supplies nutrients and stimulates microbial activity.
Although this method does not produce any harmful byproducts like landfill sites do (with the exception of methane), it still requires space and produces noxious odors which could potentially make neighbors upset if facilities for composting aren’t well-contained.