After blowing my nose this morning, my hand froze when it came to dispose of the refuse. Flush it or toss it? I instinctively assumed that flushing it would be less harmful then sending it to the dump, but felt I needed to confirm this hunch.
There are a number of factors to consider in determining which method is truly the most environmentally sound. Such considerations range from greenhouse gas emissions, the energy used in processing stages and the final product of this disposal.
Paper accounts for 25 per cent of landfill waste and one third of municipal landfill waste, according to the daily green
. While paper is generally biodegradable, the way modern landfills work by essentially remaining dry, means that this paper can remain intact for years.
“We’ve been to landfills where you could find a newspaper buried 20 years ago and still read it,” said Philip Carpenter, geology and environmental sciences professor, in an opinion piece published in the Northern Star.
Dry landfills, essentially a large hole dug in the ground and slowly filled with refuse, are not built to facilitate decomposition. This process can take decades, while a wet landfill, receiving a steady flow of septic liquid can work ten times faster, according to this Green Yes article
Certain landfills try to curb the effects of this methane gas in the atmosphere by capturing it, and using it to create energy. This is the case in Canada’s capital, Ottawa
. The city’s main landfill, works in partnership with PlascoEnergy
which deals with capturing gases and also turns carbon-made materials into a “slag” which can also be recycled and used as road aggregate or as a building material.
“The facility will process up to 85 tonnes per day of unsorted municipal solid waste and generate electricity to power the entire process and approximately 3600 Ottawa households,” explains Plasco’s website.
“In 2000, there were 42 landfill gas collection systems in Canada, capturing about 0.28 Mt of methane for a reduction of 5.9 Mt CO2e per year,” explains a Green Learning article.
While these measures help reduce the impact of our trash, this process is not yet generalized which means that there are still tonnes of GHGs emanating from landfills which continue to spread in the atmosphere.
Down the drain
On the other hand, flushing your toilet paper down the drain can be more beneficial. Again, this varies depending on municipalities.
Biosolids, obtained from the primary treatment of waste water, may be sent directly to the dump. However, a growing number of municipalities either compost this matter or broken down into various by-products.
The cities of Toronto and Ottawa, in Canada, both make use of these biosolids.
“Toronto’s Ashbridges Bay Treatment Plant (ABTP) is working towards 100 percent recycling of biosolids. Once this is accomplished, the burning of sewage sludge at the plant will end,” states the city on its website.
, between 40,000 and 45,000 metric tonnes (mt) of biosolids are generated annually.
“In 2006, 63% were composted, 24% were land applied and 13% were used as landfill cover and in site restoration / re-vegetation.”
While this solution may seem like an all-around positive one, there are other aspects which warrant attention, specifically the energy needed to process blackwater
“When water is reclaimed through advanced wastewater treatment and is then reused (…) water’s utility is increased, explains the Water Energy Technology Team’s website.
The handling, transport, and disposal or land application of residual wastewater biosolids require significant amounts of energy, especially as the distances from municipal wastewater treatment facilities to sanitary landfills continues to increase and as regulations governing biosolids quality and land application become more stringent.”
While the way to go is never clear cut, the onus lies with individuals to either pressure their municipal representatives to consider these options or in the very least to inform themselves on how their waste is treated. Knowing this will allow you to make an educated choice, as daily decisions do contribute to the health of our planet.