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  • Charlotte Luke

Big Town, Small Landfill: How Athens, GA is a Microcosm for the World’s Trash Problem

"Big Town, Small Landfill: How Athens, GA is a Microcosm for the World’s Trash Problem" won a Gold Key in the 2019 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.

A version of this article appeared in the October issue of the Spartan Review.

I live in Athens, Georgia, a city of approximately 124,000 people (including 35,000 University of Georgia students). Like any American city, Athens produces a lot of trash: As of January 2016, each day about 300 tons of material are disposed in the Athens-Clarke County (ACC) Landfill―the weight of 1,850 UGA offensive linemen. Luckily for inner Athens residents like me, once sanitation services collect our waste, it’s out of sight and out of mind, since the Athens-Clarke County (ACC) Landfill lies 6 miles outside Athens in the town of Winterville. Maybe this explains why so few people realize that, in just one year, our landfill will reach capacity.

Yep, the Athens-Clarke County Landfill will reach capacity in about a year. Although the current landfill cell can exist “for over 50 years capacity at [its] existing tonnage” according to Brad Rickard, the landfill administrator―and although the government will begin construction of a new site “very soon”―there is no such thing as a permanent solution to waste disposal. Rather, in towns and cities across the country, the name of the game is avoidance: For how long can we keep catastrophe at bay? To give Athens-Clarke County credit, we are an aggressive recycling community, and our government has a comprehensive waste reduction plan that hopes to cut landfill contributions by 75 percent in the next two years. Still, if global warming doesn’t get us first, there will come a day when 75 percent is no longer enough. This should scare you; it scares the hell out of me.

The issue of waste disposal is a global one, but it is especially prevalent in America, which produces more than 250 million tons of trash annually, making the US the world’s biggest producer of trash in absolute terms. Why are we so grossly wasteful? There are many explanations, but two factors are obvious: The US is among the world’s wealthiest countries, and we are also the third-most populous. According to multiple sources, including the World Bank Group, high-income countries produce the most waste per capita because their citizens can afford to consume “stuff”―food, clothes, cars, houses, toys, TVs, etc. And the greater number of affluent citizens a country has, the greater its waste production. This means that the burden to reduce America’s waste falls on the wealthy, not only because they are the greatest landfill contributors, but also because they can afford the burden. (Keep in mind I’m not the first person to reach this conclusion.) For example, rich people can afford, in terms of money and time, to buy package-free produce and cook meals themselves. (Read: Athens’ Chick-fil-A obsession is horribly wasteful.) Rich people can afford biodegradable hair brushes, reusable stainless steel coffee filters, and recycled binder dividers. I could go on, but you get the point: people who have the means to slow our collective waste production must take up that burden.

That being said, many waste reduction steps are free, like quitting plastic straws or bi-weekly shopping sprees, swapping dish rags for paper towels, and making your own cleaning products. These tips aren’t my own, though; I’ve borrowed them from “zero-wasters.” Adherents to this lifestyle strive to seriously limit their trash production, and some zero-wasters can fit multiple years’ worth of trash in a 16-ounce jar. Actually, the first time I heard the term “zero waste,” I had impulse-clicked on a 2015 YouTube video called “How to Fit Two Years of Trash in a Mason Jar.” In the video, an MSNBC correspondent followed Lauren Singer, a well-known zero waste blogger, entrepreneur, and activist, around New York City for a day of trash-free living. Proponents of the zero waste lifestyle have found their home on the internet, and niche communities have developed around blogs like Trash is for Tossers (Lauren Singer’s blog), Going Zero Waste, Treading My Own Path, Paris to Go, and Zero Waste Guy, plus their corresponding social media accounts. These content creators have a common goal: inspire their audiences to make lifestyle changes that eliminate waste through leading by example. Going zero waste may seem extreme, but it’s probably the most thorough solution to the trash disposal dilemma. At the very least, we can all make small steps in that direction―not just Athens but the rest of America as well.

By now, our country must play catch-up with the other developed nations, though we produce the most trash. In October of this year, the European Union banned some single-use plastics like “plates, cutlery, straws, balloon sticks, or cotton buds,” as well as “bags or packaging and fast-food containers made of expanded polystyrene [styrofoam]” and “cigarette filters containing plastic.” In Japan, it’s been written in law since 1970 that “the citizens shall cooperate with the central government and local governments in their activities for waste reduction,” and “the municipalities...shall endeavor to promote residents’ voluntary activities to reduce their municipal solid waste.” Of course, the United States regulates waste through the Environmental Protection Agency, but the implementation of laws targeted at reducing waste falls to states and municipalities. Many have risen to the occasion: Washington, DC, for example, required the District in 2014 “to develop a plan to achieve 80% diversion from landfills and waste-to-energy,” and California law mandates that businesses compost organic material. However, nationwide waste reduction can only be achieved, in my opinion, through major federal legislation like the European Union’s single-use plastic ban.

Federal legislative intervention is especially necessary now that China, “which has imported a cumulative 45% of plastic waste since 1992,” refuses to accept any more of the world’s trash. According to one study, “The Chinese Import Ban and its Impact on Global Plastic Waste Trade,” the new policy will cause the “displace[ment]”—an expert euphemism—of 111 million metric tons of plastic waste by 2030, a statistic that scares wealthy nations in particular. Plastics are difficult to recycle due to their varying compositions, and unlike, say, aluminum, they can’t be recycled indefinitely. As a result, recycling facilities can be expensive to maintain in (developed) countries with relatively strict labor and environmental regulations; to cut costs, places like the United States export their plastics to developing nations, “where labor is cheap and environmental standards present a lower hurdle to mount,” writes National Geographic. But, as in Athens, Georgia, waste disposal options are not guaranteed; with China off the table, the US and other nations must either find new dumping grounds or drastically reduce their waste. Clearly, the latter is more sustainable, but it requires joint zero-waste initiatives by individuals and our governments. And it seems to me that America likes landfills, not a challenge.

Bhada-Tata, Perinaz and Daniel Hoornweg. “What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management.” World Bank, Urban Development Series no. 15, Mar. 2012, Resources/336387-1334852610766/What_a_Waste2012_Final.pdf.

Brooks, Amy L., Jenna R. Jambeck, and Shunli Wang. “The Chinese Import Ban and its Impact on Global Plastic Waste Trade,” Science Advances, vol. 4, no. 6, 20 Jun. 2018., doi:10.1126/sciadv.aat0131. Accessed 28 Dec. 2018.

Daley, Jason. “China’s Plastic Ban Will Flood Us with Trash.” Smithsonian Magazine, 21 Jun. 2018, 180969423/.

“How to Fit Two Years of Trash in a Mason Jar.” YouTube, uploaded by MSNBC, 12 Feb. 2015,

“Landfill.” Athens-Clarke County Unified Government, /Landfill. Accessed 10 Nov. 2018.

“Laws and Regulations.” Zero Waste DC, Accessed 28 Dec. 2018.

“Mandatory Commercial Organics Recycling.” CalRecycle, 23 Oct. 2018, www.calrecycle.

“Municipal Solid Waste.” United States Environmental Protection Agency, 29 Mar. 2016,

Parker, Laura. “China’s Ban on Trash Imports Shifts Waste Crisis to Southeast Asia.” National Geographic, 16 Nov. 2018, china-ban-plastic-trash-imports-shifts-waste-crisis-southeast-asia-malaysia/.

“Plastic Oceans: MEPs Back EU Ban on Throwaway Plastics by 2021.” European Parliament, 24 Oct. 2018, plastic-oceans-meps-back-eu-ban-on-throwaway-plastics-by-2021

“Recycling and Waste Reduction.” Athens-Clarke County Unified Government, Accessed 10 Nov. 2018.

Rickard, Brad. “Re: ACC Landfill Near Capacity?” Received by Charlotte Luke, 17 Oct. 2018.

“Waste Management and Public Cleansing Law.” Japan Ministry of the Environment, 1970, Management_and_Public_Cleansing.pdf.