Waste: Conservation’s Uphill Battle


Picture: Courtesy of Getty Images


According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States generated 292.4 million tons of trash in 2018. 23.6% of this was recycled. 50% went into landfill. Food waste alone accounted for a little over 63 tons of it. A lot of trash gets dumped into our water. It affects land. It affects water. It affects the air. It affects you. Wherever it gets placed, waste is an issue. By reducing waste, we can reduce our overall carbon footprint and, therefore, help mitigate climate change. Whether it be by removing litter, composting, keeping stuff out of waterways, educating the public, or other actions, conservation has a role to play. It is not easy, but it can be done.


The Problem of Waste

There are many types of waste. For example, the EPA breaks down materials going to landfills into categories including: food; rubber, leather, and textiles; paper and paperboard; yard trimmings; metals; glass; plastics; and wood.


Every day people throw away tons of single-use cups, containers, and other plastic “stuff.” Among the most common and hazardous forms of plastic pollution are polystyrene foam containers (the stuff most of us call Styrofoam) and other single-use items that persist in the environment for hundreds of years.


Plastic is shed from our clothes and enters our waterways from our washing machines. Tiny fibers shed from synthetic clothing and textiles while they’re being washed and go into wastewater infrastructure that treatment plants are unable to fully filter out.


A source of waste that many people do not consider are items that are difficult to repair. When something breaks, you fix it. But manufacturers of everything from phones to appliances to tractors often make things that are difficult to repair. For example, Americans dispose of 416,000 cell phones per day, and only 15% to 20% of electronic waste is recycled.


Putting a conservation lens on these issues, trash and litter can affect wildlife habitat, diet, and overall safety of the environment. This affects all kinds of animals. In February 2024, my wife and I visited the Turtle Hospital in Marathon Key, Florida where they showed pictures of plastic trash that was disposed of in waterways that was later found inside sea turtles.


How Conservation Battles Waste

It sounds daunting, but conservation actions by individuals and businesses can help mitigate the effects of waste. Perhaps the most visible action is the removing of litter. And for that matter, getting people to not leave garbage out in the open.


Of course, recycling and composting are actions easiest for most individuals to do. Today, most people have recycling bins along with their garbage cans. And many gardeners have compost bins. One aspect of this is to encourage recycling. Another option is to shop for clothes and household goods at resale stores, so these items don’t end up in landfills.


Finally, education and awareness are also quite helpful. I am amazed how often people are urged to recycle, compost, pick up trash, use reusable water bottles, and take other actions.


Environment Illinois highlights other actions that can be taken such as bans on plastic cups and containers. People can tackle planned obsolescence, and make sure consumers and small businesses have access to the parts, tools, and service information they need to repair products so we can keep things in use and reduce waste.


Businesses can also do their share. Choose DuPage has developed The Green Business Checklist which, amongst other things, informs organizations how to reduce the amount of hazardous waste, properly manage and store waste, and prevent waste from getting into the environment. Some examples of actions to take are:

  • Use cleaning and building maintenance products that meet EPA’s Safer Choice Standard or similar standards and are safer for human health and the environment.
  • Monitor any equipment and vehicles to identify and fix leaks.
  • Ensure that lids remain closed on waste, recycling, and compost containers located outside. Check for and repair holes and leaks.
  • Provide recycling bins next to every garbage bin in employee and public-facing areas. Where appropriate, also provide compost bins. Label all bins clearly.
  • Reuse paper or plastic packaging materials in your own shipments.
  • Purchase paper products made from at least 50% postconsumer recycled content.
  • Design durable products that are intended to be repaired and, if repair is impossible, easily disassembled for convenient recycling.
  • Encourage the use of reusable water bottles or prohibit single use water bottles throughout the workplace.


The benefits of these actions are significant. The Environmental Protection Agency, using EPA’s WARM (Waste Reduction Model) tool (see: https://www.epa.gov/warm), calculates and totals the Green House Gas emissions of baseline and alternative waste management practices. In 2018, about 94 million tons of Municipal Solid Waste in the U.S. were recycled and composted, saving 193 MMTCO2E. This is comparable to the emissions that could be reduced from taking almost 42 million cars off the road in a year.


What The Conservation Foundation Does

Over its 50+ years, The Conservation Foundation has been dealing with waste. Through education and awareness, promoting composting, and litter removal, The Conservation Foundation has been at the vanguard of the fight against waste and its effects, especially in our local rivers and streams.


Roads can be conduits for stormwater and waste into our rivers. Many people think that water pollution is caused by big business or large government facilities — places with pipes leading into the river. These are known as “point source” polluters. However, in recent years these sources have greatly reduced their negative impact on water quality. As a result, stormwater runoff is now one of the leading causes of surface water pollution, according to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. The Conservation Foundation’s Storm Drain Medallions program (we now use adhesive stickers or medallions) has been active since 1992. Sometimes a simple reminder is all we need to help us do the right thing. That’s the premise behind storm drain medallions. Volunteers place Dump No Waste – Drains to River stickers on storm drains in the hopes that seeing this message will make people a little more careful about what they allow to enter their storm drains.


stormwater medallion

Storm-drain medallions available to volunteer groups.


The Conservation Foundation provides composters. When we compost our kitchen scraps and yard waste we reduce the amount of material going to the landfills and instead return nutrients to the soil. The many benefits of composting include reducing the amount of material going to landfills and adding organic matter to our garden beds. This improves soil structure and texture, increases the soil’s ability to hold both water and air, improves soil fertility, and stimulates healthy root development in plants. And it saves you money since you don’t have to buy chemical fertilizers!


waste graphic


And there is The Conservation Foundation’s annual DuPage County River Sweep. The DuPage County River Sweep is a county-wide self-coordinated stream cleanup held each spring. The purpose of the one-day event is to encourage volunteer groups to help “sweep our rivers clean” by picking up debris in and along local waterways. Over the past 30+ years, more than 14,000 volunteers have removed nearly 300 tons of garbage from DuPage County streams. The first River Sweep was held in 1991. Our Sweep volunteers make a difference right here and right now!


Volunteers clean up trash under a bridge

This year’s 33rd annual sweep is on Saturday, May 4th from 9:00am — 12:00pm.


So how can you contribute to conservation efforts that fight the uphill battle to counter the effects of waste on our environment? Well, land and water conservation are what The Conservation Foundation does every day in every season — winter, spring, summer, and fall — and they have been doing that for more than 50 years. We can all do more together than we can alone. Join our collective momentum — become a member today!


By Steve Stawarz, Oak Brook
DuPage County Advisory Council Member


P.S. For further details and numerous statistics from the EPA, go to the EPA’s Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling.


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