What we throw away is important to consider at all points of the year. It becomes a little more relevant at winter holiday time, though.
Some people celebrate December holidays with gift-giving and big meals. We love food and gifts, but sometimes they make a lot of trash. To celebrate without trash, we can try to use what we already have.
Here are some suggestions for celebrating a zero-waste winter holiday!
Make presents for your people with materials you have at home: this can be hand sewing scraps of fabric to make a handkerchief, baking some yummy treats, or drawing or painting a present! Handmade presents are affordable, meaningful, and not wasteful! Here are some ideas.
Wrap presents in recycled materials: I like to wrap presents for my loved ones in paper bags from the store. You can also buy wrapping paper at the store that is made from 100% recycled paper, but try to use paper you have on hand first if you can.
Carefully unwrap presents without tearing the paper so you can reuse the wrapping next year!
Give people items you already have that are meaningful to you: Give your friends a book you loved to read, a sweater you’ve cherished, anything you don’t have to go out and buy!
Your holiday gatherings might be smaller this year because of the pandemic. Think ahead about how much food you want to make. Scale your meal down from what you normally make if there are fewer people this year. That way, there will be less leftover food that could go bad sitting in the refrigerator.
Package up whatever food isn’t eaten on the holiday in reusable containers and put it in the fridge for later. You can eat those tasty leftovers for a while without having to cook more food. If you don’t think you can eat the leftovers in a few days, you can put food in the freezer to save for later. If your holiday meal does go bad, try composting it instead of throwing it in the trash.
In October, Sophie (another educator with Rural Action) and I went on a “World of Waste Tour” across southeast Ohio. We saw where our waste goes after leaving our bins: a landfill, recycling center, and compost facility. The landfill made a big impression!
Where our waste goes is often a mystery to the average person. The saying “out of sight, out of mind” really applies to what we throw away! Learning about how our waste is handled and how much waste we create helps us reduce our environmental impact.
In this blog post, we share what we learned about landfills: what they are, how they work, and what a landfill looks like here in southeast Ohio.
What is a landfill?
A landfill is a place where we put solid waste. If we can’t turn it something new through recycling or composting, it goes to the landfill. When we throw something in the trash can, it goes to the landfill. It will never be seen or used again. (So think about if something has more uses before you put it in the trash can!)
Today, landfills keep trash separate from the environment around it. However, landfills didn’t always have environmental safeguards in place. Landfills used to just be big holes in the ground full of trash, called open dumps. No one watched out for how that trash might affect water or air.
Certain types of waste are more harmful to the earth and its people than others. Waste that is considered dangerous to human and environmental health is known as hazardous waste. Plenty of hazardous waste ended up in old school landfills.
An old landfill near Nelsonville on 691 used to take hazardous waste. It was not well managed for our protection. The 691 Landfill was open from 1969 to 1984. It covered 30 acres and mainly took trash from households, but a lot of hazardous waste found its way in. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) labeled the area a Superfund Site because of all the dangerous waste in it. This fancy name just means the area needed cleaned up as soon as possible.
The EPA and its partners cleaned up the 691 Landfill from 1995-1998. Now, the hazardous waste inside shouldn’t harm us or the natural world. The 691 Landfill looks like this now, with dirt and grass on top of the trash.
The 691 landfill, like most landfills of the mid-20th century, didn’t have infrastructure in place to lessen the environmental impact of trash rotting in the ground. Today, our waste goes to sanitary landfills.
Sanitary landfills are sites where waste is isolated, or kept separate, from the environment. Professionals in fields like geology, engineering, and environmental science run sanitary landfills. The site supervisor at the Athens Hocking Reclamation Center, the place our trash goes in southeast Ohio, has a bachelor’s degree in geology and a master’s degree in geological engineering. You have to really know your stuff to have a job like this! Supervisors are in charge of making sure their landfills are following federal regulations. The EPA sets these intensive regulations to protect the environment around landfills.
According to the EPA, landfills have to be located away from fault lines (cracks in the earth), wetlands, and floodplains.
Paying attention to fault lines when choosing a spot for a landfill will keep us from stirring up trouble with the rock layers that make up the earth when digging out the landfill.
We choose locations away from wet areas to ensure leachate stays far away from our drinking water. Leachate is the liquid trash goop that leaks out of a landfill. Does your trash bag drip when you take it to the curb? Leachate is that same liquid, but on a larger, more toxic scale.
The location of some landfills has sparked controversy, however. Robert Bullard, known as the father of environmental justice, did a study on the location of landfills in Texas. He noted that every landfill in the state is located in mostly black and brown, lower-middle income neighborhoods. Black and brown folks make up only 25% of the population of Texas, but 100% of landfill’s neighbors. Geology and hydrology are major players in the siting of landfills, but there might be political reasons a landfill is where it is.
Regulations now say a landfill needs a geo-membrane to hold that leachate. This is often a two foot (or more) layer of clay on the edges of the landfill. Geo-membranes typically have a plastic liner outside the clay. Geo-membranes and plastic liners keep liquid and chemicals from leaking into the soil and groundwater. Complex leachate collection systems catch and direct leachate away from groundwater. One acre of a leachate collection system costs $250,000!
Watch this video about the layers of a landfill and how it protects the area around it.
Another system in place to ensure the environmental safety of landfills is groundwater monitoring. Underneath the soil, there are holey rocks that hold water in the ground. This is called groundwater. The groundwater around landfills is tested often to see if the water is safe for humans and wildlife.
There are several daily practices used to control the yucky smell, keep trash from flying away, and keep insects and rats out. Every time a truck dumps trash in the landfill, this trash is rolled over multiple times with a compactor. A compactor weighs about 50 tons (that’s 100,000 pounds!) and has giant spiky wheels to grind up the waste. Dirt is placed on top of the trash after it is ground up and compacted to keep water out.
Saying goodbye to a landfill
When a landfill is as full of trash as it can legally be, it needs to be safely closed. A two foot layer of clay and a six inch layer of topsoil to grow native grasses are placed on top of all the trash to close the landfill.
Landfills need to make enough money to pay someone to monitor the landfill for at least 30 years after it stops taking trash! This person will look closely at the effectiveness of the liners and leachate collection systems over time. Is the landfill holding all the leachate? Is the environment around the landfill is contaminated?Continuous monitoring lets us know what methods we use work well and which ones need adjusting. Through ongoing observation of landfills, we can create sites that are more environmentally friendly in the future.
Our local landfill
The Athens Hocking Reclamation Center in Nelsonville is the final destination for trash we put to the curb or in a dumpster. This landfill opened in 1983. Now that the EPA regulates landfills, the Athens Hocking Reclamation Center has to get a permit for the disposal of solid waste, their impact on water and air quality, and for the disposal of leachate that seeps from the landfill. If they aren’t doing enough to protect the air and water, these permits can be taken back and the landfill will be illegal to operate.
This landfill has 3 feet of clay beneath it, as well as a 60 millimeter polyethylene liner (the plastic liner made just for landfills). The clay and plastic together should stop trash from leaking into the soil below and contaminating it. This landfill does not have a collection system for the methane gas that is created by decomposing trash. The landfill releases methane into the air, but methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Landfills can have local impacts on air and water quality, but they also add to global climate change if the methane is not collected.
Our local landfill is 550 acres large. It’s estimated that this landfill has 50 years of trash disposal left in it. Then it will be full. According to the environmental director of the landfill, there are 11,000,000 yards of capacity left. Each day, the landfill sees about 50 to 75 trucks of household waste. Add all of those trucks up, and the landfill receives 70,000 tons of household waste a year. That’s on top of the waste they take from industry!
The trash that comes in on trucks each day is unloaded onto the daily face. This is the section of the landfill that they chose to put trash on that day. A worker runs over the daily face with a compactor at least 6 times to push the trash down as much as possible. At the end of the day, workers cover the new trash with six inches of dirt to prevent water from leaking into the trash and to keep the flies and rats down. You saw the compactor running over trash at our landfill earlier!
It was sad to see so many usable items be smashed by a giant compactor. We saw plastic chairs, a dollhouse, a basketball, and many other items that looked like they were in good shape be run over and buried. Eugene and I even found a frisbee to play with!
While landfills are designed to be the safest method for disposing of things that truly are trash, I don’t think most of the things I saw in the landfill deserved to be there. These items could have lived many more lives. Instead, they are now buried in a mound of dirt in an area that was once a stunningly pretty valley.
What can we do?
If you read this blog post and thought “Gee, landfills don’t sound all that great,” and would like to learn more about keeping your waste out of landfills, check out our previous blog posts about waste.
Seeing a landfill and feeling all the trash shake under my feet when a machine drove by was an upsetting experience, but it has opened my eyes to just how much unnecessary trash we make in this world.
It’s September, and it seems like there are caterpillars on every tree and bush, gorging themselves on leaves before winter. These tiny creatures are a key piece of the food web: a meal for migrating birds, and consumers of plants.
Explore caterpillars with us on our virtual field trip, or with the activities below!
We welcome sharing your own caterpillar discoveries or stories on the call!
Watch the recording:
On your own: outside
Become a caterpillar scientist by doing your own caterpillar study in trees near you!
What you will need:
A solid stick you can easily hold and swing (not a wet one that will break.)
A white towel, pillowcase, or sheet to catch caterpillars and other critters.
Optional: a camera to take photos of what you find to upload to iNaturalist.
Once you have all of your tools, find a patch of trees you can easily and safely get to, whether it is in the forest, in your backyard, or at a park.
Your mission is to survey 10 different trees for caterpillars. It is easiest to survey young trees with leaves closer to the ground.
When you find the first tree you want to survey, choose an area of leaves you can reach with your stick. Try to pick spots with around 50 leaves. Place your white cloth underneath the area of leaves to catch whatever falls out of the tree when you hit it. Then, take your stick, and give the leaves 10 firm hits, not hitting so hard that you damage the tree.
Watch Joe take a swing at this method of caterpillar collection:
After ten hits, look at your white cloth. What’s moving on it? Did any caterpillars fall on your cloth? Count the number of insects you see.
If you find a cool insect or caterpillar that you want to know more about, take a photo and upload the photo to iNaturalist. The app will tell you what species it guesses the caterpillar is and allow others to see your neat find!
Repeat this process 10 times with 10 different trees. Did you find more caterpillars on one type of tree than another? Which tree had the most caterpillars on it? What was the most interesting thing you saw on your cloth? Share your stories and photos in the comments!
On your own: inside
Watch the video above to learn about the life cycle of a caterpillar (we learned a few new things ourselves, like, what happens to their faces?)
There are more insects than any other living thing on Earth. About 80% of all species are insects! And plenty of them are caterpillars.
So what kinds of caterpillars do we have here in southeast Ohio? Click through the presentation below to see their pictures and learn about their host plants.
Have you ever seen any of these caterpillars? If you can, go for a walk and see if you find any. Share your pictures!
One last challenge: Write a poem to your favorite caterpillar. Maybe you describe what it looks like. Maybe you include what types of leaves it likes to eat? Is it a moth or a butterfly in the future? What type of birds like to eat it? Share your poem by posting as a comment!
Virtual Field Trip on Zoom: Friday, Sept 18 at 10:30 am
We’ll be Zooming with you from a secret ginseng patch somewhere in Ohio. Learn how to recognize ginseng, why people want it so badly, and how to protect it. And share your own ginseng and plant stories!
Read on to learn more about ginseng and try some activities!
At first glance, this plant reminds me of holly and winter holidays. Despite its red berries, this plant is not a poky, festive bush. Above is a photograph of American Ginseng, a threatened plant species that thrives here in Appalachia. But lots of plants grow in our region, sometimes so many it is hard to tell them all apart! So what makes ginseng worth talking about?
In rural Appalachia (including southeast Ohio), people have a long tradition of digging ginseng roots in the forest. Folks keep good ginseng spots secret, and teach their children how to harvest it. The root is worth a lot of money, because it is thought to have amazing medicinal properties. Because it is valuable, ginseng is constantly at risk of being overharvested, or taken too often.
Fun fact: the name “ginseng” stands for two Chinese characters that mean “man root,” because the shape of a ginseng root can resemble a person with two legs! Do you see the “man?”
A brief history of ginseng
In 1716, a priest named Father Lafitau near Montreal, Canada found a patch of ginseng while he was out working. This is sometimes considered the first discovery of ginseng in North America. However, First Nations and Native Americans were harvesting and using ginseng for centuries before Father Lafitau ever knew it existed! It wasn’t long after the Father’s discovery that ginseng from North American began to be exported to Asia.
People in China were eager to buy American ginseng. A different species of ginseng called Panax Ginseng used to grow wild in the mountains of northern China, over 5,000 years ago. But the Chinese ginseng is almost all gone because of overharvesting. So many people wanted (and still want) to buy American ginseng instead.
Ginseng grows in Appalachia and a region of China called Manchuria. Why do you think it grows in both places? How are the two environments similar? How are they different?
Ginseng in China was first used as food, then as medicine. Asian ginseng is thought to cure depression, diabetes, fatigue, inflammation, nausea, tumors, and ulcers when eaten! Older and well-formed roots of the plant were thought to be spiritual and bring good luck.
Where can we find ginseng?
So, how do you actually recognize this legendary plant? The first step in becoming a ginseng hunter is knowing where ginseng grows!
The green parts of this map show where ginseng has been found in the past. That doesn’t mean there is ginseng there right now. Sometimes ginseng disappears in places where humans have turned forests into buildings or roads, or harvested too much of it. But we know that it is possible for ginseng to grow in those places, if it has what it needs!
Let’s zoom in on Ohio, where most of us are.
At least half of Ohio is shaded in green, meaning we could find ginseng in the majority of counties in Ohio. Our home, Athens County, is ginseng territory. What about your county?
Of course, ginseng won’t grow just anywhere in our county. What types of habitat does ginseng like?
You probably won’t find ginseng in the middle of a field or lawn. It is a secretive plant of shady forests. One Chinese legend says it jumps out of the ground and runs to a new place each night, making it harder to find!
Here is what ginseng looks for:
Cool, shady places: Ginseng needs to be in the shade at least 65% of the time. Too much sun can burn its leaves, though it needs some sun to grow well! Hills that face north and east are usually shadier.
Mountains and hills: Ginseng grows best on hills that are 600 to 3500 feet above sea level (about the height of the Appalachian mountains)
Deciduous forests: A deciduous forest is made of trees whose leaves change color and drop each autumn. You won’t find ginseng in evergreen forests or tropical forests.
Moist, well-drained soil: Ginseng does well in soil that is nice and damp, but not muddy or puddle-y. It doesn’t like dry places or clay.
Trees like sugar maples, tuliptrees, and black walnuts: Ginseng needs lots of calcium to grow. The leaves of these trees fall to the ground and release calcium! It’s like taking a vitamin for ginseng. Have you seen these trees before?
Joe took a video of the area surrounding some ginseng he found. Take a look at the habitat. What do you notice?
What does ginseng look like?
For the first few years of its life, a ginseng plant will look different every year! This is actually a useful way to estimate how old a ginseng plant is. The number of leaves (called prongs) on a plant tells us its age, and how big its root is.
If a plant is only a year old, it will only have one prong (one leaf made of three smaller leaflet):
When it is two years old, it might have two prongs.
When it is four or five years old, the plant will make first berries! Berries are where ginseng seeds are. That means the plant has to grow many years before it can make any new ginseng.
When a ginseng plant has at least four prongs and a cluster of berries in the middle of the plant, it is a mature (adult) plant.
Protecting Ginseng Today
Ginseng is the most heavily traded wild plant in the United States. The root of the ginseng plant can fetch around $800 per pound, so it’s no wonder people are interested in harvesting it!
Because ginseng grows so slowly, it is easy to dig up ginseng faster than new ginseng can grow. Today, ginseng is in danger of disappearing because people harvest too much.
To protect ginseng, some places have made rules about harvesting. In the Wayne National Forest, you must buy a permit for $20 to legally harvest ginseng. This permit will allow someone to dig ginseng between September 1st and December 1st.
Rules help, but it is the people who hunt for ginseng who can do the most to take care of it. Experienced ginseng hunters will only dig plants that are at least seven to ten years old. At that age, a plant will have had a few years of making berries. Hopefully, some of these berries have sprouted into new plants to replace the old.
When responsible ginseng hunters come across a ginseng plant with berries, they plant the berries just under the leaves and top soil. They will take no more than 10% of the ginseng they find. By leaving 90% of the plants untouched, existing plants can produce more berries and increase the number of ginseng plants.
Watch this video about “wildcrafting” in Appalachia to learn more about how people here are connected to and protect ginseng:
If you come across a patch of ginseng, do a happy dance! You found a sensitive plant with cool history and value! We usually do not harvest any ginseng roots we find, because we do not need to, and we want the patch to grow stronger. Consider tasting the leaves instead of the root. If you do have a reason to dig up roots, make sure to take no more than 10% of the plants, only dig 7- to 10-year-old plants, and plant the berries.
Have you ever harvested ginseng or know someone who has? Do you want to share a story about ginseng? Feel free to drop your story in the comments!
Fascinated by this magical plant? Here are three ways to become a ginseng genius!
Play “Is it ginseng?” A game where we quiz you on which plants are and are not ginseng. Find it here:https://quizlet.com/525699626/learn. Click on the photos of the plants in the quiz to make them larger.
Build your own mini ginseng habitat in your yard. Using what you learned about the shade, slope, and direction ginseng plants favor, can you create a mini environment with all the right conditions for ginseng? Use leaves, dirt, sticks, whatever you have! Show us your ginseng habitat in the comments. If you have access to a wooded area, go try to find the ideal habitat for ginseng!