Please, No More Evil Cupcakes!

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.


Diagram of landfill aka an evil cupcake. Credit: Enerdyne Power Systems

By Jane Chan, C+S ’15

I wonder how many of you have experienced something like this: you walk along the streets of somewhere in a city, perhaps Manhattan, with a drink in your hand that you have just finished. You’re looking for a garbage can to toss it in, but you can only find one overflowing with trash and practically yelling, “I can’t take it anymore!”

As a child, this did not bother me because I was unaware of all the waste management issues there are and I never thought about the amount of waste we actually generate. But I now cringe at the sordid image of overflowing trash bins on the streets, litter for miles along the sides of highways and trash that clogs the stormwater drainage grates. There is just so much waste in urban settings like New York that it’s disconcerting to think about what to do with all of it.

Thankfully, we make conscious efforts to reduce the amount of trash that goes into landfills by reusing items, separating out recyclables and even collecting food waste for composting. “Reduce, reuse, and recycle” is the mantra many go by.

But even so, some people fail to uphold it, out of laziness, out of ignorance or even out of misunderstanding. How do we make the public, especially younger generations, conceptualize the importance of following this mantra and truly understanding the purpose of reducing waste?

We tell them: we don’t want to make any more landfills, which are, by the way, evil cupcakes.

We already know of the harm landfills have on the environment which makes for the evil part, but did you know this evil comes in the form of cupcakes?

Campground at Gateway National Recreation Area, Floyd Bennett Field, Ecology Village.  Credit: Jane Chan

Campground at Gateway National Recreation Area, Floyd Bennett Field, Ecology Village. Credit: Jane Chan

My co-worker at my current internship with the Student Conservation Association and the National Park Service Gateway National Recreation Area was the one who introduced me to this concept of evil cupcakes. He described to me the structure of landfills, which actually resemble cupcakes with candles in them.

First, there is the deep entrenchment with the waste in the middle and protective layers of clay and other permeable and low-permeable layers in between and surrounding the waste. Then there are pipes that extend from the bottom to the surface to ventilate gases such as methane in order to prevent it from exploding. Finally, the protective soil layers covering the top are like the frosting on top of the cupcake.

At the Ecology Village, the specific department I work in, waste reduction is one of the themes we heavily focus on in our environmental education programs. We want to teach children the importance of reusing consumer products, recycling and composting by using this evil cupcake analogy. We have school groups and summer groups go camping for one night as part of our program.

The purpose is to have the children experience nature and practice a more sustainable lifestyle through the realization of how much material goods we use and how much waste we generate. After they have camped out for the night, in the morning, we weigh how much trash, recyclables and compost they have made.

An average American produces about four pounds of garbage in a day. I actually participated in this camping experience for one night as part of a training for new teachers. Between the seven of us, we generated 10 pounds of compost, two pounds of recyclables, and only two pounds of trash.

This means that each person made a little less than 0.3 pounds of waste for that day! This simple camping experience really shows that if people make conscious choices and take the effort to reduce, reuse and recycle, we really can live a more sustainable life and produce much less waste. I’m sure many of us dislike the image of putrid overflowing trash bins and litter everywhere and have a strong desire to change this image within cities.

Leaving this world a little better than you found it is how it should be. And with just an overnight camping experience and an analogy, we can start to make it clear to younger generations of how to end evil cupcakes!

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