Q. I've been in the habit of informally compacting my trash before putting it out by doing things like stuffing as much as possible into, say, a deli container that's not recyclable. I've always assumed that this is an earth-friendly thing to do because my trash will require fewer bags and take up less space in the landfill. But a friend just said I might be making things worse because my compacted trash will take longer to decompose because less oxygen will get to it. Who's right?

–Ward Goldsmith, Manhattan

A. Neither of you is totally correct, but you both get gold stars for thoughtfulness and attention to your waste disposal habits. On the one hand, garbage trucks will compact the living daylights out of whatever goes inside them, making all your home-compacting efforts somewhat irrelevant. That’s according to Darby Hoover, resource specialist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. And garbage will be even further compacted once it gets to the landfill.  

On the other hand, you don’t really need to lose much sleep worrying that your compacting has robbed your garbage of access to precious oxygen. Our dumps aren’t really designed to allow for much decomposition anyway. “Decomposition in modern landfills takes a surprisingly long time,” explains Hoover, noting that garbologists have unearthed such biodegradable goodies as banana peels and newspapers decades after they were thrown out. (What — you didn’t know that garbology was a legitimate academic discipline?)

True, compacting garbage yourself might make it harder for any post-collection extraction of recyclables to occur, but if you’re the type of guy who would go to the trouble of cramming all your napkins, bubble wrap, used Kleenex and bottle caps into an old margarine tub before throwing them away, then you’re probably not throwing any of your recycables in with your trash, right? So … go ahead and keep compacting as long as you’ve been good about sorting. You’ll conserve some resources and save a few bucks by using fewer trash bags. Plus, future garbologists will have that much more interesting data to analyze when they dig up all of your overstuffed yogurt containers many decades from now.

Story by Sarah Schmidt. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2008. This story was added to MNN.com.

Copyright Environ Press 2008