]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]       RUBBISH!         [[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[
                      By William L. Rathje          (2/3/1990)

 [Abridged from The Atlantic, December 1989, p. 99-106,108-109]

          [Kindly uploaded by Freeman 10602PANC]

   It  may  be that  the  lack  of reliable  information  and the
persistence of misinformation constitute  the real garbage crisis
[in America].
   My program at the University  of Arizona, The Garbage Project,
has been looking at landfills and at fresh garbage out of the can
since the early  1970s, and it  has generated important insights.
When seen in perspective, our garbage woes turn out to be serious
-- indeed, they have been serious  for more than a century -- but
they are not exceptional, and they  can be dealt with by disposal
methods  that  are  safe  and  already  available.   The  biggest
challenge  we will  face is  to  recognize that  the conventional
wisdom about garbage is often wrong.
   Calculating the  total annual volume  or weight  of garbage in
the United  States is difficult  because there is,  of course, no
way one  can actually  measure or weigh  more than  a fraction of
what is thrown out.  All studies have had to take shortcuts.  Not
surprisingly,  estimates  of  the size  of  the  U.S. solid-waste
stream are quite diverse.  Figures are most commonly expressed in
pounds discarded per person per day,  and the studies that I have
seen from the  past decade and  a half give  the following rates:
2.9 pounds per person per day,  3.02 pounds, 4.24, 4.28, 5.0, and
8.0.   My own  view is  that  the higher  estimates significantly
overstate the problem.  Garbage  Project studies of actual refuse
reveal that even three  pounds of garbage per  person per day may
be  too  high  an  estimate for  many  parts  of  the  country, a
conclusion that has  been corroborated by  weigh-in sorts in many
   Fast-food  packaging is  ubiquitous and  conspicuous.  Planned
obsolescence is  a cliche.  Out  society is  filled with symbolic
reminders  of waste.   What we  forget is  everything that  is no
longer there to see.  We do not  see the 1,200 pounds per year of
coal ash that every American generated at home at the turn of the
century and that was usually dumped on the poor side of town.  We
do not see the hundreds of thousands of dead horses that once had
to be disposed of by American  cities every year.  We do not look
behind  modern  packaging and  see  the  food waste  that  it has
prevented,  or the  garbage  that it  has  saved us  from making.
(Consider the difference  in terms of  garbage generation between
making  orange  juice  from  concentrate  and  orange  juice from
scratch;  and consider  the fact  that producers  of orange-juice
concentrate  sell  the  leftover  orange  rinds  as  feed,  while
households don't.)  The average household in Mexico City produces
one  third more  garbage  a day  than  does the  average American
household.  The reason for  the relatively favorable U.S. showing
is packaging  -- which is  to say, modernity.   No, Americans are
not suddenly producing  more garbage.  Per  capita our record is,
at worst, one of relative stability.
   A  sanitary  landfill  is typically  a  depression  lined with
clays, in  which each day's  deposit of fresh  garbage is covered
with a layer of dirt or plastic or both.  It is a fact that there
is an  acute shortage of  sanitary landfills for  the time being,
especially in the northeastern United  States.  From 1982 to 1987
some  3,000  landfills   have  been  filled   up  and  shut  down
nationwide.   The customary  formulation of  the problem  we face
(you  will  find  it in  virtually  every  newspaper  or magazine
article on the subject)  is that 50 percent  of the landfills now
in use will  close down within  five years.  As  it happens, that
has  always been  true --  it was  true  in 1970  and in  1960 --
because most landfills are  designed to be in  use for only about
ten years.  As noted, we are not producing more household garbage
per  capita  (though  we  are  probably  producing  more  garbage
overall,  there  being more  of  us).   The problem  is  that old
landfills are  not being  replaced.  Texas,  for example, awarded
some 250  permits a year  for landfills in  the mid-seventies but
awarded fewer than fifty last year.
   The  idea  persists  nevertheless   that  we  are  filling  up
landfills at an exponential rate,  and that certain products with
a high  public profile [disposable  diapers, fast-food packaging]
are disproportionately responsible.
   The  physical  reality  inside   a  landfill  is  considerably
different from  what you might  suppose.  I spent  some time with
the Garbage Project's  team over the past  two years digging into
seven landfills:  two outside Chicago,  two in  the San Francisco
Bay area, two in  Tucson, and one in  Phoenix.  We exhumed 16,000
pounds of garbage, weighing every  item we found and sorting them
all  into  twenty-seven  basic   categories  and  then  into  162
sub-groupings.  In  those eight  tons of  garbage and  dirt cover
there were fewer  than sixteen pounds  of fast-food packaging; in
other words, only about a tenth  of one percent of the landfill's
contents by weight  consisted of fast-food  packaging.  Less than
one percent  of the  contents by  weight was  disposable diapers.
The entire  category of  things made  from plastic  accounted for
less than five percent of  the landfill's contents by weight, and
for  only  12  percent  by volume.   The  real  culprit  in every
landfill is  plain old paper  -- non-fast-food  paper, and mostly
paper  that isn't  for packaging.   Paper accounts  for 40  to 50
percent  of  everything we  throw  away,  both by  weight  and by
   If  fast-food  packaging  is  the  Emperor's  New  Clothes  of
garbage, then a number of  categories of paper goods collectively
deserve the role of Invisible Man.  In all the hand-wringing over
the garbage  crisis, has  a singe  voice been  raised against the
proliferation of telephone books?   Each two-volume set of Yellow
Pages distributed in Phoenix  last year -- to  be thrown out this
year  --  weighed 8.63  pounds,  for  a total  of  6,000  tons of
wastepaper.  And  competitors of  the Yellow  Pages have appeared
virtually everywhere.   Dig a trench  through a  landfill and you
will see layers of phone books, like geological strata, or layers
of cake.  Just as conspicuous  as telephone books are newspapers,
which  make up  10 to  18 percent  of the  contents of  a typical
municipal landfill by volume.  Even after several years of burial
they are usually well preserved.  During a recent landfill dig in
Phoenix, I  found newspapers dating  back to 1952  that looked so
fresh you might read one  over breakfast.  Deep within landfills,
copies  of  that   New  York  Times   editorial  about  fast-food
containers  [straining the  capacity  of the  nation's landfills]
will remain legible until well into the next century.
   The  notion  that  much  biodegradation  occurs  inside  lined
landfills  is largely  a popular  myth.  Laboratories  can indeed
biodegrade newspapers into  gray slime in a  few weeks or months,
if  the  newspapers  are  finely   ground  and  placed  in  ideal
conditions.   The difficulty,  of course,  is that  newspapers in
landfills are not  ground up, conditions are  far from ideal, and
biodegradation does  not follow laboratory  schedules.  Some food
and yard debris does  degrade, but at a  very, very slow rate (by
25 to 50  percent over ten  to fifteen years).   The remainder of
the  refuse in  landfills seems  to  retain its  original weight,
volume, and form.   It is, in  effect, mummified.  This  may be a
blessing, because if paper did  degrade rapidly, the result would
be an  enormous amount  of inks and  paint that  could leach into
   The  fact that  plastic does  not  biodegrade, which  is often
cited as  one of its  great defects,  may actually be  one of its
great virtues.  Much  of plastic's bad  reputation is undeserved.
Because plastic bottles take up so much room in our kitchen trash
cans, we infer that they take up  a lot of room in landfills.  In
fact by  the time garbage  has been compressed  in garbage trucks
(which exert a pressure of up  to fifty pounds per square inch on
their loads) and buried  for a year or  two under tons of refuse,
anything plastic  has been squashed  flat.  In  terms of landfill
volume, plastic's share  has remained unchanged  since 1970.  And
plastic, being inert, doesn't  introduce toxic chemicals into the
   Plastic that  is biodegradable  may in  fact represent  a step
backwards.   Plastics  ``totally''  degrade  when  their  tensile
strength is  reduced by  50 percent.  At  that point  -- after as
long  as  twenty  years  --  a  biodegradable  plastic  will have
degenerated into many little plastic pieces, but the total volume
of plastic will  not have changed at  all. The degeneration agent
used in  biodegradable plastic, usually  mostly cornstarch, makes
up no more than 6 percent of a biodegradable plastic item's total
volume; the 94  percent that's left  represents more plastic than
would be  contained in the  same item  made with nonbiodegradable
plastic, because items made with biodegradable plastic have to be
thicker   to  compensate   for  the   weakening  effect   of  the
degenerating agent.
   The landfill movement that matured after the Second World War,
though  hardly messianic,  was led  by people  who had  a vision.
They believed  that in  the disposal  of garbage  two birds could
almost always be killed instead of one.
   In the case of sanitary  landfills, their proponents hoped not
only  to dispose  of  mountains of  garbage  but also  to reclaim
thousands of acres of otherwise ``waste'' land and, literally, to
give something back to America.   The ideal places for landfills,
they  argued,  were  the very  places  that  most  scientists now
believe to be the worst places to put garbage: along rivers or in
wetlands.  It is in unlined  landfills in places like these that,
not surprisingly, the problem  of chemical ``leachates'' has been
shown to be a matter of grave concern.
   Environmental scientists believe that  they now know enough to
design and  locate safe landfills,  even if  those landfills must
hold a considerable  amount of hazardous  household waste such as
motor  oil  and  pesticides.   The  State  of  New  York recently
commissioned an environmental survey of  42 percent of its domain
with  the express  aim of  determining  where landfills  might be
properly located.   The survey  pinpointed lands  that constitute
only one  percent of the  area but nevertheless  total 200 square
   The obstacles to the sanitary landfill these days are monetary
-- transporting  garbage a  few hundred  miles by  truck may cost
more than shipping the same amount to Taiwan -- and, perhaps more
important, psychological: no one wants a garbage dump in his back
yard.   But   they  are  not   insuperable,  and   they  are  not
fundamentally geographic.   Quite frankly,  few nations  have the
enormous (and  enormously safe)  landfill capabilities  that this
one has.
   Newsprint  illustrates one  potential problem  [of recycling].
Only about  ten percent  of old newspapers  go on  to be recycled
into  new newspapers.   What newspapers  are  really good  for is
making cereal and other  boxes (if it's gray  on the inside, it's
from recycled stock), the  insides of automobiles, wallboard, and
insulation.  All these  end uses are  near saturation.  Last year
the State of New Jersey  [implemented newspaper recycling].  As a
result,  in recent  months the  price of  used newspaper  in most
parts of New Jersey has plummeted from  up to $40 a ton to -$25 a
ton --  in other words,  you have to  pay to have  it taken away.
[The market for recycled-paper became glutted.]
   Where recycling is  concerned, municipalities are  good at two
things: collecting garbage and passing laws to legislate monetary
   The utility of legislated source reduction is in many respects
an  illusion.  For  one thing,  most consumer  industries already
have --  and have responded  to -- strong  economic incentives to
make  products as  compact  and light  as  possible, for  ease of
distribution and to conserve costly resources.  In 1970 a typical
plastic  soda  bottle  weighed   sixty  grams;  today  it  weighs
forty-eight grams and  is more easily  crushed.  For another, who
is to  say when  packaging is excessive?  We have  all seen small
items in stores -- can openers,  say -- attached to big pieces of
cardboard hanging  on a  display hook.   That piece  of cardboard
looks  like  excessive packaging,  but  its purpose  is  to deter
shoplifting.   Finally,  source-reduction measures  don't  end up
eliminating much garbage; hamburgers,  eggs, and VCRs, after all,
will still have to be put in something.
   Most source-reduction plans are focused on a drastic reduction
in the  use of  plastic.  And  yet in  landfills foams  and other
plastics are  dormant.  While  some environmentalists  claim that
plastics create dioxins  when burned in  incinerators, a study by
New York  State's Department  of Energy  Conservation cleared the
most widely used plastics of blame.
   The purist's theory  is that industry  is forcing plastics and
convenience products on  an unwilling captive  audience.  This is
nonsense.  American consumers, though  they may in some spiritual
sense  lament  packaging, as  a  practical matter  depend  on the
product  identification  and  convenience  that  modern packaging
allows.  That's the reason source reduction usually doesn't work.
   Our  short-term  aesthetic  concerns  and  long-term practical
concerns for the environment are luxuries afforded us only by our
wealth.  In Third World countries, where  a job and the next meal
are significant worries, the quality of the environment is hardly
a big issue in most  people's minds.  Concern for the environment
can be attributed  in major part  to the conveniences  -- and the
leisure time they afford  -- that some activists  seem to want to
   Safely sited and designed landfills  should be employed in the
three quarters of the country where there is still room for them.
Incinerators with appropriate safety  devices and trained workers
can be  usefully sited  anywhere but make  the most  sense in the
Northeast.  And states and municipalities  need to cut deals with
wastepaper and  scrap dealers on  splitting the money  to be made
from recycling.  This is a minimum.  Many things could be done to
increase the demand for recycled paper.  For example, the federal
government,  which  uses  more  paper   by  far  than  any  other
institution in America, could  insist that most federal paperwork
be  done  on  recycled  paper.   Most  garbage  specialists would
recommend a  highly selective attack  on a few  kinds of plastic:
not  because  plastic  doesn't degrade  or  is  ugly  but because
recycling  certain  plastics  in  household  garbage  would yield
high-grade costly resins  for new plastics  and make incineration
easier on  the furnace  grates, and  perhaps safer.   Finally, we
need  to expand  our  knowledge base.   At  present we  have more
reliable  information  about  Neptune   than  we  do  about  this
country's solid-waste stream.

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