Thursday, January 29, 2009

Trash Talk

This week’s trip into the arcane world of Daniel P. Daniel is going to deal with a subject for which every man, woman and child on the planet holds some amount of responsibility. It is quite often smelly and gross. It usually isn’t brought up in polite conversation, and most people won’t touch it with their bare hands. No, it’s not your ex-wife. What we are going to explore this week is garbage…no, really it’s garbage…the subject is garbage…the content of the discussion isn’t garbage…I mean it is but…Oh, Jesus Christ! Trash! We’re going to be talking about trash. This is kind of an extension of our discussion from last week. It seems like many people don’t understand what happens to our discarded refuse once we decide to put it in the bin. How much junk do we create? Where does it go? What exactly are we throwing away?

Although the term “throw-away society” gets batted around a lot, trash is something that we take for granted in the U.S. It is one of the many processes that we are involved with every day, but it still has some sort of magical quality to it. We stop by the local White Castle on the way home from work and slug down 15 or 20 sliders in the car before dinner. Then we take the bag and chuck it in the bin with our worn-out copies of Butt Lust and Scat Fancy magazines. One day a week we unceremoniously stagger the bin out to the curb in our pre-coffee morning haze before we pile into the car and head off to work. When we get home the bin has been mysteriously emptied as though some fat and jolly sprite came by during the day, and with the wave of his hand made all the nastiness go away. There’s some truth to that statement if you consider the fat sprite drives a 25 ton garbage truck like a maniac, and his name is Hector. Anyway, our bins end up empty and ready for the next round of defilement.

In the U.S., according to the EPA, on average each person creates 4.6lbs worth of garbage every day. Seems like a lot. We’ll get back to that later. Contrary to popular belief, the per capita trash generation figures have been pretty stable over the past 20-30 years. The majority (33.9%) of our refuse is paper. The rest is made up of yard waste (12.9%), food scraps (12.4%), plastic (11.7%), metal (7.6%), rubber and textiles (7.3%), wood (5.5%), glass (5.3%) and miscellaneous filth like diapers, dead bodies and republican dogma making up the last 3.3%. 55% of what we pitch ends up in a landfill, 32.5% is sent to recycling or composting facilities, and the remainder is burned.

It seems to me that there is a lot of confusion about what the intent of putting trash in the landfill actually is. A landfill is also called a municipal solid waste (MSW) facility or a sanitary landfill. It’s called a sanitary landfill because the intent of the place to provide a place to safely store trash in such a way that it does not contaminate groundwater. They are storage facilities. A MSW facility is constructed by first excavating a huge area. Something like 70 acres is pretty average. Then a thick layer of clay is compacted, and on top of it plastic liner is laid down in order to prevent any liquids from getting into the groundwater. Then a mat is put on the liner to prevent the gravel which is put on next from tearing the plastic. The gravel is then covered with a drainage layer and soil. Only then can trash be piled on top of it all. All of these layers of protection serve only to allow any hazardous liquids like paint, cleaning products, and soy milk that leach out of the trash to be drained out of the landfill into storage areas where it can be safely contained and treated. The trash is then compacted into specific areas that contain only one day’s worth of garbage. These areas are usually around 16 yards square by 5 yards deep. Every day they are covered with 6 inches of soil in order to minimize exposure to air, rainwater and wildlife. When a landfill is full it is covered with another plastic tarp and a couple of feet of soil. Grasses and small shrubs are planted, and they are turned into parks, ski areas, and housing developments. All the while they are continually monitored for environmental hazards and continue to be monitored for many decades after being finally sealed. There are around 1700 MSW facilities in the U.S. down from over 8000 in the 1980’s.

There are a couple things that we should take away from this landfill operational info. First of all, a landfill is not a dump. I think when you mention a landfill most people picture a huge open dump that smells like the bathroom in your college rugby house and has swarms of seagulls and foreign kids picking through the litter. That’s obviously not the case. Second, garbage cannot biodegrade and isn’t intended to biodegrade in a landfill. In order for the natural process of biodegradation to occur the bacteria need air, moisture and some sunlight. None of these are available in a MSW facility. In fact this is the reason why methane is produced by landfills. Rather than breaking down the trash aerobically and producing only CO2 the bacteria don’t get enough oxygen and begin anaerobic processes that make both methane and CO2. The methane in landfills can be used for some local power generation, but since it is an abundant resource in the U.S. it does not make fiscal sense to compress it and ship it off-site, so most landfills just have a flare to burn it.

On the subject of the breakdown of material in a landfill, Dr. William Rathje from the University of Arizona started a research project aptly named “The Garbage Project”. His team has been archaeologically excavating landfills for several years in order to determine how our consumption of resources changes over time, among other things. One byproduct of this study is that he has found that our trash is remarkably well-preserved. He routinely finds forty-year-old newspapers that are as good as new and food waste such as heads of lettuce, carrots and ears of corn that are unchanged after decades in the fill. This just underscores the fact that what most people think is happening to our trash is not what actually occurs in reality.

O.K., back to the numbers we threw out a minute ago. If every person in the U.S. creates 4.6lbs of trash every day how much does that add up to? Surely we’re going to run out of space soon, and we’ll all be buried in piles of festering garbage if we keep this up. Right? Not so fast. We generate about 255 million tons of trash per year – about 7/8 of a ton per person. That amount of trash would fill a volume of around 2.5 billion ft3. That’s roughly a one mile square and 89ft deep – about a country block for the entire U.S. production for a year. So over 100 years we would only cover an area that’s ten miles square. Hmmm…Why all the fuss over landfill space? It’s mostly stigma, propaganda and the NIMBY folks. I mean nobody wants to live next to a 10 mile landfill, but we can stick that sucker in the middle of Wyoming where nobody lives anyway. Problem solved. Just send checks payable to The Daniel P. Daniel Beer Fund, please. Oh, yeah, let’s not forget that these numbers are calculated before recycling and incineration. Slash them roughly in half, and that will put us in the ballpark. Makes you wonder why we bother recycling in the first place. Should we just throw everything out willy-nilly? Of course not. We should make every attempt to reduce our trash load and reuse whatever we can in order to decrease our overall energy and resource consumption. Recycle? I’m not so sure, but we can talk about that another time.

So where does this leave us? I mean besides bored and pissed that you’re still reading. It would seem that our trash is a lot cleaner than we give it credit for, and even though we do generate a lot of waste we are not going to have to tunnel through garbage in order to get our kids to school in the morning. Our trash literally has no value to us (which is why we discard it), and, as such, many people never give it a second thought. They are happy to believe in an imaginary distopia where we have consumed all of our natural resources and have covered ourselves in our own filth. It is a tactic that has been played expertly by the fear mongers among us in order to keep us in the dark and milk some extra money from us. The fact of the matter is that we must generate trash in order to live our lives, and we have come up with a system for disposal of that refuse that has minimal impact to the environment.

No comments: