Landfills - Fact is More Ominous Than Fiction


It has long been believed that the largest entity brought
upon the Earth by humankind is the Pyramid of the Sun,
constructed in Mexico around the start of the Christian
era. The mammoth structure commands nearly thirty million
cubic feet of space. In contrast, however, is the Durham
Road Landfill, outside San Francisco, which occupies over
seventy million cubic feet of the biosphere. It is a sad
monument, indeed, to the excesses of modern society [Gore
151]. One might assume such a monstrous mound of garbage is
the largest thing ever produced by human hands. Unhappily,
this is not the case. The Fresh Kills Landfill, located on
Staten Island, is the largest landfill in the world. It
sports an elevation of 155 feet, an estimated mass of 100
million tons, and a volume of 2.9 billion cubic feet. In
total acreage, it is equal to 16,000 baseball diamonds
[Miller 526]. By the year 2005, when the landfill is
projected to close, its elevation will reach 505 feet above
sea level, making it the highest point along the Eastern
Seaboard, Florida to Maine. At that height, the mound will
constitute a hazard to air traffic at Newark airport
[Rathje 3-4]. Fresh Kills (Kills is from the Dutch word for
creek) was originally a tidal marsh. In 1948, New York City
planner Robert Moses developed a highly praised project to
deposit municipal garbage in the swamp until the level of
the land was above sea level. A study of the area predicted
the marsh would be filled by the year 1968. He then planned
to develop the area, building houses and attracting light
industry. Mayor Impelliteri issued a report titled "The
Fresh Kills Landfill Project" in 1951. The report stated,
in part, that the enterprise "cannot fail to affect
constructively a wide area around it." The report ended by
stating, "It is at once practical and idealistic" [Rathje
4]. One must appreciate the irony in the fact that Robert
Moses was, in his day, considered a leading
conservationist. His major accomplishments include asphalt
parking lots throughout the New York metro area, paved
roads in and out of city parks, and development of Jones
Beach, now the most polluted, dirty, overcrowded piece of
shoreline in the Northeast. In Stewart Udall's book The
Quiet Crisis, the former Secretary of the Interior lavishes
praise on Moses. The JFK cabinet member calls Jones Beach
"an imaginative solution ... (the) supreme answer to the
ever-present problems of overcrowding" [Udall 163-4]. JFK's
introduction to the book provides this foreboding passage:
"Each generation must deal anew with the raiders, with the
scramble to use public resources for private profit, and
with the tendency to prefer short-run profits to long-run
necessities. The crisis may be quiet, but it is urgent"
[Udall xii]. Oddly, the subject of landfills is never
broached in Udall's book; in 1963, the issue was, in fact,
a non-issue. A modern state-of-the-art sanitary landfill is
a graveyard for garbage, where deposited wastes are
compacted, spread in thin layers, and covered daily with
clay or synthetic foam. The modern landfill is lined with
multiple, impermeable layers of clay, sand, and plastic
before any garbage is deposited. This liner prevents
liquids, called leachates, from percolating into the
groundwater. Leachates result from rain water mixing with
fluids in the garbage, making a highly toxic "juice"
containing inks, heavy metals, and other poisonous
compounds. Ideally, leachates are pumped up from collection
points along the bottom of the landfill and either shipped
to liquid waste disposal points or re-introduced into the
upper layers of garbage, to resume the cycle.
Unfortunately, most landfills have no such pumping system
[Miller 527]. Until the formation of the Environmental
Protection Agency by Nixon in 1970, there were virtually no
regulations governing the construction, operation, and
closure of landfills. As a result, 85 percent of all
landfills extant in this country are unlined. Many are
located in close proximity to aquifers or other groundwater
features, or near geologically unstable sites. Many older
landfills are leaching toxins into our water supply at this
very moment, with no way to stop them. For example, the
Fresh Kills landfill leaks an estimated one million gallons
of toxic ooze into the surrounding water table every day
[Miller 527]. Sanitary landfills do offer certain
advantages. Offensive odors, the mainstay of the old city
dump, are dramatically reduced by the daily cover of clay
or other material. Vermin and insects, both of the
terrestrial and airborne varieties, are denied a free meal
and the opportunity to spread disease, by the daily clay
layer. Furthermore, modern landfills are less of an eyesore
than their counterparts of yore. However, the causality of
these positive affects are the very reasons for some of the
significant drawbacks to landfills [Turk and Turk 486]. The
daily compacting and covering of the garbage deposits
effectively squeezes the available oxygen out of the
material. Whatever aerobic bacteria are present in the
garbage are soon suffocated and decomposition stops.
Anaerobic bacteria, by their very nature, are not present
in appreciable numbers in our biosphere. What few manage to
enter and survive in the garbage deposits are slow-acting
and perform little in the way of breaking down the
materials. In other words, rather than the giant compost
heap most people imagine, a landfill is actually a huge
mummification center. Hot dogs and bananas, decades old,
have been recovered from landfills, still recognizable in
their mummified splendor [Rathje 111-12]. What little
decomposition does occur in landfills generates vast
amounts of methane gas, one of the significant greenhouse
effect gasses. Some landfills have built-in processes to
reclaim the methane. The Fresh Kills landfill pipes methane
gas directly into thousands of homes, but in most
instances, the gas is either burned off or leaked directly
into the atmosphere. Based on ice core samples from
Antarctica, the methane concentration in the Earth's
atmosphere, over the past 160,000 years, has fluctuated
between 0.3 and 0.7 parts per million. In 1987, the methane
count was 1.7 ppm [McKibben 17-17]. The modern landfill is
not alone in its defiance of decomposition. The excavation
in 1884 of an ancient Roman dump had to be halted
periodically so the workers could get fresh air, so
unbearable was the stench from the still-extant refuse
[Rathje 113]. In today's landfills, decomposition is
negligible. While the total tonnage of garbage decreases
over years, due mostly to dessication, the volume varies
less than ten percent. Most of the actual short-term
rotting is from scraps of prepared food. Plastics
biodegrade not at all. Biodegradable plastic is an oxymoron
at best; the most unstable plastic requires intense
sunlight to decompose, and sunlight is denied in a sanitary
landfill. Newspapers from before World War Two are still
readable; they have, in fact, become important date markers
for scientists examining garbage strata in landfills
[Rathje 112-13]. The public is sadly misinformed as to what
comprises the bulk of municipal garbage. A typical survey
shows that the average American sees the disposable diaper
as the number one culprit for the premature closing of our
landfills. This is a sad and costly misconception.
According to the most recent scientific studies, disposable
diapers account for only 0.53 to 1.28 percent of all
landfill deposits, by volume [Rathje 162-63]. If burning
garbage and dumping garbage at sea are unacceptable, what
are the alternatives? Of the landfills, sanitary and
otherwise, open for business in 1979, 85 percent are now
closed [Miller 527]. Where is all the garbage going? Some
municipalities are shipping garbage to other cities, or
even other states, a costly proposition. Larger
metropolitan agencies have even taken to shipping garbage
to third world countries, strapped for cash and eager for
the infusion of Yankee dollars. This, of course, only
transfers the problem from one population to the other.
Stories of wandering garbage barges and orphaned garbage
trains have made splashes in American newwpaper headlines.
Covert garbage disposal has become a lucrative business, as
the plethora of medical waste washed up along the New
Jersey shoreline proves. These anecdotes, while shocking
and perversely entertaining, are hardly representative.
Recycling really is making a difference. Newspapers, which
used to make up 25 to 40 percent of the garbage volume of a
typical city, are now effectively banned from household
garbage. Aluminum can recycling has become a profitable
sideline, both for economically disadvantaged and for the
average homeowner trying to offset the ever-increasing cost
of garbage collection. Construction waste is now barred
from landfills in most locales; this high volume material
is now recycled or put to Earth-friendly uses, such as
making barrier reefs. Plans for the safe incineration of
refuse to generate electric power have presented some
highly contentious issues. The ash from such incinerators
is normally highly toxic, since it concentrates existing
toxins, and must be disposed of as such. Citizens object to
these plants, in a frenzy of Not-In-My-Backyard syndrome. A
clear-cut answer is probably non-existent. Several
effective programs, enacted in unison, will probably lead
us to success. Works Cited: Gore, Senator Al. Earth in the
Balance. New York: Houghton, 1992. MacKibben, Bill. The End
of Nature. New York: Random House, 1989. Miller, G. Tyler,
Jr. Living in the Environment. Belmont CA: Wadsworth, 1994.
Rathje, William and Cullen Murphy. Rubbish!. New York:
Harper, 1992. Turk, Jonathan. Environmental Science. New
York: Holt, 1984. Udall, Stewart. The Quiet Crisis. New
York: Holt, 1963. 


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