Dr. W.L. Rathje, a professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona and perhaps the leading "garbologist" in the world, testified to the epic scale of these modern landfills before one of my subcommittee hearings: "When I was a graduate student, I was told that the largest monument ever built by a New World civilization was the Temple of the Sun, constructed in Mexico around the time of Christ and occupying thirty million cubic feet of space. Durham Road Landfill near San Francisco is two mounds compiled since 1977 solely out of cover dirt and the municipal solid waste from three California cities. I can still remember my shock when my students calculated that each mound was seventy million cubic feet in volume, a total of nearly five Sun Temples. Landfills are clearly the largest garbage middens (i.e., refuse heaps) in the history of the world."
What is in these mountains? Various forms of paper, mostly newspapers and packaging, take up approximately half the space. Another 20 percent or so is made up of yard waste, construction wood, and assorted organic waste, especially food. (Rathje found that 15 percent of all the solid food purchased by Americans ends up in landfills.) An unbelievable conglomeration of odds and ends accounts for the rest, with almost 10 percent made up of plastic, including the so-called biodegradable plastic. (Starch is added to the plastic compound as an appetizer for microorganisms, who will theoretically dissemble the plastic as they consume the starch.) Rathje dryly noted that he was skeptical of such claims: "In our landfill refuse from decades past we have uncovered corncobs with all their kernels still intact. If microorganisms won't eat corn-on-the-cob, I doubt whether they will dig cornstarch out of plastics."
But much organic waste does ultimately decompose, in the process generating a great deal of methane, which poses a threat of explosions and underground fires in older dumps that do not have proper venting or control. More significant, it contributes to the increased amount of methane entering the atmosphere. As we now know, rising levels of methane are one reason that the greenhouse effect has become so dangerous.
As existing landfills close, cities throughout the United States are desperately searching for new ones. And they are not easy to find. In fact, in my home state of Tennessee, to take one example, the single hottest political issue in the majority of our ninety-five counties is where to locate a new landfill or incinerator. Since these problems have customarily been addressed at the local level, they have not been defined as national issues, even through they generate more political controversy nationwide than many other issues. Now, however, the accumulation of waste has gotten so out of hand that cities and states have begun shipping large quantities across state lines. The Congressional Research Service has estimated that more than 12 million tons of municipal solid waste were shipped across state lines in 1989. Although some of this volume is due to the fact that some major cities are next to a state line and some is due to formal interstate compacts for regional disposal facilities (which can be among the more responsible alternatives), there is an enormous growth in shipments by private haulers to landowners in poorer areas of the country who are ready to make a dollar by having garbage dumped on their property.
I remember the day that citizens from the small Tennessee town of Mitchellville (pop. 500) called me to complain about four smelly boxcars dripping wet with garbage from New York City that had been sitting in the hot sun for a week on a railroad siding in their town. "What worries me," said one resident to a reporter from the Nashville Banner, "is that so many germs are carried through the air, viruses and this type of thing. When that wind is blowing that stuff all over town, them little germs are not saying, 'Now, we can't leave this boxcar, you know we've got to stay here.'" Mitchellville's vice mayor, Bill Rogers, said, "A lot of the time you can see water, or some kind of liquid, dripping out the bottom of the cars, and some of them contain pure New York garbage." As it turned out, the mayor had agreed to let the hauling company, Tuckasee Inc., bring trash from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania to a landfill thirty-five miles from the railroad siding for a fee of $5 per boxcar, which looked like a good deal for a city whose annual budget is less than $50,000.
Small communities like Mitchellville throughout the Southeast and Midwest are being deluged with shipments of garbage from the Northeast. Rural areas of the western United States are receiving garbage from large cities on the Pacific coast. No wonder that bands of vigilantes have formed to patrol the highways and backroads in areas besieged by trucks of garbage from larger population centers. One of my favorite spoofs on Saturday Night Live was a mock commercial for a product called the Yard-a-Pult, a scaled-down model of a medieval catapult, just large enough for the backyard patio, suitable for the launching of garbage bags into your neighbor's property. No need for recycling, incineration, or landfills. The Yard-a-Pult is the ultimate in "out of sight, out of mind" convenience. Unfortunately, the fiction is disturbingly like the reality of our policy for dealing with waste.
Sometimes truth is even stranger than fiction. One of the most bizarre and disturbing consequences of this considerable shipment of waste is the appearance of a new environmental threat called backhauling. Truckers take loads of chemical waste and garbage in one direction and food and bulk liquids (like fruit juice) in the opposite direction-in the same containers. In a lengthy report, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer found hundreds of examples of food being carried in containers that had been filled with hazardous waste on the first leg of the journey. Although the trucks were typically washed between loads, the drivers (at some threat to their jobs) described lax in spections, totally inadequate washouts, and the use of liquid deodorizers, themselves dangerous, to mask left-over chemical smells. In 1990, Senators Jim Exon, Slade Gorton, and I joined with Congressman Bill Clinger to pass legislation prohibiting this practice.
But no legislation, by itself, can stop the underlying problem. When one means of disposal is prohibited, the practice continues underground or a new method is found. And what used to be considered unthinkable becomes commonplace because of the incredible pressure from the mounting volumes of waste.
One especially disquieting example is the idea of shipping waste across national borders. Probably the most famous example of this so-called garbage barge, which left Islip, Long Island, in early 1987 and wandered for six months in search of a port that would accept its 3,186 tons of commercial garbage. Before returning to Long Island, the barge was ordered out of ports in North Carolina, Louisiana, Florida, Mexico, Belize, and the Bahamas as well as other New York ports. For many, its mock-epic journey became a symbol of the crisis created when older landfills were filled up by the rapidly increasing amounts of waste.
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