December 29, 2003
by Dennis T. Avery
My neighbors are unhappy to learn that the trash they’ve carefully sorted for years into brown bottles, green bottles, cans, and paper is being dumped back into one pile at the local landfill. Except for aluminum cans, no one wants the sorted trash items. Is this bad for the environment?
Probably not. I checked with Dr. Daniel Benjamin of Clemson University (and the PERC Center for Free Market Environmentalism) and he says: First, don’t worry that the trash going into our landfills will take over too much of the land area. People today are actually throwing away less trash (in both volume and tonnage) than in previous, less-affluent generations. Dr. Benjamin says the average U.S. household today generates one-third less trash than the average family in Mexico!
How can this be?
In significant part, it’s because we throw away less food, thanks to commercial processing and packaging.
When chickens, for example, are commercially processed, the beaks, claws, and innards are turned into pet food instead of going into the kitchen garbage can. Commercial processing and packaging of 1,000 chickens adds about 17 pounds of paper and plastic wrap—but turns (recycles) about 2,000 pounds of chicken by-products into useful purposes. Ditto for such things as the peelings from frozen French fries and the rinds from making orange juice. (The “factory” potato and citrus peels go to feed livestock.)
Millions of additional tons of organic waste go down the garbage disposals and so on to waste treatment plants, instead of drawing flies at the landfill.
Companies have also turned to lighter-weight packages (mainly to cut transport costs) and the total weight of the packages entering landfills, says Dr. Benjamin, has fallen by 40 percent. Plastic two-liter soft drink bottles weigh 30 percent less than the old glass bottles. Plastic bags weight 70 percent less than paper. Even aluminum beverage cans now weigh 40 percent less.
Thirty years ago we were told that we were running out of landfill space. New York City wasn’t able to dump its garbage at sea any more, and it got piled up on Staten Island. What happened?
A new rule on ocean dumping and a temporary shortage of landfills with permits basically caused a bottleneck. New York initially started exporting its trash by rail. (Some if it came to Virginia, where we had lots of rural gullies to fill, and were very cheerful about the dumping fees.)
Today, the United States has 25 percent more landfill space permitted than we had 25 years ago. And all the trash we’re expected to dump in the next 100 years would fit into a landfill about 10 miles square.
There are no plans for one centralized national dump, of course, because it’s more advantageous for most communities to save the transportation costs, and turn their completed landfills into parks and tennis courts within their own borders.
What about pollution leaking from the landfills? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), never likely to minimize a pollution risk, says leakage from modern America’s landfills can be expected to cause one cancer-related death over the next 50 years. In other words, the danger is too low to be measured. Today’s landfills are sited away from groundwater sources; built on a foundation of several feet of dense clay; the foundation is covered with thick plastic liners, and the liners are then covered with several feet of sand or gravel. Any leachate is drained out via collection pipes and sent to the municipal wastewater treatment plants.
Won’t we be losing irreplaceable resources if we landfill instead of recycling? Too often, recycling proponents focused on the aluminum or newspaper being recycled, and forgot about the fuel, manpower and other resources it took to turn the trash into something useful. And with new technology, resources such as copper and wood have declined in value.
Franklin Associates, which consults for EPA, says extensive recycling is 35 percent more expensive than conventional disposal, and curbside recycling is 55 percent more expensive. In other words, recycling takes more resources than landfilling.
Why did people promote recycling so heavily in the first place? Lots of people probably misunderstood the costs and benefits. It’s also true that eco-activists urgently wanted everybody to feel a direct stake in saving the planet. Telling us all to recycle was their way to make us feel eco-involved.
Today, however, when environmental concern is near-universal and conservation techniques are far better, we don’t need “phony” recycling campaigns.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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