American Trash

August 12, 2007

Wendell Berry, environmentalist critic and commentator, says that, “a close inspection of our countryside would reveal, strewn over it from one end to the other, thousands of derelict and worthless automobiles, house trailers, refrigerators, stoves, freezers, washing machines and dryers; as well as thousands of unregulated dumps in hollows and sink holes, on stream banks and roadsides, filled not only with ‘disposable’ containers but also with broken toasters, television sets, toys of all kinds, furniture, lamps, stereos, radios, scales, coffee makers, mixers, blenders, corn poppers, hair dryers and microwave ovens.? (4) This is a description of rural trash but it is indicative of a problem that proliferates throughout our country. As a society, America produces an almost unspeakable amount of trash. In 2005 we created 246 million tons of municipal solid waste alone (before recycling).
Berry blames this on “a symbiosis of an unlimited greed at the top and a lazy, passive and self-indulgent consumptiveness at the bottom.? He takes a dim view of our future. He was also writing almost twenty years ago, in 1990. Since then our generation of individual waste has remained steady at about 4.5 pounds of waste per person per day, although municipal recycling has increased to around 1.5 pounds per person per day. Numerous books have been published on the topic of corporate greening and some notable companies have taken great strides. The genesis of some of the first waste free industrial plans in North America (like the Subaru plant in Lafayette, Indiana, for example) is a positive step. It is encouraging to read quotes such as “Anything that’s waste is an inefficiency in the process, and inefficiency is lost dollars,? by Patricia Calkins, the VP for Environment, Health and Safety at Xerox, or “the biggest win is not recycling, but engineering the material out of your system so you don’t need to worry about land filling it,? according to HP’s David Lear, VP of Corporate, Social and Environmental Responsibility. The fact that such positions even exist is encouraging. Still, we generate a lot of trash. And Berry is right; we are all complicit. Before I can tackle what should happen to our trash, the baseline needs to be established:
What happens to my trash?
The answer to this question was almost laughably easy to find. All it took was a few clicks of the mouse to show me the City of Minneapolis website, where I discovered that none of my trash is land filled, instead it goes to the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, HERC for short, where the “use mass burn technology to convert 365,000 tons of garbage a year into electricity that is sold to Xcel Energy.? The gather enough power out of this process to run the equivalent of 25,000 homes. Well, that sounds like a good thing. Tours of the facility are available and I think I should take one to see the situation at first hand. For the moment though, we’ll assume that Minneapolis has found an ideal solution to their garbage problem … and their energy problem. But if that’s the case, why isn’t it what everyone does?
What happens to most American trash?
According to the EPA’s report, Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2005, 32 percent of that aforementioned 246 million tons of MSW was recovered through composting or recycling. Another 33 million tons, or 14 percent was combusted for power and the remaining 54 percent (133 million tons went to landfills). Leaving aside the pros and cons of recycling, and assuming provisionally that this energy harvest method is a good thing I wanted to know more about landfills.
A first (but by no means last) step in finding about American landfills is to see what they say about themselves. The NSWMA, or National Solid Waste Management Association, is a trade association representing for profit landfill companies. They define a Municipal Solid Waste Landfill as, “a scientifically engineered structure built into or on the ground that is designed to isolate waste from the environment.? Asked if landfills are a safe way to dispose of our trash they answer, “Yes. Modern landfills are well-engineered facilities subject to strict federal and state regulation for location, design, operating conditions, monitoring, closure, post-closure care, clean up (if necessary) and financial assurance.? That second to last point strikes me as not altogether comforting. Still more unsettling was their answer to the question “Are we running out of landfill capacity?? “No,? they state, followed immediately by, “On a national level, the United States has 20 years of disposal capacity.? And going on to add that on a state by state basis that amount might be as little as five years. I think we might need to be focusing more on that 133 million tons of waste still being directed to the landfills.
And bear in mind that number refers only to Municipal Solid Waste, which does not include industrial, hazardous or construction waste. Next question what about that construction waste?

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