Time Capsules

On February 6, KQED broadcast my Perspective on garbage dumps as time capsules. The podcast is posted on the KQED website: Time Capsules.

Here’s the full text:

For all the vast quantities of trash we produce—some 275 million tons of household waste every year, not counting the recyclables—we know very little about what really happens to it. We do the right thing, insofar as we know what that is and as long as it isn’t too painful. We have an idea about biodegradation (good) and plastics (bad), and that’s why we like biodegradable “plastics.” It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that garbage that goes away (eventually) is preferable to garbage that stays with us forever?

Unfortunately, garbage dumps are typically not environments that facilitate biodegradation, as anyone might know who’s tried to make compost. It takes a lot of encouragement before the potato peels, egg shells, coffee grinds, and apple cores lose their specificity and sink back into the kind of mush you would consider reapplying to your backyard tomatoes. In your landfill, nobody is on hand to encourage your garbage to return to Mother Earth, and all our discards persist in more or less pristine condition.

Rather than weep, we should rejoice. Decomposing organics produce methane, a greenhouse gas. Leachate, the liquid byproduct of decaying garbage, is riddled with heavy metals and poisonous chemicals and overlaid with a rich bacterial culture. Obviously, we want as little of that as possible. And so environmental engineers pursue a “dry tomb” approach, trying to stop biodegradation altogether. They hermetically seal off garbage dumps from air and water as soon as dumping stops. An air- and watertight garbage dump is an engineer’s pipedream, but for the most part biodegradation does just grind to a halt.

The result is an odd kind of irony. We pretty much don’t preserve anything, except for our garbage. We are creating vast time capsules, treasure troves of information about our culture—even interleaving newspapers to facilitate dating the strata—which will be available to any future generations who really care to know who we were and how we lived.

Undoubtedly, preserving our garbage is better than letting it poison us, but it’s nevertheless also true that there is something intensely perverse about saving it up for the future. Just how did we let things get this way? And who are we exactly?


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February 2008
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