How Much Space/Time Left?

Martin Melosi’s Garbage in the Cities, a book about the adoption of organized sanitation practices in the US, mentions in passing an estimate of available landfill space of 18 years. He gives no date from which to start counting, but his book was published in 2004 and the studies he referred to were mostly recent. That gives us a date for running out of space before 2022, or thereabouts, assuming for the moment that no space is added in the meantime and the rate at which we use it up stays equal.

The eventuality of simply filling up our landfill might seem unimaginable, but it did just happen in Naples, Italy, first in the summer of 2007 and then again in January of this year. The dumps were full. The city stopped collecting garbage because there was no place for it to go. Of course, everyone had seen the crisis coming, but no action was taken, the government being hollowed out by corruption and crime. Eventually, one dump was reopened and more garbage added until this winter the extra allotment was also filled up and no other solution in place. Again the garbage rose in frightful mountains in the streets.

Could this happen in the U.S.? On a much smaller scale, it already has. Remember the Mobro? In the mid-1980s, a barge with garbage from Islip, Long Island, sailed the length of the East Coast up and down until finally Islip had to take its garbage back. A few months later another garbage barge sailed the seven seas trying to find a place that would accept its cargo. It finally turned up mysteriously empty. Since then, new patterns have been established, as many places have started to export their garbage, sometimes vast distances away. Other places–mostly those that are hurting for another source of income–have created mega-fill, especially Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Virginia. Garbage slides down the economic ladder, helped along by “tipping” fees.

Pretty much every state that imports garbage in significant quantities has a debate over how desirable it is to be a garbage magnet. North Carolina imposed a moratorium on garbage imports in 2007–a somewhat short-sighted move considering that it exports more garbage than it imports. Many people in Michigan are clamoring for legislation that would ban “foreign” imports, finding the idea that Canada disposes of its garbage in the US especially repugnant.

Some of this, of course, is about the environmental concerns trailing in the wake of modern garbage. The stuff is toxic and contributes significantly to global warming, even when methane collection systems are in place. And landfill must be tended, perhaps for 35 years following closure, as sanitary engineers estimate, or perhaps forever, as environmentalists are more prone to posit. Moreover, the economics are unlikely to be sound in the long run. Tipping fees may be pouring in now, but they don’t cover all the future expenses of monitoring and tending the trash, remediating contamination, or converting the landfill to usable space. This is especially troubling in cases where a for-profit waste operation plucks the proceeds now and leaves the community to deal with long-term care of a contaminated site.

But after all the rational arguments against garbage imports have been laid on the table–and they lay more than enough weight in my scale–there’s something else that drives the outrage, something more deeply rooted and more intractable because it is about image and identity. We may be a little bothered by the notion that we dump much of our scrap and e-waste on the developing world, but being on the receiving end is easily much more disturbing. The United States is not supposed to be a third-world country doing such third-world things as importing other people’s trash, is it?

Unequal distribution of wealth undermines the collective good in this case (as I believe it is in pretty much every other respect), creating a lowest common denominator for the trash to slide down to. The more steeply pitched the social ladder, the more short-term economic incentive for someone to bury it wholesale in their own backyard for fees undercutting a better environmental solution. This is not to blame the people who feel they have little choice but to survive by garbage. We all share some responsibility for participating in a collective arrangement that stacks incentives, irrationally, for short-term profit and inequality, without regard to social and environmental sustainability.

Of course, 2022 is unlikely to be the hour of truth for us, as 2007 was for Naples. Efforts are underway, for the most part at the local level, to increase recycling, including individual and collective composting schemes. Bioreactor landfill is being investigated, by which landfilled garbage is washed and washed until it becomes inert and harmless. Plasma-arc technology is being proposed for incinerators, at temperatures so high that no noxious gases escape (in theory) but are converted to inert solids, and perhaps that will make incineration more acceptable to the environmental movement. And, at the very least, we’re likely to eke out the time until Armageddon by adding capacity, at least here and there.

But what I don’t see–not yet, at least–is a change in the economic engine that borrows from the planet for present gain, without regard to future ruin. All these efforts just postpone the hour of reckoning. They don’t change the underlying fact of our predatory lifestyle.


2 Responses to “How Much Space/Time Left?”

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