Field Trip

Garbage Field TripEvery day, 500 tons of trash from the Campania region in southern Italy get to go on a European vacation, destination Hamburg, in northern Germany. That’s 55 train cars worth of trash crossing the Alps every day, making the almost 1200-mile trip in just about 44 hours. The arrangement is meant to continue for 11 weeks. A lot of the traveling trash is compostible waste–kitchen scraps, restaurant leftovers, and so forth. A lot of the rest is recyclable, including plastics. The incinerator in Hamburg separates out the stuff that doesn’t burn, but the rest of it goes up in smoke.

Maybe that sounds crazy, but it’s commonplace at home. The situation in the U.S. is equally bizzarre, except that it goes on by design rather than misadventure, day after day, indefinitely. And the trash doesn’t hop the train but rides first class in 18-wheelers, guzzling gas. Of all the states in the union, 47 export garbage and 45 import it. Some of it comes from Canada even. which has decided that landfilling the stuff is too unhealthy while incinerating it at home is a lot more expensive than paying American landfill operators to bury it in Michigan. In the northeast especially, garbage is “exported” almost without exception as local landfills have closed, and nobody is ready to give permission for a new one in their own backyard.

Garbage TruckNot only does the stuff get carried all over the country, but pretty much every community is on its own looking for a place to stash their castoffs. As a result, the network of routes described by all this trash looks like a vast spider web woven by a drunken spider with no sense of geometry and no talent or inclination for housekeeping. The garbage trucks routinely pass by many active landfills on their way to distant destinations. (The scholar Benjamin Miller, who wrote Fat of the Land, a fabulous study of the sorry history of New York landfill, is working on the transportation angle. He was kind enough to show me a picture of that crazy web, which is to come out in a new book soon. )

The whole thing made economic sense under two conditions:

1. low transportation costs, by which it can be cheaper to truck trash vast distances to a cut-rate dump.

2. artificially depressed “tipping fees,” as the dump charges are called. Lifetime costs of operating and monitoring landfills and eventually converting them to usable space are generally not calculated into the price.

A study done before the price of gas took off estimated that banning interstate trade in garbage would lead to a total loss of $3.8 billion, as some waste haulers and landfill operators would see their revenues decline while others would make hay and some proportion of citizens would see their garbage collection fees go up, while the rest might catch a break. (See the abstract or a writeup of the study)

However the math was done, it would be different now of course, with gas prices out of all proportion to where they used to be. But more importantly, there’s a logical impossibility in the notion that we’d be worse off if we didn’t carry garbage all over the country. By this kind of analysis, if we made less garbage, there’d be losses in the system. However, I have to think we’d come out way ahead on the whole. And coming up with local garbage disposal methods would also have to be an overall gain, especially if we factor environmental damage from trucking into the equation and sift out the special interest rhetoric.

But of course that might just require an end to just burying it all whosale.


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June 2008
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