Sunday, September 12, 2010

Major Myths About Garbage, and Why They're Wrong

As part of the Garbage Project, established at the University of Arizona in 1973 to apply archaeological principles to a modern society, some 750 people processed more than 250,000 pounds of garbage during a five-year period. The garbage - 14 tons from nine municipal landfills in the U.S. and the balance taken from garbage trucks or at curbside - was sorted, weighed and catalogued to produce a database. The project uncovered a major problem: much conventional wisdom about garbage and its disposal consists of myths and assertions that turn out, upon investigation, to be misleading - or dead wrong.
Myth No. 1: Fast-food packaging, polystyrene foam and disposable diapers are major constituents of American garbage.
Findings: Of the 14 tons of landfilled garbage examined, fast-food packaging constituted less than 100 pounds (less than one-half of one percent by weight) of the excavated material. The Garbage Project estimates that this category of waste accounts for no more than one-third of 1 percent of the total volume of the average American landfill's contents; polystyrene foam, no more than 1 percent; and disposable diapers, 1.4 percent (1 percent by weight).
Myth No. 2: Plastic is also a big problem.
Findings: The authors note that although "plastic is the Great Satan of garbage, gaudy, cheap, a convenient scapegoat," paper was the largest component of the excavated landfills' contents, at 40 percent. Newspapers alone accounted for up to 13 percent. This proportion, they indicate, has held steady for decades or risen in some landfills.
Plastics, on the other hand, amounted to 20-24 percent (by volume) of all landfill garbage as sorted, or about 16 percent when compacted as under typical landfill conditions. The article notes that although the number of objects made from plastics has been increasing, the industry practice of "light-weighting" has substantially reduced the amount of material used in soda bottles, milk jugs, disposable diapers and other products. "...when plastic gets lighter, it also gets thinner and more crushable. The result is that more plastic items can be squeezed into a given volume of landfill space today than could fit 10 or 20 years ago."
Myth No. 3: A lot of biodegradation takes place in modern landfills.
Findings: The authors observe that people often defend paper because it biodegrades in landfills, while plastics take up space "until the end of time." Their findings indicate, however, that "biologically and chemically, a landfill is much more static than we commonly suppose. For some kinds of organic garbage, biodegradation goes on for a while and then slows to a virtual standstill. For other kinds, biodegradation never gets under way at all."
Most organic material excavated remained identifiable, including whole hot dogs, carrot tips and onionparings several decades old, and New Deal-era newspapers. "Under normal landfill conditions, in which...the landfill is kept relatively dry, the only types of garbage that truly decompose are certain kinds of food and yard waste." The authors conclude that "well-designed and well-managed landfills....are not vast composters; rather, they are vast mummifiers."
Myth No. 4: America is running out of safe places to put landfills.
Findings: The article cites a study in which A. Clark Wiseman, an economist at Resources for the Future, a Washington-based think tank, "calculated that at the current rate of waste generation, all of America's garbage for the next 1,000 years would fit into a single landfill space only 120 feet deep and 44 miles square" (three times the size of Oklahoma City). Citing additional studies, the authors observe, "Few nations are as substantially endowed with uncongested territory as ours is, and there is appropriate land available even in some relatively populous areas." The obstacles, as they see them, "are psychological and political. Nobody wants a garbage dump in his or her backyard. It is ironic. We have convinced ourselves that our big flaw is that we are wasteful and profligate, while a much more serious flaw goes unnoticed: as a nation, on the subject of garbage, at least, we have become politically impotent."
Myth No. 5: On a per-capita basis, Americans are producing garbage at a rapidly accelerating rate.
Findings: Garbage Project sortings of household garbage in Milwaukee revealed a disposal rate of 1.5 pounds per person per day, compared with the 1.9 pounds found in a study done in the city 20 years earlier, in 1959. According to the authors, the EPA estimates that the average American currently discards about 1,500 pounds of garbage annually. They note that at the turn of the century, we threw out coal ash alone at an average per-capita rate of 1,200 pounds per year. "It is undeniable that Americans as a whole are producing more municipal solid waste than they did 50 or 100 years ago. But this is largely because there are more Americans....A long view...would suggest that, on a per-capita basis, the nation's record is hardly one of unrestrained excess. Indeed, the word that best describes the situation with respect to overall volume may be 'stability'."

The authors conclude that while garbage disposal "requires serious attention,...the most critical part of the garbage problem in America may be that our notions about the creation and disposal of garbage are riddled with misconceptions. We go after symbolic targets rather than the serious but mundane ones. Impelled by a sense of crisis, we make hasty decisions when nothing about the situation warrants anything but calm. We castigate ourselves for certain imperfections but not for the ones that really matter. And we lose sight of fundamentals." These include the facts that our means of disposal "have never been safer or more technically advanced," and that our record with regard to garbage disposal has gradually improved since the late 19th century.
The solutions, as Rathje and Murphy see them, are:
•willingness on the part of consumers to pay pro-rated fees for collecting and disposing of nonrecyclable garbage;
•increased consumer-generated demand for goods and packaging with post-consumer recycled content above 10 percent; and
•alignment of the perception and the reality of our situation as a starting point for political discussion and decision making.

The 10-page Smithsonian article was adapted from the book Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage, written by William Rathje (head of the Garbage Project) and Cullen Murphy and published by Harper Collins.

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