When asked to think of the largest man made structure, people will invariablycome up with an answer like The Great Wall of China, the Great Pyramids, or the TajMajal. In contrast to these striking achievements of mankind is the Durham Road Landfilloutside San Francisco, which occupies over seventy million cubic feet.
It is a sadmonument to the excesses of modern society Gore 151. One must think this hugereservoir of garbage must be the largest thing ever produced by human hands then.Unhappily, this is not the case. The Fresh Kills Landfill, located on Staten Island, is thelargest landfill in the world. It sports an elevation of 155 feet, an estimated mass of 100million tons, and a volume of 2.9 billion cubic feet. In total acreage, it is equal to 16,000baseball diamonds Miller 526.
By the year 2005, when the landfill is projected to close,its elevation will reach 505 feet above sea level, making it the highest point along theEastern Seaboard, from Florida to Maine. At that height, the mound will constitute ahazard to air traffic at Newark airport Rathje 3-4. The area now encompassed by theFresh Kills (Kills is from the Dutch word for creek) Landfill was originally a tidal marsh.In 1948, New York City planner Robert Moses developed a highly praised project todeposit municipal garbage in the swamp until the level of the land was above sea level. Astudy of the area predicted the marsh would be filled by the year 1968.
He then planned todevelop the area, building houses and attracting light industry over the landfill. The FreshKills Landfill was originally meant to be a conservation project that would benefit theenvironment. The mayor of New York City issued a report titled “The Fresh KillsLandfill Project” in 1951 which stated, in part, that the project “cannot fail to affectconstructively a wide area around it.” The report ended by stating, “It is at once practicaland idealistic” Rathje 4. One must appreciate the irony in the fact that Robert Moses wasconsidered a leading conservationist in his time. His major accomplishments includebuilding asphalt parking lots throughout the New York Metro area, paved roads in andout of city parks, and the development of Jones Beach, now the most polluted andovercrowded piece of shoreline in the Northeast United States.
In Stewart Udall’s bookThe Quiet Crisis, the former Secretary of the Interior praises Moses. The JFK cabinetmember calls the Jones Beach development “an imaginative solution ..
. (the) supremeanswer to the ever-present problems of overcrowding” Udall 163-4. JFK’s introductionto the book provides this foreboding passage: “Each generation must deal anew with theraiders, with the scramble to use public resources for private profit, and with the tendencyto prefer short-run profits to long-run necessities. The crisis may be quiet, but it is urgent”Udall xii.
It is these long term effects that the developers of landfills often fail toconsider. Oddly, the subject of landfills is never broached in Udall’s book; in 1963 landfillsA modern state-of-the-art sanitary landfill is a graveyard for garbage, wheredeposited wastes are compacted, spread in thin layers, and covered daily with clay orsynthetic foam. The modern landfill is lined with multiple, impermeable layers of clay,sand, and plastic before any garbage is deposited. This liner prevents liquids, calledleachates, from percolating into the groundwater.
Leachates result from rain water mixingwith fluids in the garbage, making a highly toxic fluid containing inks, heavy metals, andother poisonous compounds. Ideally, leachates are pumped up from collection pointsalong the bottom of the landfill and either shipped to liquid waste disposal points orre-introduced into the upper layers of garbage to resume the cycle. Unfortunately, mostlandfills have no such pumping system. Miller 527. Until the formation of theProtection Agency by President Nixon in 1970, there were virtually noregulations governing the construction, operation, and closure of landfills. As a result ofthis lack of legislation, 85 percent of all landfills existing in this country are unlined.
Manyof these landfills are located in close proximity to aquifers or other groundwater features,or near geologically unstable sites. Many older landfills are leaking toxins into our watersupply at this very moment, with no way to stop them. For example, the Fresh Kills landfillleaks an estimated one million gallons of toxic sludge into the surrounding water tableevery day Miller 527. Sanitary landfills do offer certain advantages however.
Offensiveodors, which characterized waste depositories at one time are dramatically reduced by thedaily cover of clay or other material over the garbage. Vermin and insects are also denieda free meal and the opportunity to spread disease by the daily layer of deposited clay. Furthermore, modern landfills are less of an eyesore than their older counterparts.However, the sources of these positive affects are the very reasons for some of thesignificant drawbacks to landfills Turk and Turk 486. The daily compacting and coveringof the garbage deposits squeezes the available oxygen out of the trash. Whatever aerobicbacteria are present in the garbage are soon suffocated and decomposition stops.Anaerobic bacteria, by their very nature, are not present in appreciable numbers in ourbiosphere.
What few manage to enter and survive in the garbage deposits are slow-actingand perform little in the way of breaking down the materials. In other words, rather thanthe giant degrading compost heap most people imagine, a landfill is actually a hugemummification center. Hot dogs and bananas, decades old, have been recovered fromlandfills, still recognizable in their mummified state Rathje 111-12. What littledecomposition does occur in landfills generates vast amounts of methane gas, one of thesignificant greenhouse effect gasses. Some landfills have built-in processes to reclaim themethane from the atmosphere. The Fresh Kills landfill pipes methane gas directly into12,000 homes, but in most instances the gas is either burned off or leaked directly into theatmosphere. Based on ice core samples from Antarctica, the methane concentration in theEarth’s atmosphere, over the past 160,000 years, has fluctuated between 0.
3 and 0.7 partsper million. The methane levels in the atmosphere are now triple that.McKibben 17-17. It is not only the modern landfills that defy decomposition.
Because of the stench from thethousand year old refuse of an ancient Roman landfill, an 1884 archaeological dig had tobe halted periodically so the workers could get fresh air.Rathje 113In today’s landfillsdecomposition is negligible. While the total tonnage of garbage decreases over years, duemostly to decay, the volume varies less than ten percent. Most of the actual short-termrotting is from scraps of prepared food. Plastics present in landfills will most likely bethere forever. Even the most unstable plastic requires intense sunlight to decompose, andsunlight is denied in a sanitary landfill. Newspapers from before World War Two are stillreadable in these landfills; they have in fact become important date markers for scientistsexamining garbage strata in landfills Rathje 112-13.
If burning garbage and dumping garbage at sea are unacceptable, what are thealternatives? Of the landfills, sanitary and otherwise, open for business in 1979, 85 percentare now closed Miller 527. Where is all the garbage going? Some municipalities areshipping garbage to other cities, or even other states, a costly proposition. Largermetropolitan agencies have even taken to shipping garbage to Third World countries whoare strapped for cash and eager for the money that comes along with the trash.
This, ofcourse, only transfers the problem from one population to the other. Stories of wanderinggarbage barges and orphaned garbage trains have appeared in American newspapers.Covert garbage disposal has become a lucrative business, as the plethora of medical wastewashed up along the New Jersey shoreline proves. Despite these horror stories, recyclingreally is making a difference. Newspapers, which used to make up 25 to 40 percent of thegarbage volume of a typical city, are now effectively eliminated from household garbage.
Aluminum can recycling has become a profitable enterprise, both for the economicallydisadvantaged and for the average homeowner trying to offset the ever-increasing cost ofgarbage collection. Construction waste is now barred from landfills in most areas; this highvolume material is now recycled or put to Earth-friendly uses, such as making barrierreefs. Plans for the safe incineration of refuse to generate electric power have presentedsome highly contentious issues. The ash from such incinerators is normally highly toxic,since it concentrates existing toxins. Citizens object to these plants, as long as they will belocated in their neighborhood.
A clear-cut answer is probably non-existent. Severaleffective programs enacted in unison is the only option that can stop the growing moundsof trash that are piling up around the country.Bibliography:Works Cited:Gore, Albert. Earth in the Balance.
New York: Houghton, 1992.MacKibben, Bill. The End of Nature.
New York: Random House, 1989.Miller, G. Tyler, Jr. Living in the Environment. Belmont CA: Wadsworth, 1994.
Rathje, William and Cullen Murphy. Rubbish!. New York: Harper, 1992.Turk, Jonathan.
Environmental Science. New York: Holt, 1984.Udall, Stewart. The Quiet Crisis. New York: Holt, 1963.