From Garbage Dumps to Sanitary Landfills: An Overview of Waste Management Solutions
Even pre-historic man had to figure out what to do with its garbage. Few people, it seems, have ever wanted to accumulate trash in their houses. Up until recently, waste management solutions have included simply dumping trash out on the street, dumping it somewhere out of town, burying it, dumping it in a lake or river, or perhaps burning it.
The trash dump outside of ancient Jerusalem was perpetually on fire. It is not clear to me whether the fire was deliberately set and tended or whether it erupted from spontaneous combustion. In either case, the dump was named gehenna, which became one of the names for hell in the New Testament.
Trash dumps with or without fire must have been dangerous and unpleasant places. But they served the purpose adequately as long as most people lived in the country side and cities were not very large. Even throwing refuse in the streets must not have seemed too bad as long as pigs, dogs, vultures, and other free-roaming scavengers ate it. New Amsterdam forbade the practice in 1657, its successor city New York had to outlaw it again two hundred years later.
As cities became larger, and especially as the human race learned more about sanitation and disease, traditional waste management solutions became inadequate. During the Industrial Revolution, manufacturers began to add tremendously to the waste stream, and therefore to the problems of waste management. The new garbage included not only byproducts of the manufacturing process, but new products like metal beer bottle caps or disposable razor blades.
In the nineteenth century, municipal governments took over the responsibility for waste management solutions. Among new ideas, the first municipal incinerator in the United States opened in 1885. Twenty five years later, 180 other incinerators had been built, but 102 of them had already been abandoned. Most were inadequately built or poorly run, and in any case much more expensive than simply dumping trash.
By 1900, many cities had begun to collect and dispose of waste and to record how much they collected. Between food waste, dry rubbish, and ash from burning coal or wood, the average American generated 1,400 pounds of trash annually. Meanwhile, manufacturers continued to add new disposable packaging, advertising (including bulky catalogs), and products (such as paper cups).
In the 1920s, it seemed a good idea to "reclaim" wetlands by filling them in with dirt, garbage, and ash. Of course, rivers still served as a convenient place to dump trash, too--all the more so after the invention of the garbage disposal. Not for the first time in history, waste management solutions simply created other problems.
After the Second World War, marketers deliberately sought to make consumers (especially women) dissatisfied with whatever they already had. Advertising sought to induce them to dispose of possessions that were not yet completely worn out. Marketers also began to target children, counting on their determination to have their own way with their parents. Raising consumer spending in this way also raised the amount of trash that needed disposal.
The earliest municipal trash collections had required the separation of food waste from solid trash, but in 1960, Sam Yorty became mayor of Los Angeles, running on a platform to end that inconvenience. Before long, mingling compostable garbage with at least partly recyclable solid waste into one unmanageable mishmash became the national norm. To this day, Yorty's accomplishment hinders such waste management solutions as recycling.
At about the same time, the age old garbage dump began to evolve into the sanitary landfill. To combat noxious odors and proliferation of rodents at the dumps, the American Society of Civil engineers recommended compacting refuse and covering it with a layer of soil ever day.
The federal government became involved with waste management for the first time with the passage of the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965. Other federal environmental acts, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency soon followed. Following the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, many Americans started looking for waste management solutions as eagerly as manufacturers had been adding to the problems.
Ironically, just a decade after Yorty's push to eliminate separating garbage, other jurisdictions began to encourage recycling. Oregon passed the first of several bottle bills in 1971. By offering cash for glass, aluminum, and plastic containers, it eliminated about 7% of its trash from the waste stream--a mere fraction of what could have been removed.
Turning old dumps into sanitary landfills actually created new problems. When it rained on old dumps, the runoff made it into rivers and streams, polluting surface water. Daily layers of dirt on composted trash may have seemed to solve that problem.
Unfortunately, instead of running off, rainwater soaked into the landfill. There, it combined with chemicals (often including hazardous wastes) to create leachate. Leachate can pollute ground water.
Formerly, scientists assumed that ground water was free from contamination. In theory, the ground filters out pollutants, so by the time even contaminated rainwater reached an underground aquifer, it would be clean.
As it turns out, landfill leachate concentrates contaminants so much that, unless the water table is very deep, the ground cannot absorb them before they reach aquifers. And aquifers provide drinking water for any place that relies on wells. The landfill, then, has merely added another waste management problem that needs solutions.
Building modern landfills entails installing some kind of impermeable lining, collecting leachate, and treating it before returning it to the environment. The processes of compacting, installing liners, and collecting and treating leachate makes sanitary landfills much more expensive to operate than the older trash dumps. They also require, but do not necessarily get, expensive maintenance long after they stop accepting new trash.
Today, Americans on the average produce 1,600 pounds of trash every year. If that seems a modest increase over a century, consider that in 1900, coal or wood ash from cooking and heating comprised the largest portion of household waste.
Much more than half of today's trash could be recycled, but 80% of it winds up in landfills. Can we expect new technology to provide more workable waste management solutions? Or will we have to work to reduce the amount of waste we produce in the first place?