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This is Not Our Father's Garbage

Updated on August 21, 2010

This is Not Our Father’s Garbage    

"The truth knocks on the door and

You say ‘Go away, I’m looking for the truth,’ and so it goes away.      Puzzling."  

                 -Robert M. Pirsig-

Throughout history, humankind—in all its vanity—has distinguished itself from lower life forms in a number of different ways. To name a few: we hunt with weapons, we wear clothing, and…we have garbage. While the first two items on the list evolved from our intellect and instinct for survival, the later, is the byproduct of those same traits. As our population increases, so does the trail of waste we leave behind.

Since the onset of automated industrialization, we have converted from a society of economical; throw nothing-away preservers, to a society of consumer-based wasters. We have become the antithesis of common sense, the affliction of our own accountability, and the obliterators of our very environment. In other words, we have seen the problem, and it is us. So, the fact remains, somebody made a mess, and somebody has to clean it up… but how?

In her book Gone Tomorrow The Hidden Life of Garbage, Heather Rogers examines the history of our techniques of dealing with the circumstances from the onset of the industrial revolution, to today. In one instance, she refers to a garbage crisis in New York City in 1894, where one Colonel George E. Waring, Jr was placed to head the sanitation concerns. Waring employed the use of uniformed street cleaning crews, banned unlicensed scavengers from rummaging through trash piles, and required citizens to engage in “source separation,” an early form of recycling requiring the separation of ashes and food scraps from other materials. The segregated trash was then hauled off to Jamaica Island for further separation. Rogers cites an account of the procedure as witnessed by a journalist of the day: “One picker selects manila paper, another shoes, another bottles, cans and metals another cloth and rags, until finally fully sixty percent of the material which New York householders consider worthless is picked out as worth saving” (Rogers 54).

This process worked. Soap, candles, and fertilizer were made from whatever could not be reused. Waring was on the right track, and other large cities had noticed his work, however, in New York, the administration was voted out of office the next election and the newly reinstated Tammany administration ousted him.

            Today, we face the same problems, only on a much larger scale. One would think that in over one hundred years we might have realized a solution to this problem. We have not. In an article by Lisa Iannucci in The Cooperator, New York City Department of Sanitation commissioner John Doherty, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg explain the cities modern day solution:

We have one transfer facility in New Jersey that is a waste energy facility, but most of the waste ends up in probably a dozen or more landfills in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia, Doherty explains.

Soon however, each borough will be responsible for transporting their own garbage to their own transfer facilities.

[In this] new solid waste management plan with the city council, it will provide for transfer station facilities in all boroughs, says Doherty.

 Bloomberg explains that under the new plan, there will be four new marine waste transfer stations built and up to five rail waste transfer stations activated.

This will allow us to transport nearly all of the city’s residential garbage, and more of our commercial garbage, by barge or rail. As a result, sanitation and tractor-trailer trucks will travel nearly six million fewer miles every year—and New Yorkers will have cleaner air and safer streets (Iannuci, article).

Here lay the problem. New York’s solution to the 12,000 tons of garbage a day it produces is only to relocate it to a place where New Yorkers will not have to look at it. It’s a sad thing that rather than deal with the real problem of too much garbage, they simply ship it to another state, but what’s even sadder is that, in the article, they seemed proud of their solution.

            Getting back to Roger’s book, she addresses the problem of consumer exploitation in some detail. In our new age of “consumerism,” corporations rely on their products to wear out, or break down. They make them that way intentionally. In order for the companies to survive, they have to make it cheaper to buy a new product than to get the old one repaired. One would think the government would regulate such unscrupulous practice, but instead, it encourages it. The government does not want you to stop buying things; they rely on it. They impose taxes on everything from Amana to Zenith. In the governments’ defense, they do need the money to keep operating in order to pay for their very existence, and to provide services…such as garbage collection.

            Some cities tried other means of getting rid of waste, burning it was one. In the late 20th century, incinerators were thought to be the saving grace. The cities could burn the waste, and then sell the power generated from the incinerator’s steam. In a 2007 “Area Chicago” website article, writer Laurie Palmer addresses the problem:

The Northwest Incinerator at 700 N. Kildare between Chicago Ave. and Lake St. was constructed with great fanfare in 1971 as a state-of-the-art, waste-to-energy garbage burner. It promised to reduce the city’s volume of trash headed for landfills by 90%, to be safe and pollution-free, and to produce energy at the same time. It burned for close to a quarter century, selling steam to the Brachs Candy factory on Chicago Ave., and dropping lead and other pollutants emitted from its double stacks onto nearby neighborhoods, which were, for the most part, poor black communities

1. In 1993, after over 20 years of operation, it was spitting out somewhere between 5 and 17 pounds of lead per hour from its stacks

2. In the same year, a broad coalition of groups and individuals formed under the name waste (Westside Alliance for a Safe and Toxic-free Environment) to force the city to shut down the incinerator, which it finally did in 1996 (Palmer).

This is another example of good intention, but poor foresight. What seemed like a fine

idea at first, blew up in their faces when the incinerator’s nocturnal emissions turned into the cities nightmare.

            Other methods of waste elimination proved to be just as fruitless. Some examples are these news stories from the past year. Last December over a billion gallons of coal ash broke through a retention wall at the Kingston Fossil Plant, on Watts Bar Reservoir near Kingston, Tennessee. It flooded 300 acres and spilled into tributaries of the Tennessee River (Johnson). Moreover, in Cleveland, a June 26 oil spill was responsible for the death of several hundred seagulls found in the Cuyahoga River, just after the 40th anniversary of that river’s infamous fire (Chapman).

            The responsibility of industrial accidents rests on the companies held accountable, but the responsibility of the garbage in large cities, belongs to the citizens, and city government. As it was in Colonel Warings’ day, separation is the key.

            Plastics have a bad reputation mainly because of their longevity, but they take up only about sixteen percent of our landfills, while paper weighs in at around forty percent (Michigan State Extention). Cities with high-rise and other multi-tenant structures need to mandate that refuse be separated, and deal with it on that basis. Separating, and recycling paper and plastic would free up space in landfills and help to deal with the problem of space, as well as landfill gasses.

          Landfill gases are greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide. Methane is the least potent next to carbon dioxide. According to the EPA, methane is twenty-one times more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Methane is responsible for 10.6 percent of global warming damage from human-sources in the U.S. Of this, 35.8 percent is from landfill gas (Ewall). While the fact of the matter is, this only adds up to about 3.8 percent of all global warming, still, gas is matter, and physics tells us we cannot destroy matter, so why add to the problem? Landfill owners and energy companies want us to believe that the gas can be pipe-lined or burned and it will be safe, it will not, but the information they put out to the public makes it sound like they have all the answers at hand. It is unfortunate that big businesses only plan to combat global warming consists solely of keeping the public environmental IQ at room temperature.

Building owners and tenants’ alike need to initiate their civic duty and comprehend their own moral responsibility. Individually, we all must do the same. Something as simple as recycling your newspapers or bringing your own shopping bags when you go to the grocery can make a huge difference… when three million others do the same. Governments and corporations need to be monitored and held accountable for environmental offenses, with the stiffest of penalties for every infraction, and a greater effort must be made to educate the public as to how great a problem we are facing.

            The waste problem will not be going away any time soon, in fact, the mess we have created will still be here for generations to come. In the meantime, what we can do is try to lessen that impact for those future generations by changing our bad habits as quickly as possible, and quit ignoring the truth.

Works Cited

Chapman, Jean. "Sewer District Investigates Third Oil Spill on Cuyahoga River". NW Ohio Regional Sewer District. 9/17/09 <>.

Ewall, Mike. "Primer on Landfill Gas as Green Energy". Energy Justice Network. 9/16/09 <>.

Iannucci, Lisa. "Where Does Garbage Go". The Cooperator. Sept 2006 <>

Johnson, Robyn. "6 ecological disasters you've probably never heard of". Matador Change. 09/17/09 <>.

Michigan State University. "Waste Management". Michigan State University Extension. 9/17/09 <>.                 

Palmer, Laurie. "W.A.S.T.E". Area Chicago. 2007 <> >

Pirsig, Robert. M.  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance   New York: Bantam 1975

Rogers, Heather. Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage   New York: The New Press 2005


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