Part I -- Abstract
This modern world functions as a throw-away society. The price for that is a growing problem of how to handle all the waste that is generated. Precious space for it is decreasing. The solution is not just reducing, reusing, recycling and composting, but also a complete re-education of how we live. Fossil fuels, non-renewable natural resources that originate in the earth's crust, are being extracted from the earth at breakneck speed simply for human consumption. The chronology ratio of mineral formation to mineral extraction is remarkably high.
There are two ways to manage municipal solid waste (MSW). The high-waste approach involves leaving it somewhere, burning it, or burying it. Landfills, the symbol of the high-waste approach, have the proven reputation of preventing MSW from degrading, not to mention attracting a lot of traffic, noise, and dust to the surrounding areas.
On a side note, burning MSW in incinerators disinfects it and reduces the volume and weight, but incinerators emit small but noticeable amounts of lead, cadmium, mercury, and other toxic substances into the air we breathe. The most frightening item piped into the atmosphere due to this method are dioxins.
The low-waste approach is twofold: attempting to produce as little solid waste as possible, and diverting as much solid waste away from landfills and incinerators. The recycling bin is the symbol of the low-waste approach, but it hasn't caught on in this country to make a noticeable difference. In today's times of scientific progress and technology, a plethora of alternatives to landfills do exist, and all of them have much better degradability results.
A mere 13% of American waste is recycled. Recycling is a resource recovery program, which extend the globe's mineral supply by reducing the amount of virgin materials that need to be removed from the globe to meet the demand. Resource recovery saves energy, causes minimal pollution and land disruption, cuts waste disposal costs, and extends the life of landfills by preventing waste from residing there.
Greatly increased recycling in this country could be reached through several measures. Some analysts claim that 50% to 80% of the nation's natural resources could be recycled or reused by the year 2012. Some measures to achieve this include enacting a national bottle bill into law, banning disposable plastic items, requiring labels on products made with recyclable materials and the percentages used, using education and advertisements to discourage the "throwaway" mentality, requiring households to separate wastes for recycling (or offering financial incentives for doing so), and decreasing subsidies for virgin-material industries, and providing subsidies for secondary-material industries and waste reduction programs.
Anything that is naturally degradable can be thrown into a compost bin. Food and organic waste created by food processing plants, kitchens, galleys, animal feedlots, yard work, and municipal sewage treatment plants. Paper, leaves, and grass clippings can be decomposed in this process in backyard compost bins, and the end result can be used in gardens and flower beds. Composting yard waste would reduce the amount of solid waste in America by nearly 18%. Presently less than 1% of American waste is composted.
Hazardous waste includes heavy metal contaminants (like lead and mercury), medical and infectious waste, chemical waste, and nuclear waste. The latter is so dangerous due to the extremely high toxicity, which remains that way for thousands of years. The technology for safely and effectively treating and disposing hazardous waste has not even come close to the technology for producing the stuff.
Part II -- Introduction
Waste. Year after year, decade after decade, more and more is generated. And, as this precious time progresses, precious space for it decreases. But some communities clearly identify this problem, and they are saving space and saving money, and therefore saving the environment as well. Waste management is a vital component of the environmental movement. Everyone on the planet contributes to the problem; therefore, everyone on the planet can help contribute to the solution. That solution is, very simply, reducing, reusing, and recycling.
The enlightened communities of the world see a very clear sign to a severe dilemma -- the massive overflowing of garbage being flushed out of cities, factories, and other industrial centers. We live in a "throwaway society" because we regularly purchase things which are manufactured, purchased and used only once, then disposed of with nary a worry or care. We had relied on the "out of sight, out of mind" tactic for many years, but the time has arrived for the peoples of the world to treat our waste intelligently and properly.
In times long past, when the population of the earth and the amount of garbage created were both much smaller (and when highly toxic wastes were highly uncommon), we trusted that the earth's absorption of our waste meant that we never had to give it a second thought. That has changed completely. In today's world, active citizens take offense when our waste, which we thought was being taken care of, needs immediate attention. This is happening while sanitary landfills spill over the land we call home, industrial machines pollute the air we breathe, and other cities and states try to dump their garbage problems on our own land (EarthWorks, 1990). Perhaps the infamous "garbage barge," the boat full of New York City's solid waste which unsuccessfully tried to find a home for its garbage outside the Tri-State area, was a wake-up call to the world: stop producing so much trash.
The dilemma of waste has many points to consider. We think of waste as things of no use or no profitability, or something degraded. Nevertheless, anything produced in excess -- be it either junk mail or nuclear weaponry -- must be considered waste. In modern times, we think natural resources are "going to waste" if they are undeveloped, which translates to turning a profit at the expense of Mother Nature. Another large problem is "getting rid of" the mountains of waste -- the landfills. These eyesores are so unpopular that the dislike itself has been named the NIMBY theory (Not In My Back Yard); nobody wants to live near one, much less look at one. This terrible problem needs an appropriate solution that is both popular with the public and fast on the clock. All of the multifaceted obstacles regarding this predicament, which has plagued the human population of this green earth for centuries, must be overcome.
Part III -- Literature Review
-- Section A -- Fossil Fuels
Hundreds of everyday products that we use on a daily basis are manufactured from fossil fuels, which are nonrenewable natural resources that originate in the earth's crust. They include sand, gypsum, clay, gravel, limestone, copper, iron, aluminum, and gold. Minerals are found in rocks, which are formed over millions of years. The hundreds of minerals extracted from the earth are worth billions of dollars. Regardless, today's need for energy depends primarily upon locating and extracting these mineral resources, and thus we mine our earth. For example, phosphate rock is strip-mined in Florida. All this mining and processing of fossil fuels can cause land disturbances, erosion, air pollution, and water pollution. Moreover, the chronology ratio of mineral formation to mineral extraction is remarkably high -- eons to months. To preserve our natural resources, that chronology ratio must be reduced by at least 95% (Miller, 1990).
-- Section B -- Landfills
Simply, solid waste is any unwanted or discarded solid item. Municipal solid waste (MSW) originates in homes, businesses, and other urban areas. There are several different ways to manage the solid waste produced in mining, processing, manufacturing, and using resources, but most can be categorized into two different approaches. The high-waste approach involves leaving it somewhere, burning it, or burying it (in a sanitary landfill or any hole in the ground). The low-waste approach is twofold: attempting to produce as little solid waste as possible, and diverting as much solid waste away from landfills and incinerators (Miller, 1990). Over the past few years, the former has been viewed as cheap and irresponsible, and the latter has been viewed as initially expensive but morally gratifying. People are sick of looking at and living with the landfills.
And the landfills are filling up fast -- too fast. We all grew up believing that once we threw something away, it all went to some hole in the ground that would always have more space for next week's trash pickup. But the volume of garbage is reaching sizes so immense that we are running out of places to put it. In this country prior to 1988, over 5,500 landfills took 80% of MSW. By 2009, four of five landfills operating today will be full, and a new landfill can cost near $90 million (Anonymous, 1992). Even the landfills still operating are reaching grand proportions of refuse; a Staten Island landfill receives twenty-two thousand tons of trash from New York City on a daily basis. It will soon be the highest point on the Eastern Seaboard south of Maine (Gore, 1992). Dr. W.L. Rathje, a "garbologist" at the University of Arizona, gave this shocking testimony to the scale of modern landfills at a governmental hearing: "I was told that the largest monument ever built by a New World civilization was the Temple of the Sun, built in Mexico about 2000 years ago. It occupied thirty million cubic feet. I can still remember my shock when my students told me that A San Francisco landfill, made up of two mounds compiled since 1977 solely out of cover dirt and the MSW from three cities, held seventy million cubic feet, a total of nearly five Sun Temples. [Author's note: mathematical error.] Landfills are clearly the largest refuse heaps in the world." (Gore, 1992)
"In Canada, many cities have several options besides landfilling (which is, unfortunately, the most popular method). Recycling, composting, and incineration systems are working now in various provinces, and the country has established a target of reducing the national amount of municipal solid waste by fifty percent by the turn of the millennium" (Anonymous, 1992).
-- Section C -- Incineration
Burning solid waste in incinerators kills disease-carrying organisms and reduces the volume of waste by 90% and weight by 75%. In waste-to-energy incinerators, the heat released from the burning of solid waste can be used to heat nearby buildings, or sold to generate electricity. Unfortunately, the good news ends there. MSW incinerators emit small but noticeable amounts of lead, cadmium, mercury, and other toxic substances into the air we breathe. The most frightening item piped into the atmosphere are dioxins, which are carcinogenic (Miller, 1990). Over 100 incinerators exist today in this country, and over 250 are being planned for use (Belmont, 1995). National environmental leaders are lobbying Congress to place a moratorium on the construction of new MSW incinerators until the year 2000. The air is fragile enough as it is, and environmentalists are attempting to keep it as clean as possible. This moratorium will, if nothing else, let people breathe easier -- literally.
-- Section D -- Recycling
A mere 13% of American waste is recycled. An equal amount is burned in incinerators, and the rest heads to the dump (Anonymous, 1992). But recycling remains the most popular environmental activity among the peoples of industrialized nations, simply because we do it as often as we throw something away. Recycling programs are springing up in every corner of the globe, recycled goods are being utilized and recycled again, and Americans are at least doing something environmental on a regular basis.
These resource recovery programs extend the globe's mineral supply by reducing the amount of virgin materials that need to be removed from the globe to meet the demand. Resource recovery saves energy, causes minimal pollution and land disruption, cuts waste disposal costs, and extends the life of landfills by preventing waste from residing there.
Once an item has been used, recycled, and reprocessed, and appears on the shelf a second time, it is said to be in its second life. Glass and aluminum have unlimited lives -- theoretically, they can be recycled and reused forever. Plastic has approximately four lives; usually beverage and laundry containers see their third or fourth life in other forms, such as plastic picnic benches or plastic park benches. Recycled paper, after the de-inking process, can go about three lives; after that, the pulp fibers within the paper degrade.
The percentage of paper that is being recycled in other nations sends a clear message to Americans: we are not doing enough. Americans only recycle 28% of the paper we use, although we lead the world in paper consumption and paper waste. France, Sweden, Switzerland and Finland recycle at least one-third of their paper expenditures. Japan, Mexico, and the Netherlands are at a 44% rate, which is the highest in the world. The American federal government alone uses two percent of all paper products in this country, but half of the trash it throws away is paper (Miller, 1990).
American industries are not purchasing recycled paper and aluminum due to high prices, which causes a financial domino effect. All the bundled papers and crushed cans that the public has consciously and diligently placed on their curbs are the ultimate victims of the effect, which sends these recyclables towards the landfill. National environmental leaders are urging Congress for national minimum standards on recycled contents in recyclable manufactured goods. Some newspapers already do this on their own (like The Independent Florida Alligator and The Miami Herald) due to environmental conscience, local and state laws, and/or economic sensibility. (An example of the latter is due to the skyrocketing cost of virgin newsprint; recycled newsprint is less expensive.) If this was implemented as a federal law, industries would be mandated to purchase the recycled goods for manufacturing, thereby eventually reducing the cost, and making it economically feasible to avoid using virgin products (Anonymous, 1992).
-- Section E -- Reducing and Reusing
To reduce solid wastes, people must reduce discarded products. We can cut back on the amount of trash we produce by buying things with changed product packaging and content. This is buying items from companies that use recycled products. It is called precycling, and the whole process of recycling what you buy and buying recycled things is called completing the cycle. Reducing and reusing will not work unless a market exists for this material, and the consumers of these recycled goods should be the public (Young, 1995).
Manufacturers who honestly deal with hazardous waste management (which will be covered later in this paper) can attempt to reduce the toxins and harsh chemicals in their products. For example, Bowling Green State University in Ohio decided to switch from paper cups to glass cups. They saved over a million paper cups from the landfill, and they saved over $32,000. Japanese retail executives are appealing to "green" customers by reducing the amount of paper and bows used to wrap purchases. The McDonald's Corporation is "committed to buying recycled." They claim they have bought over $1 million worth of recycled products since 1990, they carry corrugated cardboard in every restaurant, they drastically reduced food wrappings, and they now use brown paper bags instead of their bleach-white paper bags (Anonymous, 1992).
-- Section F -- Composting
What do we do with all the food on our dinner plate that will go to waste? There are options: throw it way in the trash can, dump it down the sink via disposal systems in the plumbing, or compost it. Anything that is naturally degradable can be thrown into a compost bin. Food and organic waste created by food processing plants, kitchens, galleys, animal feedlots, yard work, and municipal sewage treatment plants. Paper, leaves, and grass clippings can be decomposed in this process in backyard compost bins, and the end result can be used in gardens and flower beds. Composting yard waste would reduce the amount of solid waste in America by nearly 18%. Presently, less than 1% of American waste is composted (Miller, 1990). Even college students, for whom this process can be challenging and very inconvenient, can take part. A tightly sealed bucket in a refrigerator can work very well as a temporary composter. When full, it can be dumped into an appropriate compost-friendly site on campus.
-- Section G -- Hazardous Waste
Hazardous waste is a major concern. It includes heavy metal contaminants (like lead and mercury), medical and infectious waste, chemical waste, and nuclear waste. The latter is so dangerous due to the extremely high toxicity, which remains that way for thousands of years (Gore, 1992). The technology for safely and effectively treating and disposing hazardous waste has not even come close to the technology for producing the stuff. Not only are we placing too many "undegradables" into landfills, but we are compounding the problem by illegally dumping hazardous waste into them, again primarily due to politics and finances. In 1986 alone, over three million tons of hazardous waste were disposed in landfills (Flavin, 1993).
An additional conflict has come up due to hazardous waste dumping grounds: environmental racism. Those few communities that requested to be testing sites for hazardous waste facilities were almost all areas with poor and/or minority citizens. In cities with over two facilities or one of the nation's five biggest facilities, the average minority percentage of the population was over three times that of communities without any facilities (Gore, 1992). It's almost become part of capitalist American culture: we dump our unwanted goods on cheap and unwanted lands. But the amount of hazardous waste has increased so much in so little time that haulers are now taking it wherever they can, including dumping it into streams, lakes, ponds, and sometimes the roads themselves. The ultimate danger in these unsafe practices is the high likelihood that the waste will get to you, including your drinking water and any fish you catch or buy at the store (Gore, 1992).
In 1980, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) started to name all the unregulated hazardous waste in the country to ascertain what, when and how to clean it up. The next year saw the passage of the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). $1.6 billion was placed into a Hazardous Substance Response Fund, also known as Superfund, to go towards cleanup activities. By the middle of 1991, the top priority list had 1,236 sites, and a grand total of over 31,500 sites. When the project started, many thought it would be the aspirin to soothe a national headache. But the EPA's ability to handle all the intricacies and mandates was intensely drained, because not only did they face testing hundreds of then-untested compounds which needed labeling and regulating, but they also endured massive budget cuts during the Reagan administration. Progress was occurring at a snail's pace. Only 33 sites were cleaned by May 1991. Costs per capita were predicted at $2,000. The program has been a disaster, and it has only added to the bad reputation that waste management seems to have with the public (Anonymous, 1992).
Part IV -- Discussion
Fossil fuels are being consumed at a breakneck speed, and we are running out of them. We must fix this problem completely, or we will perish in the process. Because we are the sole species with enough brain power to understand our responsibility towards the state of the planet, one of the most important things we must fully accomplish is dramatically reducing the consumption of fossil fuels in such a way that human beings no longer need to depend on them for everyday life.
Few people realize that the final resting stop for what you and I throw away is a sanitary landfill, where humans have somehow created places only for their own convenience. Wastes are spread out in thin layers, compacted, and daily covered with soil. They have the proven reputation of preventing trash from degrading, not to mention attracting a lot of traffic, noise, and dust to the surrounding areas. The winds can scatter the litter and dust before the daily soil covers it. In today's times of scientific progress and technology, a plethora of alternatives to landfills do exist (i.e., pyrolysis), and all of them have much better degradability results. In spite of this, due to politics, finances, and stubbornness, landfills have stayed on as the primary disposal method.
The rather low popularity of composting might change for the better in the coming years, due to limited landfill space, mandatory composting programs, economic incentives, and an expanding national (and global) environmental conscience. In one illustration, metropolitan Seattle plans to divert close to two-thirds of waste from incinerators and landfills by the end of this year, and composting intends to play a major role in the process. Composting will be combined with recycling programs, which already are very popular, and have been in place for over ten years.
Greatly increased recycling in this country could be reached through several measures. Some analysts claim that 50% to 80% of the national resources could be recycled or reused by the year 2012. Some measures to achieve this include enacting a national bottle bill into law, banning disposable plastic items, requiring labels on products made with recyclable materials and the percentages used, using education and advertisements to discourage the "throwaway" mentality, requiring households to separate wastes for recycling (or offering financial incentives for doing so), decreasing subsidies for virgin-material industries, and providing subsidies for secondary-material industries and waste reduction programs (which Florida does, in the form of revenue breaks to businesses and industries that utilize secondary materials or buy recycling equipment) (Miller, 1990).
Part V -- Conclusion
This dilemma is worldwide -- it affects all on the globe, and something must be done. However, old habits are hard to break. Nonetheless, I will speak briefly for the human race when I say that I would rather live with breaking an old habit than become extinct, because our stubborn nature kept us doing what we were all used to and liked doing.
Part VI -- Literature Cited