It has long been believed that the largest entity brought upon the Earth byhumankind is the Pyramid of the Sun, constructed in Mexico around the startof the Christian era. The mammoth structure commands nearly thirty millioncubic feet of space. In contrast, however, is the Durham Road Landfill,outside San Francisco, which occupies over seventy million cubic feet of thebiosphere. It is a sad monument, indeed, to the excesses of modern society.
One might assume such a monstrous mound of garbage is thelargest thing ever produced by human hands. Unhappily, this is not the case. The Fresh Kills Landfill, located on Staten Island, is the largest landfillin 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, itis equal to 16,000 baseball diamonds . By the year 2005, whenthe landfill is projected to close, its elevation will reach 505 feet abovesea level, making it the highest point along the Eastern Seaboard, Floridato Maine. At that height, the mound will constitute a hazard to air trafficat Newark airport . Fresh Kills (Kills is from the Dutch word for creek) was originally a tidalmarsh. In 1948, New York City planner Robert Moses developed a highlypraised project to deposit municipal garbage in the swamp until the level ofthe land was above sea level. A study of the area predicted the marsh wouldbe filled by the year 1968.Order now
He then planned to develop the area, buildinghouses and attracting light industry. Mayor Impelliteri issued a reporttitled “The Fresh Kills Landfill Project” in 1951. The report stated, inpart, that the enterprise “cannot fail to affect constructively a wide areaaround it. ” The report ended by stating, “It is at once practical andidealistic” .
One must appreciate the irony in the fact thatRobert Moses was, in his day, considered a leading conservationist. Hismajor accomplishments include asphalt parking lots throughout the New Yorkmetro area, paved roads in and out of city parks, and development of JonesBeach, now the most polluted, dirty, overcrowded piece of shoreline in theNortheast. In Stewart Udall’s book The Quiet Crisis, the former Secretary ofthe Interior lavishes praise on Moses. The JFK cabinet member calls JonesBeach “an imaginative solution . .
. (the) supreme answer to the ever-presentproblems of overcrowding” . JFK’s introduction to the bookprovides this foreboding passage: “Each generation must deal anew with theraiders, with the scramble to use public resources for private profit, andwith the tendency to prefer short-run profits to long-run necessities. Thecrisis may be quiet, but it is urgent” .
Oddly, the subject oflandfills is never broached in Udall’s book; in 1963, the issue was, infact, a non-issue. A modern state-of-the-art sanitary landfill is a graveyard for garbage,where deposited wastes are compacted, spread in thin layers, and covereddaily with clay or synthetic foam. The modern landfill is lined withmultiple, impermeable layers of clay, sand, and plastic before any garbageis deposited. This liner prevents liquids, called leachates, frompercolating into the groundwater. Leachates result from rain water mixingwith fluids in the garbage, making a highly toxic “juice” containing inks,heavy metals, and other poisonous compounds.
Ideally, leachates are pumpedup from collection points along the bottom of the landfill and eithershipped to liquid waste disposal points or re-introduced into the upperlayers of garbage, to resume the cycle. Unfortunately, most landfills haveno such pumping system . Until the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency by Nixon in 1970,there were virtually no regulations governing the construction, operation,and closure of landfills. As a result, 85 percent of all landfills extant inthis country are unlined.
Many are located in close proximity to aquifers orother groundwater features, or near geologically unstable sites. Many olderlandfills are leaching toxins into our water supply at this very moment,with no way to stop them. For example, the Fresh Kills landfill leaks anestimated one million gallons of toxic ooze into the surrounding water tableevery day . Sanitary landfills do offer certain advantages. Offensive odors, the mainstay of the old city dump, are dramatically reducedby the daily cover of clay or other material.
Vermin and insects, both ofthe terrestrial and airborne varieties, are denied a free meal and theopportunity to spread disease, by the daily clay layer. Furthermore, modernlandfills are less of an eyesore than their counterparts of yore. However,the causality of these positive affects are the very reasons for some of thesignificant drawbacks to landfills . The daily compactingand covering of the garbage deposits effectively squeezes the availableoxygen out of the material. Whatever aerobic bacteria are present in thegarbage are soon suffocated and decomposition stops.
Anaerobic bacteria, bytheir very nature, are not present in appreciable numbers in our biosphere. 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 otherwords, rather than the giant compost heap most people imagine, a landfill isactually a huge mummification center. Hot dogs and bananas, decades old,have been recovered from landfills, still recognizable in their mummifiedsplendor .
What little decomposition does occur in landfillsgenerates vast amounts of methane gas, one of the significant greenhouseeffect gasses. Some landfills have built-in processes to reclaim themethane. The Fresh Kills landfill pipes methane gas directly into thousandsof homes, but in most instances, the gas is either burned off or leakeddirectly into the atmosphere. Based on ice core samples from Antarctica, themethane concentration in the Earth’s atmosphere, over the past 160,000years, has fluctuated between 0. 3 and 0.
7 parts per million. In 1987, themethane count was 1. 7 ppm . The modern landfill is not alone in its defiance of decomposition. Theexcavation in 1884 of an ancient Roman dump had to be halted periodically sothe workers could get fresh air, so unbearable was the stench from thestill-extant refuse .
In today’s landfills, decomposition isnegligible. While the total tonnage of garbage decreases over years, duemostly to dessication, the volume varies less than ten percent. Most of theactual short-term rotting is from scraps of prepared food. Plasticsbiodegrade not at all. Biodegradable plastic is an oxymoron at best; themost unstable plastic requires intense sunlight to decompose, and sunlightis denied in a sanitary landfill.
Newspapers from before World War Two arestill readable; they have, in fact, become important date markers forscientists examining garbage strata in landfills . The public is sadly misinformed as to what comprises the bulk of municipalgarbage. A typical survey shows that the average American sees thedisposable diaper as the number one culprit for the premature closing of ourlandfills. This is a sad and costly misconception.
According to the mostrecent scientific studies, disposable diapers account for only 0. 53 to 1. 28percent of all landfill deposits, by volume . If burning garbage and dumping garbage at sea are unacceptable, what are thealternatives? Of the landfills, sanitary and otherwise, open for business in1979, 85 percent are now closed . Where is all the garbagegoing? Some municipalities are shipping garbage to other cities, or evenother states, a costly proposition.
Larger metropolitan agencies have eventaken to shipping garbage to third world countries, strapped for cash andeager for the infusion of Yankee dollars. This, of course, only transfersthe problem from one population to the other. Stories of wandering garbagebarges and orphaned garbage trains have made splashes in American newwpaperheadlines. Covert garbage disposal has become a lucrative business, as theplethora of medical waste washed up along the New Jersey shoreline proves. These anecdotes, while shocking and perversely entertaining, are hardlyrepresentative. Recycling really is making a difference.
Newspapers, which used to make up25 to 40 percent of the garbage volume of a typical city, are noweffectively banned from household garbage. Aluminum can recycling has becomea profitable sideline, both for economically disadvantaged and for theaverage homeowner trying to offset the ever-increasing cost of garbagecollection. Construction waste is now barred from landfills in most locales;this high volume material is now recycled or put to Earth-friendly uses,such as making barrier reefs. Plans for the safe incineration of refuse togenerate electric power have presented some highly contentious issues. Theash from such incinerators is normally highly toxic, since it concentratesexisting toxins, and must be disposed of as such.
Citizens object to theseplants, in a frenzy of Not-In-My-Backyard syndrome. A clear-cut answer isprobably non-existent. Several effective programs, enacted in unison, willprobably lead us to success. Works Cited:Gore, Senator Al.
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.