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The Garbage Non-Problem
Alan AtKisson, 12 Aug 05

Remember the old environmentalist line, "We're running out of landfill space"? If you're still using it, it's time to retire that one. The New York Times reports that the garbage industry is in the midst of an efficiency increase "more typically seen in technologies like computer chips and turbines that generate electricity." When it comes to good old fashioned garbage, it seems we're no longer "running out of places to throw things away." Simple changes of method -- better compacting, faster decay, tighter stacking -- have left the US market, anyway, with more than enough space, and landfill prices haven't budged in ten years. Since the revolution is still in its early stages, this is a non-problem that's not likely to go away.

What about New York's famous garbage barges, you say? The real problem for New York, it turns out, is transport, not dump space. New York gets the pick of the litter (sorry) in terms of bids for its trash; but the Big Apple just has to pay a lot to ship its apple cores to other shores. (Thanks to Michael Zimmerman for the tip.)

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Garbage is *still* a problem, even if we have somewhere to put it. For one, garbage is waste, and as pointed out in several posts previously, waste = inefficiency. 330 million tons of it a year based on the article. MMW (mark my words), someday, we we'll be digging up these trash piles to get back some of the stuff we found so disposable today. Probably with nano-robots acting like ants in a giant ant-hill.

In this respect this isn't really a good news post because the low cost to dump discourages the recycling and reuse efforts.

Posted by: Erik Ehlert on 12 Aug 05

New York's garbage transport problem goes well beyond paying to ship trash out of town. In the city itself, an incredibly inefficient system of trucking garbage puts heavy burdens on the South Bronx and northern Brooklyn, which between them see 77% of the city's waste pass through their unaccountable private waste transfer stations.

This is the legacy of years of reliance on Fresh Kills, a temporary landfill that was sucked into providing NYC's waste "solution" for decades. Once that abomination was shut down, Mayor Rudy and other pols were unwilling to design a long-term solution for our garbage and so left it to the vaunted market. The result is that old industrial land in poor neighborhoods now hosts huge lines of diesel trucks idling while they wait to dump other neighborhoods' trash (and especially in the case of the South Bronx, that diesel pollution contributes to some of the highest asthma rates in the US).

Building transfer stations in a fairly distributed way around the city is a politico's NIMBY nightmare, but one of the (not that many) good things about Mayor Mike is that he occasionally takes up good ideas in the face of popular revolt. Meanwhile faux-progressive would-be mayors, like Council Speaker Miller, take the easy route and just say no to waste processing in swanky Manhattan. Too bad they don't have better ideas. And our city Sanitation bureaucrats, though nominally reporting to the mayor, stonewall incremental improvements that reduce waste to the private stations--because many of them retire from city jobs and then make twice the money in the private waste sector!

Until we have a real waste policy, we pay through the nose to ship our trash through low-income nonwhite neighborhoods here on its way to low-income and also rather nonwhite rural areas in PA and VA that have landfill space to spare. Landfills, alas, are not big economic engines for these places. So, yeah, I guess we've got landfill room, but it's not exactly an ecofriendly model we're using. I don't know if it's as bad in other cities in the Northeast, but it's worth checking into.

Most of the above is from my two years with the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance and its allies in the NYC Waste Prevention Coalition--a web search will turn up more if folks are interested.

Posted by: dave cutler on 12 Aug 05

It seems that co-dependence to our energy/waste addiction is the main purpose of the NY Times & other mainstream media.

How much digging would it take for a reporter to find the problems with this rosy scenario?

Perhaps a glance over at the business page where the price of a barrel of oil has topped $66, and the realization that the major cost to the garbage "industry" is transportation.

Or perhaps a quick Google search, which would find several news stories in recent weeks about localities running out of space. For example:

Capri: The island drowning in a sea of rubbish
As the streets and picturesque piazzas are overwhelmed, local officials have taken the drastic step of demanding all tourists be banned until the crisis is solved. But the underlying cause of the problem remains a subject for heated debate, as John Phillips reports (The UK Independent)

Posted by: Bart Anderson on 13 Aug 05

These good comments beautifully illustrate the main point of this piece: that the simple argument of "we're running out of landfill space" is not sufficient, because technology is creating increasing amounts of space (in the US) at unchanging cost. One needs a more sophisticated analysis, which these commentators (and many others, in other places) have pointed toward. Thank you.

In the US, and worldwide, there is a huge garbage problem (or set of problems) of course ... indeed, all waste problems, from nano to CO2, could be called garbage problems. The only point of the NYT piece, which I find credible, is that landfill space in the US is not one of them.

Posted by: Alan AtKisson on 14 Aug 05

I imagine that in time a huge amount of stuff will be in americas dumps and that the tech will exist to extract it cheaply. At that point we will be very glad of em I think.

Posted by: wintermane on 14 Aug 05



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