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Landfills Essay, Research Paper

Fact is more ominous than fiction It has long been believed

that the largest entity brought upon the Earth by humankind

is the Pyramid of the Sun, constructed in Mexico around the

start of the Christian era. The mammoth structure commands

nearly thirty million cubic feet of space. In contrast,

however, is the Durham Road Landfill, outside San Francisco,

which occupies over seventy million cubic feet of the

biosphere. It is a sad monument, indeed, to the excesses of

modern society . One might assume such a monstrous mound of

garbage is the largest thing ever produced by human hands.

Unhappily, this is not the case. The Fresh Kills Landfill,

located on Staten Island, is the largest landfill in the

world. It sports an elevation of 155 feet, an estimated mass

of 100 million tons, and a volume of 2.9 billion cubic feet.

In total acreage, it is equal to 16,000 baseball diamonds .

By the year 2005, when the landfill is projected to close,

its elevation will reach 505 feet above sea level, making

it the highest point along the Eastern Seaboard, Florida to

Maine. At that height, the mound will constitute a hazard to

air traffic at Newark airport . Fresh Kills was originally a

tidal marsh. In 1948, New York City planner Robert Moses

developed a highly praised project to deposit municipal

garbage in the swamp until the level of the land was above

sea level. A study of the area predicted the marsh would be

filled by the year 1968. He then planned to develop the

area, building houses and attracting light industry. Mayor

Impelliteri issued a report titled “The Fresh Kills Landfill

Project” in 1951. The report stated, in part, that the

enterprise “cannot fail to affect constructively a wide area

around it.” The report ended by stating, “It is at once

practical and idealistic” . One must appreciate the irony in

the fact that Robert Moses was, in his day, considered a

leading conservationist. His major accomplishments include

asphalt parking lots throughout the New York metro area,

paved roads in and out of city parks, and development of

Jones Beach, now the most polluted, dirty, overcrowded piece

of shoreline in the Northeast. In Stewart Udall’s book The

Quiet Crisis, the former Secretary of the Interior lavishes

praise on Moses. The JFK cabinet member calls Jones Beach

“an imaginative solution ……the answer to the

ever-present problems of overcrowding” . JFK’s introduction

to the book provides this foreboding passage: “Each

generation must deal anew with the raiders, with the

scramble to use public resources for private profit, and

with the tendency to prefer short-run profits to long-run

necessities. The crisis may be quiet, but it is urgent” .

Oddly, the subject of landfills is never broached in Udall’s

book; in 1963, the issue was, in fact, 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 covered daily with clay or synthetic foam.

The modern landfill is lined with multiple, impermeable

layers of clay, sand, and plastic before any garbage is

deposited. This liner prevents liquids, called leachates,

from percolating into the groundwater. Leachates result from

rain water mixing with fluids in the garbage, making a

highly toxic “juice” containing inks, heavy metals, and

other poisonous compounds. Ideally, leachates are pumped up

from collection points along the bottom of the landfill and

either shipped to liquid waste disposal points or

re-introduced into the upper layers of garbage, to resume

the cycle. Unfortunately, most landfills have no 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 in this country are unlined. Many are

located in close proximity to aquifers or other groundwater

features, or near geologically unstable sites. Many older

landfills are leaching toxins into our water supply at this

very moment, with no way to stop them. For example, the

Fresh Kills landfill leaks an estimated one million gallons

of toxic ooze into the surrounding water table every day .

Sanitary landfills do offer certain advantages. Offensive

odors, the mainstay of the old city dump, are dramatically

reduced by the daily cover of clay or other material. Vermin

and insects, both of the terrestrial and airborne varieties,

are denied a free meal and the opportunity to spread

disease, by the daily clay layer. Furthermore, modern

landfills are less of an eyesore than their counterparts of

yore. However, the causality of these positive affects are

the very reasons for some of the significant drawbacks to

landfills . The daily compacting and covering of the garbage

deposits effectively squeezes the available oxygen out of

the material. Whatever aerobic bacteria are present in the

garbage are soon suffocated and decomposition stops.

Anaerobic bacteria, by their very nature, are not present in

appreciable numbers in our biosphere. What few manage to

enter and survive in the garbage deposits are slow-acting

and perform little in the way of breaking down the

materials. In other words, rather than the giant compost

heap most people imagine, a landfill is actually a huge

mummification center. Hot dogs and bananas, decades old,

have been recovered from landfills, still recognizable in

their mummified splendor . What little decomposition does

occur in landfills generates vast amounts of methane gas,

one of the significant greenhouse effect gasses. Some

landfills have built-in processes to reclaim the methane.

The Fresh Kills landfill pipes methane gas directly into

thousands of homes, but in most instances, the gas is either

burned off or leaked directly into the atmosphere. Based on

ice core samples from Antarctica, the methane concentration

in the Earth’s atmosphere, over the past 160,000 years, has

fluctuated between 0.3 and 0.7 parts per million. In 1987,

the methane count was 1.7 ppm . The modern landfill is not

alone in its defiance of decomposition. The excavation in

1884 of an ancient Roman dump had to be halted periodically

so the workers could get fresh air, so unbearable was the

stench from the still-extant refuse . In today’s landfills,

decomposition is negligible. While the total tonnage of

garbage decreases over years, due mostly to dessication, the

volume varies less than ten percent. Most of the actual

short-term rotting is from scraps of prepared food. Plastics

biodegrade not at all. Biodegradable plastic is an oxymoron

at best; the most unstable plastic requires intense sunlight

to decompose, and sunlight is denied in a sanitary landfill.

Newspapers from before World War Two are still readable;

they have, in fact, become important date markers for

scientists examining garbage strata in landfills . The

public is sadly misinformed as to what comprises the bulk of

municipal garbage. A typical survey shows that the average

American sees the disposable diaper as the number one

culprit for the premature closing of our landfills. This is

a sad and costly misconception. According to the most recent

scientific studies, disposable diapers account for only 0.53

to 1.28 percent of all landfill deposits, by volume . If

burning garbage and dumping garbage at sea are unacceptable,

what are the alternatives? Of the landfills, sanitary and

otherwise, open for business in 1979, 85 percent are now

closed . Where is all the garbage going? Some municipalities

are shipping garbage to other cities, or even other states,

a costly proposition. Larger metropolitan agencies have even

taken to shipping garbage to third world countries, strapped

for cash and eager for the infusion of Yankee dollars. This,

of course, only transfers the problem from one population to

the other. Stories of wandering garbage barges and orphaned

garbage trains have made splashes in American newwpaper

headlines. Covert garbage disposal has become a lucrative

business, as the plethora of medical waste washed up along

the New Jersey shoreline proves. These anecdotes, while

shocking and perversely entertaining, are hardly

representative. Recycling really is making a difference.

Newspapers, which used to make up 25 to 40 percent of the

garbage volume of a typical city, are now effectively banned

from household garbage. Aluminum can recycling has become a

profitable sideline, both for economically disadvantaged and

for the average homeowner trying to offset the

ever-increasing cost of garbage collection. 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 to generate electric power

have presented some highly contentious issues. The ash from

such incinerators is normally highly toxic, since it

concentrates existing toxins, and must be disposed of as

such. Citizens object to these plants, in a frenzy of

Not-In-My-Backyard syndrome. A clear-cut answer is

probablynon-existent. Several effective programs, enacted in

unison, will probably lead us to success.

4c7

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.


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