One Garbage Barge Story Started the Rumors
The idea that we are running out of landfill space can be traced
to the spring of 1987 when a garbage barge named Mobro 4000 spent
two months and 6,000 miles touring the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of
Mexico looking for a home for its load (Miller 2000, 1–14). "Mobro
set off in March 1987 with 3200 tons of New York trash, originally
intended for a cheap landfill in Louisiana. Hoping to cut transportation
costs, the entrepreneur behind the Mobro’s voyage attempted
to interest Jones County, North Carolina, in accepting the trash.
But Mobro pulled into Morehead City, North Carolina, before the
deal could be finalized, causing local officials to wonder: “What’s
the rush?” They said “no thanks,” and word soon got around, leading
to rejection slips everywhere Mobro went, including at the original
site in Louisiana.
Although the physical availability of landfill space was not an
issue, that was not how the situation played out in the press. The
Mobro, said a reporter on a live TV feed from the barge itself,
“really dramatizes the nationwide crisis we face with garbage disposal”
(Bailey 1995, A8). Reports like this managed to turn Mobro’s miseries
into a national cause.
The first actor was the Environmental Defense Fund. John Ruston,
an official with EDF said, “An advertising firm couldn’t have designed
a better vehicle than a garbage barge” (Bailey 1995, A8).
The second set of players were members of the National Solid Waste
Management Association trade group, who were anxious to line up
customers for their expanding landfill capacity during the 1980s.
After Mobro hit the headlines, the organization was widely quoted
as saying that “landfill capacity in North America continues to decline”
(Bailey 1992, A1). Panicked state and local officials began
signing long-term contracts for dump space. The final element in
the mix was the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which
also publicly backed the view that there was a crisis—basing its
judgment on the fact that the number of landfills in the United States
was declining. What the EPA failed to notice was that landfills were
getting bigger much faster, and that total landfill capacity was actually
Number of Landfills Were Cited Instead of Capacity
The EPA, the press, and a variety of other commentators focused on
the number of landfills, rather than on their capacity, which was
growing rapidly, and concluded that we were running out of space.
J. Winston Porter, the EPA Assistant Administrator responsible for
that agency’s role in creating the appearance of a garbage crisis, has
since admitted that the key EPA study was flawed because it counted
landfills rather than landfill capacity, and it also underestimated the
prospects for creating additional capacity. Allen Geswein, an EPA
official and one of the authors of the EPA study, remarked, “I’ve always
wondered where that crap about a landfill-capacity crisis came
from” (Bailey 1995, A8).
Even though the United States is larger and more affluent and
producing more garbage, it now has more landfill capacity than ever
before, according to the National Solid Waste Management Association
(NSWMA). By the mid-1990s, nationwide landfill capacity stood
at about 14 years and by 2001 capacity had risen to more than 18
years (EPA 2002; National Solid Waste Management Association 2002).
To be sure, there are a few places like New Jersey where capacity
has shrunk. But the uneven distribution of available landfill space is
no more important than is the uneven distribution of automobile
manufacturing: Garbage has become an interstate business, with 47
states exporting the stuff and 45 importing it.
Calculations on Waste Production and Landfill Capacity
"Various authors have calculated just how much space it would
take to accommodate America’s garbage. The answer is: not much.
If we permitted the rubbish to reach the height it did at New York’s
Fresh Kills site (255 feet), a landfill that would hold all of America’s
garbage for the next century would be only about 10 miles on a side
(Lomborg 2001, 207). To be more colorful, Ted Turner’s Flying D ranch
outside Bozeman, Montana, could handle all of America’s trash for
the next century—with 50,000 acres left over for his bison.
The point is not that we should foolishly bury the Flying D in
household waste: Both transportation costs and a spectacular piece
of real estate would be conserved if the trash were deposited closer
to its points of origin. The point is that far more rubbish than is
worth considering will fit into far less space than is worth worrying
John Tierney wrote in the New York Yimes, "A. Clark Wiseman, an economist at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., has calculated that if Americans keep generating garbage at current rates for 1,000 years, and if all their garbage is put in a landfill 100 yards deep, by the year 3000 this national garbage heap will fill a square piece of land 35 miles on each side. This doesn't seem a huge imposition in a country the size of America. The garbage would occupy only 5 percent of the area needed for the national array of solar panels proposed by environmentalists. The millennial landfill would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the range land now available for grazing in the continental United States. And if it still pains you to think of depriving posterity of that 35-mile square, remember that the loss will be only temporary. Eventually, like previous landfills, the mounds of trash will be covered with grass and become a minuscule addition to the nation's 150,000 square miles of parkland."
Landfill. (2008, February 13). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:39, February 17, 2008, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Landfill&oldid=191076239
Environmental Protection Agency. 1990. Regulatory Impact Analysis for the Final Criteria for Municipal Solid Waste Landfills. Washington, DC: EPA, Office of Solid Waste.
1991. Addendum to the Regulatory Impact Analysis for the Final Criteria for Municipal Solid Waste Landfills. Washington, DC: EPA, Office of Solid Waste.
National Solid Waste Management Association. 2002. Landfill Capacity: How Much is Left in the United States? Washington, DC.
The Skeptical Environmentalist By Bjorn Lombor
- Recycling Is Garbage The New York Times, June 30, 1996, by John Tierney
- Eight Great Myths of Recycling Daniel K. Benjamin 2003
National Center for Policy Analysis After Privatization, Landfill Crisis Disappeared
- American Society of Civil Engineers Report Card for America's Infrastructure
- Bailey, Jeff. 1992. Economics of Trash Shift as Cities Learn Dumps Aren’t So Full. Wall Street Journal, June 2.
- Miller, Benjamin. 2000. Fat of the Land: Garbage of New York the Last Two Hundred Years. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows.
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