Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Giant Piles of Garbage

I hate to break it to you all, but waste management in this country is just that-- the management of waste. It's been likened to a shell game; we move piles of garbage from one place to another. Every year, the garbage trucks have to drive a little farther out to find a place to pile up all the trash we generate; in fact, the EPA estimates that all the landfills in the Chicago area will be full within the next 5-7 years. Cities like New York are already facing the space crunch; they sent out a "garbage barge" a few years back, with the intent of making their garbage someone else's problem. The barge circumnavigated the globe, and since no one was willing to take New York's trash, it wound up right back in New York.

According to the 2006 EPA report on the subject, of the 251 million tons of waste we generate each year (that's roughly 4 1/2 pounds of garbage per person per day), a full 55% of that was discarded. Only 32.5% was recovered (recycled), and a mere 12.5% was burned and the byproducts of combustion recovered as energy. We used to burn a lot of our garbage, but the gases and fumes that resulted were not properly filtered or recaptured, and the air pollution levels forced us to find another way. Many of the old incinerators in this city are now used as sorting facilities for our single-stream recycling program; city workers separate the materials that have been designated for recycling.

Our current method of waste management is to dump garbage into what they call "sanitary landfills". It sounds like an oxymoron, but basically all it means is that, once the landfill is full, it is covered with dirt. Out of sight, out of mind, right? Not necessarily. Old sanitary landfills are everywhere-- even if they no longer look or smell like landfills, it's hard for me not to call them what they are-- giant piles of garbage.

For example: those "mountains" along the Bishop Ford freeway into Indiana? They're not hills-- this is Illinois!-- they're covered mounds of trash. Ditto for the hilly landscape around Calumet City. The Brickyard Mall was built over a filled-in garbage pit, a large clay pit that was originally used in the making of bricks, hence the name. While that sounds like a good use for a former landfill site, the mall had to be closed down a few years back and was ultimately rebuilt, because the trash upon which the foundation was laid settled and compromised the structural integrity of the building. I'm not sure, but I suspect that the massive hill in the park across the street from me-- the one cross country runners dread-- was also created from garbage. And the popular sledding hill in the ritzy community of Evanston? The locals who remember call it "Mount Trashmore"-- it is aptly named.

We've become an undeniably "throwaway" society, but how do we reverse the waste and recovery percentages and slow the formation of these giant piles of garbage? There's not a single answer to that question; it will require a multi-faceted approach and the full cooperation of the American people to turn those numbers around. It will undoubtedly take time, but the effort is becoming increasingly necessary. Can you imagine what future civilizations will think of us when they excavate mound after mound of trash? I shudder at the thought.

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