Garbage in—then what?
June 16, 1988
When I wrote this piece about recycling, I noted that much of what was then being dumped into landfills could be rescued, reclaimed, resold, and reused, but that the best way to deal with solid waste is to produce less of it. Alas, after thirty years, recycling remains unpopular in Illinois, and product redesign to reduce waste in the first place, like they do in much of Europe, hardly exists at all.
For a look at Springfield’s encouragements to citizens to recycle, see here.
“Who would have thought that the most fascinating topic of the 1990s would be garbage?" I smiled at the remark, which came from an editor who hails from greater New York—New Jersey, which has less space in which to put its trash than any state in the U.S., and the Big Apple itself which generates more of it per person than any city in the U.S. A few years ago her assumption that the rest of the country is fascinated with garbage would have seemed parochial. But while New York and New Jersey lead Illinois in the quality of both governors and sports teams, Illinois is rapidly closing the garbage gap. Chicago and environs will be out of landfill space in a few years, and they're even recycling in Rockford. Kevin Greene, lobbyist "in Springfield for the Illinois Environmental Council, predicts that as northeast Illinois runs out of landfill space it will begin shipping it downstate by rail or barge to be landfilled here. "We're going to have garbage wars," he says, not entirely in jest.
It is thus in everyone's interest to reduce the amount of trash that needs to be disposed of. Illinois has already officially adopted waste reduction as its preferred approach to garbage in the recently passed Comprehensive Solid waste Management Act. The spending close of Springfield's only garbage landfill (on the Sangamon River off Sand Hill Road) has stirred local officials to a fever of action as well. Some are reading magazine articles about recycling or going to meetings, while others boldly propose fact-finding missions to Decatur or Peoria to see if anybody there knows what to do. There are only three things any city can do with its garbage. Dig another hole. Burn it. Or make less of it. The first two options are easier, but only the last one makes sense. Much of what gets dumped could be rescued, reclaimed, resold, and reused—newsprint, aluminum beverage cans, glass bottles, "yard waste." The rest can be reduced in volume before it gets to the dump, or manufactured out of recyclable materials. Don't use as much, in short, and reuse what you do.
Of course, waste is what makes the economy run. The stuff that goes out the back door in plastic bags isn't the only waste the typical house produces. The new houses being built on the west side of Springfield are being built to waste energy, for example. And the crap which gets flushed down the toilet contains the same nutrients which the farmer up the road pays hard-borrowed money to have synthesized for him from natural gas and shipped here from Algeria.
I spent an invigorating morning recently with an engineer who specializes in the design of "circular" waste treatment systems. His designs proceed from the premise that goods—clean water, a Pepsi can, a warm bathroom—are not products to be used and discarded but materials which exist in successive forms, all usable. He wondered aloud whether the human brain perceives order in so naturally linear a way that people cannot (as Blake might have put it had he belonged to the Sierra Club) see the world in a discarded bottle.
Myself, I think the bias is cultural, an industrial way of thinking. I must tell a story here on some of my friends. Having some household junk to be discarded, they'd made their first ever trip to the landfill north of town. They didn't like it much, and with reason; a hole into which 170,000 Americans dump their leftovers is bound to be big, ugly, and smelly, the more so when that hole sits in a sylvan river valley. Visiting them a few days later, I joined in a discussion on the familiar topic, Why Are Things Like That Allowed?
While we talked, I drank imported beer provided generously by my hosts, a brand available in Springfield only in nonreturnable glass bottles. By the time I finished my tipsy disquisition—after three beers I even convince myself—the local solid waste stream was flowing measurably fuller. Each empty bottle had been quickly "cleaned up" and dropped into a plastic bag which would eventually add to the profit of and speed the demise of the local landfill.
The impending landfill crisis thus begins not in the statehouse or the offices of the Illinois EPA but in the kitchens and dining rooms of Illinois. When one chooses a certain beer one chooses a certain kind of world. (In this case one with lots of glass bottles buried in it.) Trash doesn't become a problem when it is discarded, it is a problem when it is purchased; change purchases and you change the problem. Stacks of bundled newspapers are the virgin forests of urbanized late 20th century America, and crushed aluminum cans the only untapped ores we have left. The questions facing us for the rest of the century is not how to get rid of them, but how to exploit them.
Unhappily making environmentally responsible choices in an economy which caters to the most common denomination means giving up some personal convenience. You must give up your favorite beer because it is not sold in returnables, or you must add a trip to a recycling center to an already crowded list of Saturday errands. Few people are willing to do either. After all, people are appalled by landfills only once in a while but they are self-indulgent all the time.
Fortunately human conduct is reformable even if human impulses are not. For example, waste is artificially cheap. The cost of nonreturnable containers does not reflect the true social cost of making, transporting, and disposing of them. Taxes and/or deposits can be imposed on their use, both to deter their use (by making them more expensive) and to capture revenues to ameliorate those social costs (by funding pollution abatement programs, for example). Using price to dry up waste streams can get tricky however. In New York State, unredeemed beverage container deposits now amount to something like $50 million, which is the price New Yorkers are willing to pay to not be bothered. Make the return on redeemed recyclables too high, however, and trash becomes a tempting target for street thieves and worse.
Partly because of such problems, the garbage bills being talked about in Illinois include the threat of compulsion as a compliance mechanism. That compulsion may be visited upon municipalities (which must pay higher dumping fees at regional landfills unless they have recycling programs) or landfill operators (which are not allowed to accept certain recyclable wastes like leaves). Individual householders in several states are or soon will be required to separate recyclables from the rest of their trash before pickup; mixed garbage will simply be left uncollected by authorities.
Under such a system uncollected trash is likely to be deposited mysteriously in neighbors' bins or alongside roads by resentful libertarians; garbage collectors may become rich from bribes. When it is indulged without any sense of obligation to the community, the cherished American freedom from civic compulsion is little more than the freedom of a child recklessly at play. The public is eventually compelled to protect itself from itself. "Are we ready for garbage police?" asked a writer to the Tribune the other day; the answer is, we'd better be. In some Japanese cities you must label your garbage as yours, so idolaters who don't separate can be traced and fined.
The best government is not one which governs least but which is needed least. Alas, lots of government will be needed to accomplish any of the serious waste reduction measures so far proposed: bans on non-biodegradable plastics in favor of recyclable plastics or no plastics at all; limits on use of display packaging; refundable deposits paid on problematic products like batteries and cars to spur their return to designated collection centers; mandated proportions of secondary (recycled) material to be used as feedstock in certain products; standards for product durability, including the redesign of basic appliances with standardized, disassemblable parts which can be salvaged and reused.
Such steps will reduce the potential toxicity of municipal landfills, but their ultimate benefit may be economic. We spend vast resources of energy, manpower, and material doing what doesn't need doing and doing it in the least efficient way. (Throwaway cameras! Fast food!) The U.S. leads the world in the production of cardboard bubble-boards and throwaway diapers while it buys its steel and its cars and its consumer electronics from abroad. It is no accident that the nations which are so far ahead of the U.S. in solid waste regulation—Japan, Scandinavia, France—also tend to outperform the U.S. economically. This is not specifically the result of the profitable recovery and reuse of "waste" materials (although the returns are substantial) but of the generalized efficiency ethic at work throughout their production and marketing systems.
America used to be too rich to bother. It isn't anymore, which is why a few people may finally listen to the kind of advice contained in studies such as "Solid Waste Management Alternatives," prepared by Elliott Zimmerman of the state's Department of Energy and Natural Resources. "While the solid waste problem in Illinois is serious, it has not yet [become]...as critical as in, for example, New Jersey, where the severity of the problem has produced public demands for Draconian measures," Zimmerman notes. 'There is still time in Illinois to study the costs and benefits of different waste reduction policies . . . before the severity of the problem forecloses many of the options still available." □