Progress is never without a price. What we gain on one hand we lose on another. The hope is that when the dust has settled the gains outweigh the losses. The manufacturers of buggy whips didn’t want to go out of business when the automobile arrived on the market. They fought to maintain their market share, and dismissed the automobile as a fad that would pass. It did not pass however, and transportation was revolutionized. The same holds true for manufacturers of vacuum tubes, 8-tracks, VHS tapes, floppy discs, and the list goes on and on. With each leap forward we leave the old way of doing something behind so that we may move onto the better way that technological advance allows us to enjoy.
Since humans have been walking the earth we have been digging holes and burying our trash in them. The basic technique has not changed for thousands of years. You would be challenged to find an industry that has been around longer than the landfill industry. The way we bury has changed a bit since ancient time. We use liners, we mine methane, and we try to mitigate ground water contamination. But the basics are still the same. Dig a hole, fill it with garbage, then cover the hole.
There are more than 3,000 landfills operating in the United States. These landfills are operating under current EPA standards that try to minimize ground water contamination. There are over 50,000 closed landfills that meet no such requirements and have been potentially contaminating ground water for decades. The California State Department of Health estimated that 67% of these old landfills are emitting toxic solvents and gases. The California State Water Resources Control Board found that 83% of these old landfills contaminate ground water supplies.
So, with all the nasty things that go along with landfills, why do we still continue to bury our trash? The answer is two-fold. Just as the buggy whip manufacturers didn’t want to go out of business, neither do the owners and operators of landfills. Cities and towns used to operate their own landfills. From the ‘law of unintended consequences’ bag came the result of the EPA constantly upgrading the requirements governing landfills. Towns and cities began to sell or contract their landfills to private companies. These companies are to quote a landfill manager I spoke with a few months ago, “In the business of burying trash. We’re not interested in anything that will divert that tonnage out of our landfill.” This is where technology meets the buggy whip. Recycling is diverting more tonnage from landfills each year. As a result landfills are fighting back to maintain their tonnage needs. The ability to divert over 90% of the current MSW and C&D going into a landfill into useful products exists today, yet the will is not there because, by and large, communities no longer control the operating landfills. They do control the closed landfills that have long been out of operation. Many of these are off the radar and local officials have no desire to put them ‘on’ the radar and be subject to current EPA standards. A city government official I spoke with a few months ago said, “The EPA doesn’t know about our old landfill so we wouldn’t be interested in emptying it. If they found out about it, it would cost us a fortune.”
We have the ability to not only stop using landfills, but to empty the landfills that dot this country. What we need is the will to do it. With approximately 50,000 closed, old landfills and assuming a typical landfill life span of 40 years, taking in a conservative 65,000 tons per year, valued on the low side at $90 per ton once processed, we have buried treasure of 11.7 trillion dollars beneath our feet. This does not include the trash located and being buried daily in operational landfills today. To process this trash in a 50 year time span would require 4,000 recycling plants employing 900,000 people operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Additionally the health benefits gained by the people living near these old landfills once the landfills are emptied cannot be calculated. It’s time we moved forward. It’s time to lay down the buggy whip that is our antiquated landfill system. It’s time we put people to work. It’s time we really started to recycle our waste, instead of just enough to say we’re doing it.
Guest blog by Don Willis of GreenUSARecycling.com