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
[Gore 151]. 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 [Miller 526]. 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 [Rathje 3-4].
Fresh Kills (Kills is from the Dutch word for creek) 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” [Rathje 4]. 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) supreme answer to the ever-present
problems of overcrowding” [Udall 163-4]. 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” [Udall xii]. 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 [Miller 527].
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 [Miller 527]. 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 [Turk and Turk 486]. 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 [Rathje 111-12]. 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 [McKibben 17-17].
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 [Rathje 113]. 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 [Rathje 112-13].
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 [Rathje 162-63].
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 [Miller 527]. 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
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
probably non-existent. Several effective programs, enacted in unison, will
probably lead us to success.
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.