Sure, a lot of people talk about garbage these days. But for most of us, the talk is comfortably removed from the real thing.
Except for our own personal garbage, the rest of it - the 157 million tons of it produced in the U.S. each year - is just an abstract worry. The mounds of rotting leftovers, the heaps of never-rotting plastic, the possessions we don't want to possess anymore - all accumulate out of sight, as distant from our own lives as the crippled Hubble Space telescope.Unless, you're Dan Davies.
Davies works at the front lines of America's war on garbage. Along with two dozen other employees at the Salt Lake County landfill, he knows firsthand how the United States is running out of room to stash its trash.
Davies, a scalehouse supervisor, thinks of the landfill as "storage space" - the point being that the stuff doesn't really disappear, even though it gets covered over with dirt.
Every day, Salt Lakers dump off another 2,100 tons of it: Watermelon rinds, shredded paper, rolls of used carpet, old water heaters, bags of lawn clippings, the flotsam and jetsam of daily life.
"We're riding on eight or 10 feet of trash right now," explains Davies as he eases his truck over one of the dirt roads that crisscross the landfill. Over to the right, in a little valley, a gang of seagulls swoops down to enjoy some fresh garbage.
By nightfall the new stuff will have been covered with dirt, too. Any rats - also looking for a free meal - will be entombed, says Davies.
By next spring, after hundreds of additional layers of trash and dirt and rats, the valley will have become a little mountain, its precise shape sculpted according to maps designed by landfill engineers.
With an annual garbage growth of 5 percent, it's expected that the landfill will run out of room in 25 years; sooner if Utah hosts the Winter Olympics.
Every day, Davies says, he sees people dumping items that could have been reused, restored or recycled. He's seen fiberglass canoes, brand-new toys, confiscated liquor, stereo equipment, TVs, truck loads of ice-cream and enough produce to feed the hungry.
Once he watched as a fast-food restaurant unloaded seven tons of cooked potatoes - because they didn't contain enough sugar to brown properly.
"Before I worked out here, I didn't give garbage 10 minutes thought," Davies admits. "So I can't fault the ordinary citizen for not thinking about it either. But that doesn't mean I can't give some words of encouragement now and then."
Under the direction of landfill recycling coordinator Joyce Leach, those words of encouragement will be released later this month in a brochure, produced under the auspices of the Solid Waste Management Council, the Utah State University Extension Service and Project 2000.
It will include lists of recycling centers and motor oil drop-off sites, tips regarding hazardous wastes, lists of places that sell recycled products as well as instructions for composting.
Currently, yard waste - leaves, twigs, mowed grass - make up 18 percent of the Salt Lake County Landfill. That's 18 percent that doesn't really need to come to the landfill, says Leach. Unlike old appliances and mattresses, yard waste can be composted right in a homeowner's backyard. (See box.)
This fall the landfill is also offering another alternative. Salt Lake City residents who prefer not to make compost piles in their yards can bag their leaves and send them with their weekly garbage to the landfill - where they will be composted by the county. (The bags, available at cost, are supplied by Dan's Foods and KSL's Take Pride in Utah.)
Some of this landfill compost, once it has successfully decomposed, will be turned back to the public for use in their gardens. A portion of the leaves will become part of the landfill's soils regeneration program - added to sewage, the leaves will become topsoil for the landfill itself. Eventually the landfill's garbage mountains will be covered with native plants and will be turned into a bird refuge.
The Solid Waste Management Council is looking for volunteers to help spread the word about composting, recycling and other steps consumers can take to slow down the filling up of the landfill.
People who are interested in presenting programs to neighborhood and community groups can contact the Solid Waste Management Council at 562-6429.
Instead of bagging your leaves this fall, try composting them, suggests the Salt Lake Valley Solid Waste Management Council. You'll save valuable landfill space as well as time and money, says the council, by taking the following steps:
1. Rake leaves and pile them into a clear area.
2. When you have about a bushel, sprinkle with about 1 1/2 cups of nitrogen-rich fertilizer.
3. Moisten the leaves with water.
4. Turn the pile over every three weeks to add oxygen. Odors will not develop if the pile is turned often enough.
Within a few months the pile will become rich, crumbly compost, which will increase the workability of your soil and return essential nutrients to your yard. Or you can till the leaves into your garden, where they will compost themselves by spring.