Face it. We're a nation obsessed with trash - trashy novels, trashy tabloids - even trashy TV. Or haven't you seen Geraldo yet?

And then there's the good old-fashioned trash, as in, "Honey, will you please take out the . . . ."In fact, America's burgeoning disposable society leads the world in its production of trash. Between 1970 and 1984 the amount of garbage generated by American households grew by 17 percent - from almost 110 million tons to nearly 133 million tons annually. And America's scrap heap is expected to grow by another 16 percent by the year 2000 to nearly 159 million tons a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

For most people, though, disposing of their refuse is as simple as putting it in a garbage can and setting it out on the curb once a week; or throwing everything in the back of a pickup truck and hauling it to the local landfill.

Unless you're an elected official, in which case getting rid of garbage can be a rather malodorous issue.

The critical nature of the problem was graphically illustrated this past summer with the now famous Islip, N.Y., garbage barge. No one wanted it. As it was rejected by city after city and nation after nation, it became a symbol of a crisis - a growing national trash heap with no place to go.

Local politicians are facing this problem as more and more existing landfills reach capacity and new sites are sought. The public is responding with a loud, "Not in my back yard," or so-called "NIMBY syndrome."

Sam Ghosh, solid waste expert at the University of Utah, said the matter has finally reached the crisis stage. "Nobody wants a landfill next to them, but no matter what we will do there will be a residue."

The EPA has reported each American generates about 25 pounds of trash a week. In Utah, those figures translate to the state producing an estimated 21.5 million tons of garbage yearly. In 1987, Ghosh estimates, 656,500 pounds of trash was dumped in Salt Lake County alone.

With the increasing amount of junk, landfills are filling up in increasing numbers.

Yet city and county officials are facing stiff opposition when they try to obtain sites for new landfills or for the newest alternative - garbage-burning plants. The plants are under attack because health risks of their byproducts - ash and air pollution - are still in question.

While the current trend favors burning the nation's growing garbage heap - usually turning the energy released into steam for resale - that solution has generated considerable controversy in Davis County.

Officials there seized the opportunity to build a burn plant when it appeared inflation-spurred energy costs would allow them to pay the cost of disposing of garbage by selling the steam produced to nearby Hill Air Force Base.

The steam generated, however, was not the kind officials had expected. Instead, a strong opposition group formed and battle lines were drawn.

The plant is now complete and burning garbage. But many things have changed, especially the economic conditions that had painted a rosy cost picture for the project. Now it's a wait-and-see situation, with officials hoping the plant will live up to expectations and produce revenue.

The Davis burn plant has also had serious impacts on two other counties. For Morgan County, it proved to be an alternate solution to finding a new landfill. Morgan now delivers its trash to the Davis burn plant. In Weber County, it nearly proved the undoing of a countywide landfill operation.

Weber County was hit hard by dissension among its cities about three years ago. Smaller cities felt that they were paying an unfair portion of the operating costs for the county landfill, and three of these cities, Harrisville, Pleasant View and Plain City, looked into the possibility of starting their own landfill. Meanwhile, dissatisfied over rising costs and the in-fighting, Roy and Riverdale looked at the possibility of joining the Davis burn-plant operation. Informal discussions were held but never reached fruition.

Weber County resolved its problem by firing the company operating the landfill and signing a new management contract with Browning-Ferris Industries.

Other counties have also wrestled with solving trash disposal dilemmas.

When the Provo City landfill was reaching capacity and a new site was needed, Provo did look at a number of waste-to-energy options and will continue to do so, said Dale Stephenson, the city's sanitation director.

But Stephenson said the technology the city needed wasn't available. Even with waste-to-energy plants, a landfill is needed for disposal of ash and any other byproducts as well as for disposal of non-burnable items, he said.

The city finally leased some 640 acres of state land on the west side of Utah Lake. But before things could even get started, concerned fruit growers from nearby Elberta filed suit to block the project. Many concerns raised in the confrontation have been allayed by the city's commitment to meet strict EPA guidelines due out in January. With the suit now dropped, Stephenson said the city is moving forward in preparing the site to receive its first loads of garbage early next year.

- Summit County faced the dilemma of closing a landfill close to a city and moving it to a more rural location. Commissioner Tom Flinders said the major problem was finding a site that would not have aesthetic impacts.

The site was initially opposed by the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District because a nearby creek feeds into the Weber River system from which the district draws both culinary and irrigation water. District officials were concerned that an improperly controlled landfill could pollute the stream and area groundwater.

Flinders said the county is following current EPA guidelines and will also work within new regulations. A clay liner was installed to protect the groundwater.

- Last month, Wasatch County closed its 20-year-old landfill in Heber. Because the State Division of Wildlife Resources and local residents opposed three proposed landfill sites, county residents are paying about $9 a month to have their garbage trucked 50 miles to a Salt Lake County landfill.

County Commissioner Larry B. Duke said in addition to the problems in siting a new landfill, the county expects to have to pay $250,000 to build one that meets new EPA standards.

Siting new landfills isn't the only problem local jurisdictions face. Existing landfills can sometimes prove just as big a headache.

Seven landfills currently operating in Utah are on EPA's Superfund list, which sets priorities for federal funding for clean-up efforts. Many of these, like the Bay Area Refuse Disposal landfill on the edge of the Great Salt Lake in West Bountiful, need to undergo measures to stop leaking leachate - a nasty brew of chemicals and compounds that is threatening the lake and groundwater.

The EPA proposed new regulations in August that will require existing dumps to install groundwater monitoring systems and implement clean-up measures by 1991. New landfills will be required to have clay and synthetic liners, water drainage systems, a methane gas collection system and better controls for rodents and odor.

Rural Utah governments are likely to be hardest hit by the new regulations. In rural areas, where the nearest ravine or field has served as the town dump for generations, open dumps will either have to be brought into federal compliance or be closed.

"Generally in most of the rural areas there is plenty of land, but they don't have the money and they don't even have the inclination to want to have a landfill. People are just used to throwing it in the wash," said Mary Pat Bock, geologist with the Bureau of Solid and Hazardous Waste.

The new EPA regulations will pinch the pocketbooks of state regulators and local governments. Except for money appropriated under the Superfund program, the federal government doesn't intend to provide funding to help enforce or implement the new regulations.

The Bureau of Solid and Hazardous Waste has documented 115 open dumps and another 36 managed landfills that opened before state regulations went into effect. Only 31 Utah landfills have state permits. Even so, the state's regulations have not been as stiff as those proposed by EPA. However, most local governments have anticipated the new regulations. While regulations haven't required compacted clay or synthetic liners, most new landfills have installed them anyway, said William J. Sinclair, chief of the bureau's permit section.

"The reason for not having tougher regulations is because we have been waiting for what EPA did," he said.

Tight budgets have kept Sinclair and Bock, the only two state officials assigned to monitor Utah's landfills, from implementing a thorough inspection program. Lack of funding has also kept the state from writing a solid waste management plan. Utah is one of the 10 states that does not have such a plan.

To write such a program and have a staff of five inspectors to implement it would cost $250,000. The funding is not likely to be appropriated by the Legislature, which has paid little attention to either regulating garbage disposal or encouraging recycling or waste reduction.

Sinclair said the Legislature has also failed to adequately address the state's landfill inspection system. Currently, only local county health departments check landfills and then usually only if there are complaints. Even if health departments find problems, politics may keep them from enforcing regulations. County commissioners, who usually make decisions about landfills, also control county health department budgets, Bock said.

Salt Lake County is the only county in the state to enact its own landfill regulations. Ted Diamant, county solid and hazardous waste specialist, said the regulations have required liners, water collection systems and a ban on all hazardous wastes at county landfills.

While the government tries to regulate the future and unsettled past of landfills, experts say the nation must learn to deal with garbage with more sophistication. Barring new technology, like an optimistic venture that turns garbage into ethanol in Weber County (see related story on B-2), the options remain: burn, bury, reduce and recycle.

Like the rest of the nation, overall waste reduction may be a difficult challenge in Utah. Reduction in waste means instituting radical changes to a throw-away culture.

Sinclair lays a large part of the blame on the packaging industry. Packaging is now a third of what Americans throw away. Between 1960 and 1986, the amount of packaging in the waste stream increased 56 percent. Meanwhile, efforts to limit packaging have met with failure.

The increase of packaging has also taken on a double threat because of the industry's infatuation with plastics. While convenient, most plastics don't decompose and could remain in landfills for decades. There is also fear that when plastics are burned they give off cancer-causing dioxins.

The other piece of a garbage solution puzzle is recycling. Experts say recycling is more cost-effective than other alternatives. The EPA estimates that only about 10 percent of the nation's garbage is currently recycled. Among Mountain West states, only Colorado enjoys a measurable recycling rate, according to a survey conducted by Newsday. Contrast that to the Japanese and Europeans, who are avid recyclers.

Utah lawmakers have left recycling up to private industry. Sinclair said the only recycling that takes place in the state is linked to incentives like payments for aluminum cans.

Over the past five years Eastern states have rushed to start burning garbage in incinerators, which usually turn the heat generated into steam or electricity. Utah currently has only one such burn plant. A spokeswoman at the National Solid Wastes Management Association said there are 110 burn plants in operation in the United States.

Many believe someday burn plants may be the only way to solve Utah's urban waste woes, while others say the technology imported from Europe wasn't designed for the American waste stream, which usually has more plastics and toxic chemicals. The plants also leave unhealthy pollutants in the air and heavy metals, including lead, in the ash buried in landfills.

Diamant estimates that Salt Lake County may have to begin looking seriously at burn plant technology in about 10 years. The Salt Lake Valley Landfill, which handles most of Salt Lake County waste, is about 90 percent full.