Every American on average produces 25 pounds of trash per week, which means in national terms that 150 million tons of garbage have to go somewhere.
Solutions to this garbage crisis have included shipping it out, burning it up or recycling it, according to an article in the current issue of Sports Afield, but each has limitations.Shipping the garbage out resulted in the New York garbage barge fiasco, in which a garbage ship spent 187 days at sea, its cargo refused at sites from North Carolina to Mexico to Belize. A similar fate befell another barge that left Philadelphia laden with 15,000 tons of municipal incineration ash.
Several urban areas in the Northeast and on the West Coast are at present transporting their trash to adjacent, less populous regions.
Conservation groups in Western states have begun to propose stiffer bonding and permitting requirements of waste disposal companies intent on using their states as dumping grounds.
Such measures would allow states to oversee more closely the transporting, processing and dumping of trash, and to have recourse to a cleanup fund in case the waste management companies cause serious environmental damage or go out of business.
Such measures, however, treat the symptoms and not the causes of the waste crisis. Dumps would still have to be built in remote locations.
Because of stricter permitting requirements designed to prevent tainting of groundwater, these new-generation landfills would cost approximately $500,000 per acre. The price hikes - a 57 percent increase in carting costs for some municipalities last year - will be passed on to individuals, directly or in taxes.
Some city planners instead have opted for refuse-to-energy incineration, such as the Wheelabrator Environment Systems facility in Bridgeport, Conn. Up to 2,250 tons of solid waste per day are burned at 2500 degrees Fahrenheit. Superheated steam then drives a turbine generator that produces 58 megawatts of power.
Refuse-to-energy incineration appears to be an attractive option. Incinerators produce dioxin, however, a compound the EPA has called "a probable human carcinogen and reproductive toxicant based on laboratory animal tests."
Modern waste-to-energy incineration plants have sophisticated scrubbers and precipitators to produce a clean emission. The Bridgeport facility emits an average of .017 nanograms of dioxin - a nanogram is a billionth of a gram - per cubic meter of flue gas.
Since no standards have been developed regarding a safe amount of human exposure to dioxin, .017 nanograms could be an inconsequential amount or, over many years, hazardous to the health of communities adjacent to such plants. Nor does anyone know the effect of dioxin when combined with other pollutants.
Another problem is that 12.5 percent of incinerated garbage remains as ash that must be buried somewhere.
None of these options deals with the central issue of the trash crisis - the fact that one-third of all American garbage is packaging. Much of it is unnecessary and almost all of it could be recycled.
Rhode Island, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have already begun mandatory municipal recycling and New York will follow suit by 1992.
Faced with the likelihood of negative incentives for continuing to produce nonrecyclable items, some industries such as the manufacturers of plastics are beginning to develop more environmentally sound technologies.
Twenty percent of plastic soft-drink bottles, made primarily from polyethylene terephthalate, are now recycled.