You’ve probably seen it on the television news more than once — this bargeload of garbage looking for a place up and down the east and gulf coast to dump 3,100 tons of fly-infested waste products. Six states and three foreign countries rejected the owner’s entreaties, before the barge was allowed to return home to an enlarged landfill in Islip, Long Island.
The barge without a dump focused the attention of millions of people on the waste disposal crisis in America. With landfills filling up and growing worry about groundwater contamination, the usual way of dumping and forgetting our garbage is coming to an end.
So what is the alternative? The incinerator industry proposes giant “mass-burn resource-recovery” plants with many of them able to consume 3000 tons a day. It wants to build a thousand of these plants in the United States by the turn of the century. An armada of consulting firms, equipment manufacturers, lobbyists are converging on state and local public officials to secure this lucrative business.
As if local communities do not have enough concerns and controversies, the struggle over these incinerators promise to be prolonged and sharp. Environmental health critics are beginning the process of public education so that at least the important questions are asked and answered before contracts are let for these expensive technologies.
The case against even the most modern incinerators is that they create numerous problems in the process of diminishing the landfill crisis. They release airborne pollutants contaminated with thousands of extremely toxic and persistent chemicals, including dioxin. Large amounts of tiny fly ash residues, containing such toxic metals as cadmium, arsenic, lead and mercury, will fill the air. The bottom ash, also dangerous and representing 20 to 30 percent of the original solid waste, still must be disposed, often in landfills.
In Western Europe, where incinerators have been more widely used than in the U.S. and where doubts are being expressed about their advisability, the sources of incineration pollution have been associated with widespread contamination of soil, water, fish, human flesh and dairy products. The tragic irony is that in disposing of garbage through incineration, a society is filling the lungs and bodies of its people with some of the most deadly components of this waste. No other animal performs this feat.
The selling of incinerators is also based on the steam and electricity that many of these installations would generate. This is also supposed to help pay back some of the enormous costs of the investment over several decades. Once again, the price of damage to human health is rarely calculated in the original cost-benefit analyses.
There is a better way to deal with society’s garbage, but it takes more self-discipline for us all. First, reduce the amount of garbage. Overpackaging our consumer goods for advertising, style and alleged convenience is big business. Consider this fact: American consumers are charged more dollars for their food packaging then the net income of farmers.
Second, separate the garbage at each household so that it can be more easily recycled or converted into useful materials like compost. Recently, in Rockford, Illinois, the city government established a lottery for residents who participated in separating their glass, cans, paper and food garbage prior to pickup. Japan has an established battery recycling program as an example of a source separation recycling program focused on specific items. Garbage reduction specialists have suggested a variety of deposit/return incentives modelled after state “bottle bills.”
Perhaps most fundamentally is to substitute other materials for the toxic metals now in the products. Dr. Richard Denison of the Environmental Defense Fund told a House of Representatives Subcommittee in March that “substitutes already exist for many applications of lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic.” He observed that the government has already required the reduction or removal of lead used in paint and gasoline at the source.
The last thing American want is to recycle their solid waste garbage into their lungs and stomachs via the gases and chemicals produced by incineration. Readers who want a better way may wish to obtain “A Citizen Organizing Guide to Anti-Incineration Pro-Recycling Campaigns” ($5.00) from the New York Public Interest Research Group, 9 Murray Street, New York, New York 10007.