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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Talking Trash

Birds fly over the piles of garbage at the Fresh Kills Landfill in 1993. (Image courtesy of the Staten Island Institute Archives.)

John Bos

TRASH Noun: “discarded matter; refuse.” Synonyms: waste · waste material · refuse · litter · garbage · debris · junk · dross · detritus · sweepings · dregs · remains · rubbish.

The biggest environmental cover-up operation in America has to do with where we send or dump our trash on land and at sea.

Throughout the country, subterranean garbage heaps (aka landfills) are rising, fueled by the 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) the U.S. produces each year. According to the EPA, in 2018, half of that trash went to landfills around the country. Worse, yearly MSW production has been steadily climbing, year after year since monitoring first began in the 1960s. The U.S. has never had a national recycling rate (recovered material plus composting) higher than 35% of all its waste.

That includes 22 billion plastic bottles every year. Enough office paper to construct a 12-foot-high wall from Los Angeles to Manhattan. It is 300 laps around the equator in paper and plastic cups, forks, and spoons. It is 500 disposable cups per average American worker – cups that will still be sitting in the landfill five centuries from now.

The average American tosses 4.4 pounds of trash every single day. It may not seem all that astonishing on the surface, but with 332 million people living in the U.S. that is roughly 730,400 tons of garbage each day, enough to fill more than 63,000 garbage trucks.

When I lived in New York City’s SoHo district in the 70s, my young son and I would take the ferry from lower Manhattan over to Staten Island to bike around the island. That was preferable to biking on the decommissioned parts of the old West Side Highway. On one trip, we encountered an entrance to the Fresh Kills Landfill (known as the Staten Island Landfill). The landfill covered 2,200 acres located along the banks of the Fresh Kills estuary on the western side of the island. Dozens of garbage trucks and front loaders crawled over this mountain of trash with thousands of seagulls above them like predators searching for scraps of food.

“Out of sight, out of mind” seems to be the order of the day for most Americans. But major ecological impacts are beginning to be noticed. From hazardous waste to running out of space, we are on our way to being overwhelmed by the growing scarcity and rising cost of landfills in small communities and large cities.

Then there is ocean trash, one of the world’s biggest pollution problems. The numbers are staggering: There are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean. Of that mass, 269,000 tons float on the surface, while some four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer litter the deep sea. But that’s not all.

One can only wonder what the environmental impacts are on the oceans that swallow shipping containers that tumble from ships in heavy seas. According to the World Shipping Council, this amounted to an annual average of 779 over board containers between 2017 and 2019.

This is not the only source of ocean pollution. New York City once used to transport and dump its municipal sludge (treated material from the city’s 14 water treatment plants) into the Atlantic Ocean. This was stopped in June 1992, marking the cessation of this method of waste management by all cities in America.

I have only touched the surface (no pun intended) of everything that is being dumped into our oceans. The unmentioned “trash” includes everything from downed military aircraft and ships from many wars to the dropping of 2,580 out-of-service subway cars by the NYC Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) into the Atlantic Ocean from 2001 to 2010 off the coasts of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia to create artificial reefs.

A 1970 “Report to the President from the Council on Environmental Quality” on ocean dumping reported that in 1968 the following was dumped in the ocean in the U.S.: 38 million tons of dredged material (34 percent of which was polluted), 4.5 million tons of industrial wastes, 4.5 million tons of sewage sludge (significantly contaminated with heavy metals), and 0.5 million tons of construction and demolition debris.

Coming ashore, I don’t have the space to describe the similar impacts of the 3,091 active landfills in 2020 in the U.S. and the over 10,000 old municipal landfills monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency.

My research for this article took me to Hope Jahren’s book The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here. She investigates the connection between our climate crisis and our global population’s insatiable desire to consume. Published in 2020, The Story of More is part scientific study and part memoir. In it, Jahren examines the 50-year timeline between her birth in 1969 and the present day. Jahren argues that our current population consumes far more resources than our ancestors ever did and that these skyrocketing rates of consumption have led to global environmental destruction and climatological change.

Of interest to readers of Green Energy Times may be Jahren’s Chapter 10 in which she discusses the amount of energy that first world countries consume. She notes that we are so used to the presence of electricity that we take it for granted, forgetting that on a minute-by-minute basis we rely on electricity to assist with almost every task.

And finally, does anyone believe enough Americans would dial back the comfortable, convenient, consumer intensive lifestyles fueled by our dependence upon fossil fuels to reverse our catastrophic climate crisis?

John Bos is a contributing writer for Green Energy Times. His bi-weekly column “Connecting the Dots” is published every other Saturday in the Greenfield Recorder. He is the editor of a new children’s book After the Race. Questions and comments are invited at john01370@gmail.com.

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