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Sunday, September 30, 2007

A different myth busted

On another environmental front, the garbage we produce is another area full of assumptions. One of the greatest of these is the amount of plastic and disposable diapers that, we are told, are filling out landfills excessively, and the idea that we're running out of landfill space. Problem was, for years no one actually bothered to compare perception to reality. Many still don't bother, however The Garbology Project was developed specifically to rectify the problem. Here's some of what they found.

In contrast to all of the concern directed at fast food packaging and disposable diapers, the archaeological data demonstrated that both items together accounted for less than 2 percent of landfill volume within refuse deposited over the last ten years. Even more surprisingly, because of industry-wide “light-weighting” -- that is, making the same form of item but with less resin -- plastic grocery bags had become thinner and more crushable to the point that 100 plastic bags consumed less space inside a landfill than 20 paper bags. If all three items at the center of public concern had been banned and were not replaced by anything, the garbage archaeologists were certain that landfill managers would not have noticed the difference.

At the opposite end of the contents’ spectrum were materials that occupied large portions of landfill space but received little public attention. Construction/demolition debris (C/D) was one. Because of definitional issues, C/D was not even included in the EPA’s national estimates of the refuse that goes to MSW (municipal solid waste, or standard community refuse) landfills. Like the EPA, the Garbage Project tried to avoid the issue of C/D in MSW landfills. In fact, the Garbage Project’s one sampling bias was an attempt to avoid areas where C/D was concentrated because it could easily disable expensive drilling equipment. Nevertheless, C/D accounted for 20 percent or more of excavated MSW by volume and was the second largest category of landfilled materials recovered by the Garbage Project. The largest category occupying landfill space was paper. This was true for refuse buried in the 1980s as well as for refuse dating as far back as the 1950s because in most landfills paper seemed to biodegrade very slowly. As a result, by volume nearly half of all of the refuse excavated by the Garbage Project has been newspapers, magazines, packaging paper and non-packaging paper, such as computer printouts and phonebooks.

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