Donald Cell's July 25 Close to Home article, "When a Load of Garbage Is a Good Thing," left readers with the impression that dumping New York City trash in Virginia landfills is safe and economical for the local communities.
Let's be clear: A load of garbage is never a good thing. Today's landfills are not safe. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges that all landfill liners eventually leak and pollute nearby groundwater. Consider:
"Leachate" -- the soup landfills produce -- is highly hazardous when it infiltrates groundwater.
Landfill air emissions are toxic and can increase the risk of cancer. A recent New York study reports that women living near solid-waste landfills where gas is escaping have a four-fold increase in their chance of bladder cancer and leukemia.
Federal rules governing landfill maintenance and closure are not as stringent as Cell would have us believe. They do not, for instance, require care and monitoring beyond 30 years, even though the waste is chemically and biologically active for longer. Monitoring systems to detect groundwater pollution are inadequate.
Landfills generate odors, dust and blowing trash. They attract birds, increase truck traffic and decrease property values.
Cell points to the "enormous amount of available space [for landfilling] in Virginia and the rest of the country." But he doesn't mention that transporting waste from urban areas to the far-away countryside means more garbage trucks on the road -- an unsafe proposition. When Pennsylvania did a surprise inspection of trash trucks, it found more than 100 violations. Dozens were so serious that the trucks were not allowed back on the road until repairs were made.
We bury or burn 155 million tons of garbage a year, but we displace billions of tons of virgin materials to make our products. The extraction and processing of raw materials -- via mines, smelters, petroleum refineries, chemical plants, logging operations and pulp mills -- have devastating environmental consequences. Air and water pollution, toxic waste, global warming, deforestation, loss of biological diversity, soil erosion and damaged ecosystems are symptoms of our profligate materials production and consumption.
Fortunately, recycling and other waste-reduction alternatives to landfills have come of age. National recycling levels have almost tripled since 1980. At the local level, many communities are setting records, surpassing 50 percent and even 60 percent waste-reduction levels; hundreds of businesses have approached 90 percent recycling rates.
Recycling reduces the need for new landfills, prevents emissions of many air and water pollutants, saves energy and conserves resources for future generations. It also supplies valuable raw materials to industry, creates jobs and stimulates the development of greener technologies.
On a per-ton basis, for every job created at a landfill, recycling sustains 10 more jobs just through sorting materials. The largest payoff in the recycling loop is making new products from the old. Some recycling-based manufacturers sustain 60 times more jobs than do landfills.
Virginia counties should demand higher standards for improving their quality of life. Sustainable recycling is a win-win proposition over dangerous landfills. Charles County should find a better way to finance schools than compromising its residents' health. At the federal level, Congress should give states the authority to ban out-of-state waste in order to focus on in-state solutions. Waste -- which is the result of inefficient commerce -- should not be accorded the same rights as commerce. Our goal should be a zero-waste economy or darn close to it.
-- Brenda A. Platt
is director of materials recovery for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.