Monday, September 11, 2006

Garbage, Landfills, and Utopia

{Audio this essay @ 2.5mb .mp3} I recently read that each American generates about 4.5 pounds per day, per person of trash. (This is an EPA statistic.) In 2003, Americans generated 236 million tons of garbage. No doubt it's even more now, if toy security measures are any indication. Landfills received 130 million tons of it, which if piled onto a football field, would extend 703 miles into the sky [1]. I find this an odd image when I try to imagine it.

Admittedly, garbage is tricky problem, since things only degrade so fast, and we have only limited space on the planet. An 80/20 curve is often found in nature, and the nature of our garbage is no exception: Around 80 percent of our nation's garbage goes to landfills, but these are rapidly running out of room [2]. At550 tons per day, with a land area of 150 acres, where operations are active on a 100 acres, the lifespan of a landfill is about 20 years, with a post-closure period of 30 years [3].

Some garbage can be recycled, of course, but it takes energy to convert trash from one form to another. Also it takes energy just to move and process trash. This is why shooting it all into the sun isn't going to happen anytime soon. it would be nice if the conversion or processing components could be mangaged to advantage.

Lucie County, Florida thinks it can convert all of its trash by vaporizing it and using the energy produced to power the turbines of an orange juice production plant. From now on, I'll be thinking new thoughts when gulping a Tropicana product.

Geoplasma, the Atlanta-based company that will construct the plant for the county, is giving the typically rosy predictions: "No byproduct will go unused. [....] This is sustainability in its truest and finest form" [1].

Technology always has a way of underperforming the predictions of its advocates, especially big civil projects, like the international space station or even better: The Big Dig tunnel of Boston, which, as wikipedia summarizes nicely:

"[T]the project was estimated at $2.5 billion in 1985, over $14.6 billion had been spent in federal and state tax dollars as of 2006. The project has been replete with delays, arrests, escalating costs, leaks, poor execution and use of substandard materials. The Massachusetts Attorney General is demanding contractors refund taxpayers $108 million for 'shoddy work'" [4].
Somehow, I'm guessing the energy output and emissions will not live up to expectations. Maybe the Florida Attorney General should get together with the Massachusetts Attorney General over a beer for an early planning session. Clearly that would be an efficient investment of state tax monies.


[1] "Florida county plans to vaporize landfill trash" USA Today (Accessed September 10, 2006)

[2] "Garbage -- Hazarous Waste" (Accessed September 10, 2006)

[3] "Solid Waste Recycling Costs" Reason Foundation: Policy Study #19 (Accessed September 11, 2006)

[4]"Big Dig" Wikipedia (Accessed September 10, 2006)



At 12:50 PM, Anonymous JCM said...

As long as Kentucky is a state, there will be ample room for disposing of garbage...

I can remember making many trips to the local dumb growing up (working for my father)and it is amazing what one will find and see there. If you have never been, I recommend it as a family outing, or at a minimum a drive by!


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