Hidden Landfills

Today in the developed world, most older open-air dumps are gone, having been cleaned, covered up, or sometimes even turned into parks, housing developments, or commercial areas. And despite the fact that the total amount of garbage has grown substantially, most Americans and people in other developed countries no longer see what happens to their trash. Consequently, many no longer view garbage as a problem. Instead, each week residents fill their trash and recycling containers and watch state-of-the-art city trash trucks empty them and take the contents away. The system seems neat, clean, and orderly. However, the truth is that most of our garbage is still simply being buried in dumps, now called landfills—garbage sites that are well hidden from public view.

Compared to most older city dumps, modern landfills are gigantic, rising multiple levels and sometimes spreading over many thousands of square acres—some approaching the size of Fresh Kills. These new mega-landfills can take in thousands of tons of refuse per day, compared to older dumps, most of which could only handle dozens of tons daily. And the new landfills are no longer owned by cities; instead, these mega-landfills are operated by large, privately owned waste management companies that contract with cities to dispose of their trash. By processing much larger amounts of garbage in each mega-landfill, these companies can achieve economies of scale and reap lucrative profits.

Usually, the landfills are situated in poorer rural areas. Urban garbage is trucked hundreds of miles, often across state lines, before it reaches its final destination. For example, New York City, since the closure of its Fresh Kills dump, has sent its residential garbage to landfills in New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia.

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