The Garbage Debate

Waste management officials and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say that these modern landfills, unlike the dumps of yesteryear, are built to protect human health and the environment. They are constructed in areas that are not prone to flooding or earthquakes, and they are designed to limit noxious water or air emissions that can cause groundwater contamination or air pollution.

The Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island in New York City is the largest dump in the world. It received approximately 14,000 tons of garbage per day before being shut down in 2001.

The Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island in New York City is the largest dump in the world. It received approximately 14,000 tons of garbage per day before being shut down in 2001.

Most landfills, for example, are lined to prevent dangerous by-products from seeping into surrounding soils and water tables. In many landfills, methane gas and other chemical compounds released as organic parts of the garbage degrade are captured and either destroyed by flaring or used as an energy source. Most modern landfills also do not accept many hazardous substances that once were routinely thrown into dumps.

Critics, however, see modern waste management systems as an inadequate solution to the garbage problem. Environmentalists argue that even the best landfill lining will someday deteriorate and allow toxins to escape into the environment. In addition, according to environmental critics, most of the methane produced by landfills is released into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. Some critics of modern landfills want the entire system of modern garbage disposal to be changed. They charge that by hiding the garbage problem from public view, the current system leads to increasing amounts of garbage in order to boost profits for manufacturers and private waste management companies. They envision a comprehensive, sustainable waste system that limits or prohibits the production of disposable items and excessive packaging, requires product manufacturers to recycle their products, and mandates residential recycling and composting—in order to reduce the amount of waste in the first place.

The garbage situation in less-developed parts of the world is even more of a concern to environmentalists and health experts. Poorer countries often cannot afford trash collection systems or technologically advanced landfills, so mountains of trash build up on residential streets and in open-air dumps, raising health, safety, and environmental issues.

Some developing countries have even begun to import trash from richer nations, increasing their revenue but adding to their garbage woes. Some of this imported trash is so-called e-waste— discarded computers, cell phones, or other technology products —which contains highly toxic heavy metals and other harmful substances. Workers are hired to disassemble and recycle these items, typically with little or no safety or health precautions, exposing them and the environment to dangerous toxins and pollution.

Garbage disposal is therefore a truly global issue with no cheap or easy solutions. Proposals for addressing this age-old problem involve not only better disposal services and policies and the use of new technology, but also movements toward sus-tainability that could bring major changes in the way goods are manufactured, sold, and marketed around the world. New approaches to garbage disposal, most environmental experts agree, will be critical to how economies will function in coming decades and whether governments can or will protect humans and the earth itself.

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