I’m dating myself here, but as child growing up in the late 1950s, I remember my mother carefully wrapping the garbage (food wastes) in newspapers every night and putting them in the garbage can by the garage. A company emptied it every week. Boy did it stink!
We put trash (bottles, cans, excess wire coat hangers, broken toys, and the like) in a different can by the garage, and a different company hauled it off. We did not throw out pop bottles; we had to pay a deposit on them, so we returned the empties to the store. As for waste paper, it was my job to empty the waste baskets from time to time into an incinerator and watch over it while it burned.
I suppose that was common all over the country. In 1961, Sam Yorty became mayor of Los Angeles. As part of his campaign, he promised to eliminate the necessity of separating wet and dry garbage. Actually, since the county had banned backyard incineration in 1957, citizens of Los Angeles had to deal with three different collections.
Of course, I have no recollection of Yorty; I grew up in Ohio. Somehow, though, the idea of a single collection of all refuse became the national norm. At some point, my home town also banned backyard incineration. I recall how strange it felt to mingle waste paper, cans, and food waste in the same trash can.
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Ironically, the environmental movement began before the end of the decade. After the first Earth Day, in 1970, recycling became a mainstream idea, but not yet a mainstream practice. Perhaps older people recalled recycling and conservation as Depression and wartime necessities and resisted doing it again. Certainly younger people, having recently been freed from the necessity of separating garbage, did not want to have to do it again.
The practice of recycling would probably have caught on faster than it did if everyone were still in the habit of discarding wet and dry garbage into different collection receptacles.
If the practice of separation had continued, it would have been possible to compost the wet garbage. As it is, the commingling of wet and dry garbage limits waste disposal options. In the US, most waste eventually winds up in landfills.
There are two huge problems with landfills. They consume almost 3,500 acres of land per year. As landfills reach capacity, it is increasingly difficult to find land for new ones. Geologically, only certain sites are suitable. And of course, no one wants a new landfill built nearby.
Environmental hazards of landfills vary with their design and management. Problems at older or poorly managed landfills include foul smell, wind-blown litter, vermin, and the generation of a toxic liquid known as leachate.
To prevent those problems, newer designs call for a clay or plastic liner to contain the leachate and keep it from contaminating ground water. Each day’s accumulation of new garbage must be covered to keep it in place and to avoid attracting vermin.
As a consequence, the landfill smells better, but the garbage decomposes much more slowly. And so the landfill reaches capacity more quickly. In addition, landfills produce methane and other greenhouse gasses.
I’m a musician and librarian. I do not claim to be an expert on waste management. But I can’t help thinking that if Americans had had an uninterrupted practice of separating solid wastes, we would be composting the wet garbage. Recycling would be easier and would remove more from the waste stream than it currently does.
And above all, disposal non-recyclable dry waste would not produce so much gas and leachate byproducts. As a consequence, its disposal would be less environmentally hazardous, less expensive, and less controversial.
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