Humans have always produced a lot of waste. From prehistoric times until fairly recently, people who lived in towns just dumped the waste somewhere.
Now we have the sanitary landfill. What’s the difference? Have we found an adequate solution?
Dumping itself has a varied history. In some times and places, the job of certain people of very low social standing was to carry trash, garbage, and human and animal wastes out of town. Perhaps they dumped it in a valley, perhaps in a river or creek.
At other times and places, people simply dumped their various household wastes in the streets. That was certainly smellier and less sanitary. From time to time, town governments would pass laws forbidding the practice.
Dumping in North America
Residents of the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam dumped trash in the street at least until a statute outlawed the practice in 1657. New Amsterdam eventually became New York, which had to forbid street dumping again two hundred years later.
However and wherever pre-Industrial Americans disposed of their wastes, scavengers (be they dogs, vultures, or microbes) would eventually consume most of it. Of course, they couldn’t consume on-organic wastes (discards made of stone, glass, metal, etc.). Some tradesmen used some pretty toxic chemicals. For the most part, however, waste disposal was not high on the list of major social issues.
The Industrial Revolution brought many changes. Among them were two new waste streams: the waste produced by the new manufacturing procedures with all of their complicated machinery, and new disposable consumer products and packaging. At about the same time, people began to burn coal, as well as wood, as fuel in their homes.
In the course of the 19th century, more and more municipalities began to assume responsibility for disposal of wastes. By 1900 many recorded what kinds of rubbish they collected and how much. We can tell, therefore, that on average each American generated 1400 pounds of trash per year: mostly food waste, dry rubbish, and ash from burning all that coal or wood
Where could the cities put all that trash? Cities on rivers had it easy. They dumped everything in the river. Other cities tried some newer techniques. Experiments with incinerators, beginning in 1865, had not worked. By about 1920, some cities got the bright idea of using trash to reclaim wetlands.
Meanwhile, manufacturers continued to produce ever-increasing quantities of disposables: tin cans, paper cups, razor blades, and of course catalogs as big as the family Bible.
Municipal waste collection generally required households to separate food waste from the ash and dry trash. Separate companies would pick up (and send bills for) the two kinds. Meanwhile, people usually just burned their waste paper on their own premises.
Some time in the 1950s, Los Angeles banned such backyard burning. That meant that its residents now had to separate three waste streams and deal with three disposal companies.
In 1960, Sam Yorty successfully campaigned for mayor of Los Angeles as the housewife’s friend. He vowed put an end to separating garbage. There would be only one trash hauling company and only one destination for everything.
We know now that Yorty’s bright idea, as well as many of the other clever solutions to the problem of municipal waste, simply created other problems, more serious than the ones they purported to solve.
The practice of comingling all sorts of waste into a single collection soon swept out of Los Angeles and became the nationwide norm.
Even before then, places where garbage was dumped became a public health problem.
They caused a stench and attracted rats and other scavengers. Neither the noxious odors nor the rodents and bugs stayed at the dump.
Actually, the rotting garbage didn’t, either. Every time it rained on the dump, the runoff contributed to the pollution of nearby streams and ponds.
The American Society of Civil Engineers proposed a solution. Instead of simply dumping the garbage, municipalities should compact it and then cover each day’s new additions with a layer of soil. That marked the beginning of the sanitary landfill.
Once engineers figured out how to stop storm runoff, they realized they had created a new problem. It helps to recall that by this time, Americans were sending dead batteries, used motor oil, old paint, and all manner of other hazardous chemicals.
After rainwater could no longer run off into a river or lake, it still had to go somewhere. So it went into the groundwater.
Scientists had assumed that the ground itself would filter pollutants. In principal, by the time rainwater reached underground aquifers, it should be pure. Unfortunately, in practice, the amount of pollution that rainwater absorbed in the landfill overwhelmed the ground’s ability to clean it up.
And so scientists learned that groundwater can be polluted after all. A new word entered the American vocabulary: leachate, the foul collection of noxious chemicals that leaches from a landfall when rainwater flows through it. Leachate, of course, created a serious health risk to all the people who relied on a well for their drinking water.
So building a modern landfill requires an impermeable liner to keep leachate out of the ground. Of course, it will accumulate at the bottom of the liner, so landfill operators must collect it, treat it, and then dispose of it safely.
That’s not the only problem with landfills. Because the trash is compacted and covered, aerobic bacteria can’t get any air. Therefore they can’t live in the landfill to digest organic garbage. Anaerobic digestion doesn’t naturally take place in landfill conditions, either. So the landfills don’t benefit from the eventual diminishing bulk of the organic waste
Meanwhile, Americans no longer produce the coal and wood ash that made up the largest proportion of household waste in 1900. So do we produce less trash per capita? No. We produce 1600 pounds every year, an increase of 200 pounds.
We could recycle more than half of our trash, but we don’t. Researchers are probably hard at work devising solutions to the unexpected new problems that landfills have caused.
Will they finally get it right and not cause worse problems? Or will the American public finally take steps not to generate so much waste to begin with?
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