Environmentalism

The Crisis That Wasn't

Building a better garbage dump.

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The news that America was not running out of landfill space had The New York Times all aflutter in August. Waste disposal, the Times decreed, was an "unlikely industry" for productivity improvements. "Simply put, operators of garbage dumps are stuffing more waste than anyone expected into the giant plastic-lined holes, keeping disposal prices down and making the construction of new landfills largely unnecessary," read the Times version of history.

Except that precisely this kind of waste disposal efficiency increase was predicted a dozen years ago by experts who studied humanity's disposal habits over the centuries. In their 1992 book Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage, William Rathje and Cullen Murphy noted the historical forces that drive cultures to be more efficient in dealing with garbage.

"It is a common story, usually driven by economic realities," they noted. Rathje and Murphy expected America to swing back toward efficient waste disposal with "sheer profit" as a motivating principle.

Sure enough, the Times finds that today's well-run dumps can hold more refuse than poorly run ones. By introducing air and water into the refuse pits, operators can speed decomposition to the point where a site's capacity essentially never declines. Another sure sign of adequate capacity: dumping fees. Costs still average $35 per ton nationwide, far from the $50 per ton some in the industry predicted.

As a result, America has decades of dump space in place. In other words, there's plenty of time for the next "unlikely" jump in efficiency to occur ahead of the next landfill crisis.