Landfills Essay, Research Paper

It has long been believed that the largest entity brought upon the Earth by

humankind is the Pyramid of the Sun, constructed in Mexico around the start

of the Christian era. The mammoth structure commands nearly thirty million

cubic feet of space. In contrast, however, is the Durham Road Landfill,

outside San Francisco, which occupies over seventy million cubic feet of the

biosphere. It is a sad monument, indeed, to the excesses of modern society

[Gore 151]. One might assume such a monstrous mound of garbage is the

largest thing ever produced by human hands. Unhappily, this is not the case.

The Fresh Kills Landfill, located on Staten Island, is the largest landfill

in the world. It sports an elevation of 155 feet, an estimated mass of 100

million tons, and a volume of 2.9 billion cubic feet. In total acreage, it

is equal to 16,000 baseball diamonds [Miller 526]. By the year 2005, when

the landfill is projected to close, its elevation will reach 505 feet above

sea level, making it the highest point along the Eastern Seaboard, Florida

to Maine. At that height, the mound will constitute a hazard to air traffic

at Newark airport [Rathje 3-4].

Fresh Kills (Kills is from the Dutch word for creek) was originally a tidal

marsh. In 1948, New York City planner Robert Moses developed a highly

praised project to deposit municipal garbage in the swamp until the level of

the land was above sea level. A study of the area predicted the marsh would

be filled by the year 1968. He then planned to develop the area, building

houses and attracting light industry. Mayor Impelliteri issued a report

titled "The Fresh Kills Landfill Project" in 1951. The report stated, in

part, that the enterprise "cannot fail to affect constructively a wide area

around it." The report ended by stating, "It is at once practical and

idealistic" [Rathje 4]. One must appreciate the irony in the fact that

Robert Moses was, in his day, considered a leading conservationist. His

major accomplishments include asphalt parking lots throughout the New York

metro area, paved roads in and out of city parks, and development of Jones

Beach, now the most polluted, dirty, overcrowded piece of shoreline in the

Northeast. In Stewart Udall’s book The Quiet Crisis, the former Secretary of

the Interior lavishes praise on Moses. The JFK cabinet member calls Jones

Beach "an imaginative solution … (the) supreme answer to the ever-present

problems of overcrowding" [Udall 163-4]. JFK’s introduction to the book

provides this foreboding passage: "Each generation must deal anew with the

raiders, with the scramble to use public resources for private profit, and

with the tendency to prefer short-run profits to long-run necessities. The

crisis may be quiet, but it is urgent" [Udall xii]. Oddly, the subject of

landfills is never broached in Udall’s book; in 1963, the issue was, in

fact, a non-issue.

A modern state-of-the-art sanitary landfill is a graveyard for garbage,

where deposited wastes are compacted, spread in thin layers, and covered

daily with clay or synthetic foam. The modern landfill is lined with

multiple, impermeable layers of clay, sand, and plastic before any garbage

is deposited. This liner prevents liquids, called leachates, from

percolating into the groundwater. Leachates result from rain water mixing

with fluids in the garbage, making a highly toxic "juice" containing inks,

heavy metals, and other poisonous compounds. Ideally, leachates are pumped

up from collection points along the bottom of the landfill and either

shipped to liquid waste disposal points or re-introduced into the upper

layers of garbage, to resume the cycle. Unfortunately, most landfills have

no such pumping system [Miller 527].

Until the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency by Nixon in 1970,

there were virtually no regulations governing the construction, operation,

and closure of landfills. As a result, 85 percent of all landfills extant in

this country are unlined. Many are located in close proximity to aquifers or

other groundwater features, or near geologically unstable sites. Many older

landfills are leaching toxins into our water supply at this very moment,

with no way to stop them. For example, the Fresh Kills landfill leaks an

estimated one million gallons of toxic ooze into the surrounding water table

every day [Miller 527]. Sanitary landfills do offer certain advantages.

Offensive odors, the mainstay of the old city dump, are dramatically reduced

by the daily cover of clay or other material. Vermin and insects, both of

the terrestrial and airborne varieties, are denied a free meal and the

opportunity to spread disease, by the daily clay layer. Furthermore, modern

landfills are less of an eyesore than their counterparts of yore. However,

the causality of these positive affects are the very reasons for some of the

significant drawbacks to landfills [Turk and Turk 486]. The daily compacting

and covering of the garbage deposits effectively squeezes the available

oxygen out of the material. Whatever aerobic bacteria are present in the

garbage are soon suffocated and decomposition stops. Anaerobic bacteria, by

their very nature, are not present in appreciable numbers in our biosphere.

What few manage to enter and survive in the garbage deposits are slow-acting

and perform little in the way of breaking down the materials. In other

words, rather than the giant compost heap most people imagine, a landfill is

actually a huge mummification center. Hot dogs and bananas, decades old,

have been recovered from landfills, still recognizable in their mummified

splendor [Rathje 111-12]. What little decomposition does occur in landfills

generates vast amounts of methane gas, one of the significant greenhouse

effect gasses. Some landfills have built-in processes to reclaim the

methane. The Fresh Kills landfill pipes methane gas directly into thousands

of homes, but in most instances, the gas is either burned off or leaked

directly into the atmosphere. Based on ice core samples from Antarctica, the

methane concentration in the Earth’s atmosphere, over the past 160,000

years, has fluctuated between 0.3 and 0.7 parts per million. In 1987, the

methane count was 1.7 ppm [McKibben 17-17].

The modern landfill is not alone in its defiance of decomposition. The

excavation in 1884 of an ancient Roman dump had to be halted periodically so

the workers could get fresh air, so unbearable was the stench from the

still-extant refuse [Rathje 113]. In today’s landfills, decomposition is

negligible. While the total tonnage of garbage decreases over years, due

mostly to dessication, the volume varies less than ten percent. Most of the

actual short-term rotting is from scraps of prepared food. Plastics

biodegrade not at all. Biodegradable plastic is an oxymoron at best; the

most unstable plastic requires intense sunlight to decompose, and sunlight

is denied in a sanitary landfill. Newspapers from before World War Two are

still readable; they have, in fact, become important date markers for

scientists examining garbage strata in landfills [Rathje 112-13].

The public is sadly misinformed as to what comprises the bulk of municipal

garbage. A typical survey shows that the average American sees the

disposable diaper as the number one culprit for the premature closing of our

landfills. This is a sad and costly misconception. According to the most

recent scientific studies, disposable diapers account for only 0.53 to 1.28

percent of all landfill deposits, by volume [Rathje 162-63].

If burning garbage and dumping garbage at sea are unacceptable, what are the

alternatives? Of the landfills, sanitary and otherwise, open for business in

1979, 85 percent are now closed [Miller 527]. Where is all the garbage

going? Some municipalities are shipping garbage to other cities, or even

other states, a costly proposition. Larger metropolitan agencies have even

taken to shipping garbage to third world countries, strapped for cash and

eager for the infusion of Yankee dollars. This, of course, only transfers

the problem from one population to the other. Stories of wandering garbage

barges and orphaned garbage trains have made splashes in American newwpaper

headlines. Covert garbage disposal has become a lucrative business, as the

plethora of medical waste washed up along the New Jersey shoreline proves.

These anecdotes, while shocking and perversely entertaining, are hardly


Recycling really is making a difference. Newspapers, which used to make up

25 to 40 percent of the garbage volume of a typical city, are now

effectively banned from household garbage. Aluminum can recycling has become

a profitable sideline, both for economically disadvantaged and for the

average homeowner trying to offset the ever-increasing cost of garbage

collection. Construction waste is now barred from landfills in most locales;

this high volume material is now recycled or put to Earth-friendly uses,

such as making barrier reefs. Plans for the safe incineration of refuse to

generate electric power have presented some highly contentious issues. The

ash from such incinerators is normally highly toxic, since it concentrates

existing toxins, and must be disposed of as such. Citizens object to these

plants, in a frenzy of Not-In-My-Backyard syndrome. A clear-cut answer is

probably non-existent. Several effective programs, enacted in unison, will

probably lead us to success.


Gore, Senator Al. Earth in the Balance. New York: Houghton, 1992.

MacKibben, Bill. The End of Nature. New York: Random House, 1989.

Miller, G. Tyler, Jr. Living in the Environment. Belmont CA: Wadsworth, 1994.

Rathje, William and Cullen Murphy. Rubbish!. New York: Harper, 1992.

Turk, Jonathan. Environmental Science. New York: Holt, 1984.

Udall, Stewart. The Quiet Crisis. New York: Holt, 1963.

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