New York Times - 12 Feb 87

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305
(Copied 29 Oct 09)

Garbage Landfills in Half of the States Approaching Capacity

Published: Thursday, February 12, 1987

In Massachusetts, three-fourths of the 199 landfills now receiving garbage will be used up in three years. In New York, less than 10 years remain for all existing landfills. More than half of Alabama's sites will close in five years.

In Florida, over 60 percent are expected to close in eight years. Over 70 percent of California's existing sites will be at capacity in 10 years. In Connecticut, officials say that nearly all authorized capacity will be used up in two years. New Jersey expects its existing space to run out by 1991.

In the next decade more than half the states in the country will use up most of their landfills in major metropolitan areas, and few replacement sites are being developed.

Such shortages are rapidly creating what many officials consider a crisis. The cost of waste disposal is rising as many communities are compelled to haul their garbage to sites far away.

Municipal and state officials are stalemated by local opposition to new sites, with the opponents all saying, "Not in my backyard."

On a Logarithmic Curve

"This is a crisis," said Gordon M. Boyd, executive director of the New York State Legislative Commission on Solid Waste Management. "And it will get much worse before it gets better. Nationally we are running out of space, and at an accelerating rate. It's happening on a logarithmic curve."

Steve Greenwood, a manager for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, said, "I refer to this as the hidden environmental issue of the 1980's."

Preliminary hearings on renewal of the law on solid wastes will begin this month in the Senate Environment Committee's Subcommittee on Hazardous Waste and Toxic Substances. The solid waste law, part of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, provided regulatory authority to the Federal Government. It specified, for instance, that each landfill or storage site had to meet certain minimum requirements and receive a permit to operate.

"The landfill problem is very serious," said Senator Quentin N. Burdick, a North Dakota Democrat, who is chairman of the committee. "The Reagan Administration feels the greater emphasis should be on the so-called hazardous areas, but we are very concerned and feel the landfill problem should not be overlooked."

Conference on the Topic

Today in New York City, the commission on waste management is sponsoring a conference on the problem that is expected to draw participants from 26 states and some foreign countries.

One of the conference goals is to decide upon action for the states of the Northeast.

In a recent survey by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials, at least 27 states reported they would face severe landfill problems in 3 to 10 years.

San Francisco hauls its trash 60 miles to Altamont. Seattle hauls trash 15 miles. Mobile, Ala., hauls it 35 miles. The small city of Marquette, Ill., hauls it 160 miles.

In the Northeast, Oyster Bay and Huntington on Long Island take their refuse to Pennsylvania and pay as much as $140 a ton. Philadelphia ships much of its trash 100 miles to Harrisburg, Scranton and Baltimore.

Public opposition has made it very difficult to create new landfills or even expand old ones, as California hopes to be able to do.

People Just Won't Accept

"There have been enough instances of ground-water contamination that people just won't accept the sites," said Fred Clinton, the chief of the resource recovery division in Michigan's Department of Natural Resources.

In Illinois in the past three years there were 16 attempts to expand old sites or create new ones. Of those, only six were approved, all expansions. The northern region of the state, including Chicago, has less than seven years remaining before landfill capacity is exhausted, state officials said.

Portland, Ore., had been unable to develop a site for 10 years because of public opposition. So the Legislature intervened several years ago, granting authority to the State Department of Environmental Quality to bypass local laws. The state is now reviewing three possible sites near Portland.

Increasingly stringent Federal environmental protection measures add to the difficulties, officials said. And the Environmental Proection Administration is expected to make Federal requirements even stiffer in the next six months.

Some Will Have to Close

"Some of the older landfills now open will have to shut down," said Sue Markland Moreland, executive director of the association of state and territorial solid waste management officials, in Washington. "That will certainly increase the capacity problem."

Improving old landfills or creating new ones that meet Federal guidelines can be expensive. Even closing sites that have reached capacity can cost a state millions of dollars.

The costs of putting trash into the ground are likewise rising rapidly.

A decade ago the cost to dump trash in a landfill averaged less than $10 a ton nationwide. Today it can cost as much as $60 a ton at some sites. Municipalities that must haul trash long distances can pay as much as $150 a ton, and a garbage truck may carry away 10 tons.

Cutting down on trash is becoming a priority in many states. As a result, incineration and trash-to-energy facilities have become increasingly popular, although also increasingly controversial.

Florida Has Moved Ahead

Florida has moved ahead aggressively with trash-to-energy plants and now has six plants on line and three under construction. There are plans for 15 more in the next decade.

Many states have started recycling as a another attack on the problem.

A number of states, including New Jersey, Rhode Island, Michigan and Massachusetts, have enacted or are considering legislation requiring recycling. Oregon is now recycling close to 20 percent of its waste and has mandatory curbside collection service in communities with 4,000 people or more.

But in states like New York, said Mr. Boyd, even recycling 25 percent of the garbage "would only gain an additional two or three years of life in our capacity." He said, "We can't recycle our way out of this crisis."

Beyond the admittedly inadequate plans to burn, recycle or simply reduce the amount of waste, officials see little cause for optimism.

Mr. Clinton of Michigan said, "It's just going to take some different thinking to recognize there is no place to throw things."