A tidy pile of garbage bags outside the Hunterdon County offices here serves as an unnecessary reminder to county officials throughout northern New Jersey that they are running out of places to put their trash.
Garbage began piling up here and in neighboring Warren and Sussex Counties on April 7, when a large regional landfill in Dunmore, Pa., stopped accepting trash from New Jersey, Long Island and other out-of-state haulers.
For thousands of residents and businesses here, the closing has meant growing piles of garbage while county officials seek new dump sites. The changes could also mean double and triple the former costs when the sites are found.
"I think it's terrible," said Maryanne Ataldo, who was buying plastic garbage bags in the Flemington Center. "My husband is talking about taking our garbage to the dump himself. But I don't know where he could take it, the way things are."
State and county officials hope the garbage crisis will be solved by new county incinerators and recycling centers to be built under a 10-year state-directed program. But in the next few years, they said, periodic interruptions of garbage collection are likely to spread.
With landfill sites rapidly filling up and closing down, Hunterdon has started sending its garbage more than 100 miles to west-central Pennsylvania. Passaic ships its waste, by train, even farther, to the Pittsburgh area. Others are following suit.
County officials, meanwhile, guard their search for new landfills with the secrecy of foreign agents. And county freeholders trade charges with state officials over taking responsibility for finding places to put the state's 11 million tons of trash a year.
"No problem seems to pile up as fast as garbage problems," said Gary Sundermeyer, chief of planning for the waste-management division of the Department of Environmental Protection. "There may be nooks and crannies in the state where you could still fill in some waste. But over all, the capacity just isn't there anymore." A decade ago, New Jersey had 350 landfills. Today there are 80, of which fewer than 10 take municipal garbage. Two dumps, the Hacksensack Meadowlands complex and the Edgeboro landfill in East Brunswick, take nearly 50 percent of that total, and they are rapidly filling.
From a state that as recently as three years ago took garbage from other states, including 1.5 million tons a year each from New York City and Philadelphia, New Jersey has become one of the East's biggest exporters. Some sludge from a processing plant ends up in a landfill outside Detroit.
The immediate reason for the growing garbage piles here was the closing of the Keystone Landfill in Dunmore. In a snowballing effect characteristic of landfill closings, haulers from Warren, Sussex and Hunterdon began searching for new places, creating three- and four-hour waits for trucks at the nearly full Edgeboro landfill and encountering a ban on outside garbage at the Ocean County Landfill in Manchester.
The plight of the western counties highlighted the squeeze on the far more populous counties to the east.
By next July 31, Essex County, which produces just under 900,000 tons of garbage a year, will be shut out of the immense Meadowlands landfill. On Dec. 1, Passaic County, with 520,000 tons, will be barred, and so will Bergen County, a sources of 1.1 million tons a year, on Dec. 31.
Last Friday, Passaic signed a 10-year contract to have its trash hauled by train to western Pennsylvania, the first time a county in the state has resorted to rail service for long-haul disposal. Under the contract, the trash would be hauled to a Newark terminal in trucks, loaded and shipped west.
"Obviously, it will cost more," the Passaic planning director, James D. Rogers, said. "To tip at the Meadowlands runs between $24 and $30 a ton. And at the transfer station in the first year of our agreement, it will cost about $62 a ton."
Prices in Hunterdon and Warren will rise even more sharply. Hunterdon's contractor, Browning-Ferris Industries of Baltimore, is negotiating a contract with a landfill somewhere in Pennsylvania that the County Solid Waste Coordinator, Terese Martin, would only say is far away.
The additional distance will put the cost of disposing a ton at $125, compared with $35 a ton at the Keystone Landfill. Monthly garbage collection fees for the 33,000 homes in the county are expected to increase, from between $7 and $12 to between $23 and $28.
The reason for Mrs. Martin's reluctance to disclose the location of the new landfill is simple.
"We discovered Keystone," she said. "And then everyone else discovered Keystone, and that put an enormous environmental pressure on the landfill. So now we're not of a mind to share that information, because we've had that experience before."
"Secrecy is what's happening this week in the trash business," the regional manager for Browning-Ferris, Mike Berlin, said. "My perception is that it's like the secrecy in the computer industry, because in this part of the country you don't have landfill contracts for years. You're working week to week.
"People are literally ringing the phones off the wall of the landfill operators, and they're not even asking what they're charging. All they want to know is, 'Can I send you some?'
The Department of Environmental Protection frowns on the export of garbage, arguing that the practice takes millions of dollars out of the state and makes haulers vulnerable to such sudden shifts as the unannounced closing of the Keystone landfill.
The director of the solid-waste program for the department, Michael DiBonis, argued that states must find room within county lines for the new landfills that will still be needed when, early in the next decade, most county incinerators are expected to be operating.
''There is no question that some counties are pretty densely developed,'' he said. ''But we haven't accepted any of their contentions that there are no suitable sites left.''