Monday, July 22, 1996
Change Your Lifestyle, Produce Less Garbage - Part III
No matter how the garbage situation resulting from the accelerated closing of the Fresh Kills Landfill (rescheduled for year-end 2001 instead of 2011) is resolved, the citizens will pay, because sending garbage by rail or boat out of state is more expensive than sending it by barge to good old Staten Island.
Fresh Kills today processes over 13,000 tons of garbage daily, brought in by barges. That is often expressed as 27,000,000 pounds, over three pounds for every man, woman and child in the city. The numbers do not include the New York Times and the glass, metal and plastic that go into recycling.
The 3,000 acre landfill, the size of five LaGuardia Airports, has some mountains of garbage as high as 150 feet (15 stories), covered with dirt and grass, and surrounded by flights of seagulls. The technology is a tourist attraction, with interested experts world-wide coming to study it regularly. Current dumping is confined to 800 acres. Fresh dumped refuse is covered fast, cutting down on the gull population's breakfast. But there is a decomposition process, emitting methane gas (about 1/20 of the total national emissions), 25 percent of which is captured and converted to fuel use. Nevertheless, the odor persists. There is also leachage (a hard word to pronounce), since the 48-year old dump has no liner, and rainwater brings solubles with some toxins into the surrounding waterways. After closing, the city will spend another $775 million over a 30-year period to stabilize the landfill, which includes some plastic membrane to stop future rain penetration, capturing the leachate and removing the toxins, and capturing more of the methane (it is a pollutant; think of New Zealand, world champion producer of lambshanks, suffering from the uncontrollable emanations of its 70 million sheep). Fortunately methane converts into natural gas. Will the process work? Well, the smaller Pelham Bay Landfill, actively accepting 2,600 tons a day for 15 years and closed in 1978, still brings leachate directly into Eastchester Bay at the rate of 30 to 50 gallons a minute. Note that closed landfills become parks and the responsibility for cleanup shifts to the Parks and Recreation Department.
The Mayor's committee of 12, appointed to resolve the problem of alternate ways of disposing the 13,000 tons of New York's residential garbage every day, has to come up with a solution by October 1. The end 2001 closing smells like a real estate speculators' and garbage haulers' dream, and I wish that wisdom would prevail, keeping Fresh Kills open, accelerating the continuing control of methane and leaching processes and offering some buyouts to seriously afflicted Staten Islanders at current market prices. But the committee is bound to recommend export, with some pious words involving more citizenly responsibility in recycling. This is a group of professionals from city and state agencies, including ecology, health and economic development people. Names are not available, and no publicity is given to their deliberations, not to speak of hearings. Cost shifting by charging the household (building, coop) for the garbage by the bag may be proposed. Should we the taxpayers not be part of the process of deliberation?
Parenthetically, isn't it peculiar how cost shifting back to the consumer has become the governments' answer to social problems? We see that when the Transit Authority charges school kids for subway and bus travel, and when the hospitals put the excess costs of Medicaid and Medicare patients on insured clients' bills, . What is government for, really? Just to pay civil servants' salaries?
The states that take our daily 12,000 tons of commercial garbage - Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Michigan and Indiana - really don't want an increase in garbage imports, no matter how much a starving locality needs the funds and how environmentally acceptable the imports are.The U.S. Senate has already passed a states' rights act permitting a ceiling on garbage imports, and its counterpart is pending in the House. Guy Molinari, Staten Island's Borough President, who forced the advance in the date of closing Fresh Kills from 2010 to 2001, does not want to be tagged as the assassin who buried New York in garbage, and claims that "we will beat the states in the courts." Yes, there is a Supreme Court decision that garbage movement qualifies as interstate commerce and therefore not within the purview of state laws. States cannot discriminate against chosen exporters or set arbitrary limits. This came up when in 1987 the Long Island barge with 3,100 tons of offal traveled for months through inland waterways futilely looking for a landfill site. Will this decision stand up in today's court?
So, there we are. My recommendation to buy Liberia and ship the garbage across the Atlantic came in a moment of despair over this irresponsible politically motivated government decisions, without plans, without regard for the consequences, pushing the responsibility of digging out from under the garbage on the community. I also blame several prior generations of government who side-stepped the garbage issue with feeble recycling efforts. But black humor and comic relief do not solve problems. More realistically, can we dispose of New York's garbage within the U.S.?
Well, we can change our ways to produce a relatively garbage-free environment. Will the lifestyles of New Yorkers and all other urban dwellers who do not live off the land have to alter radically to avoid getting buried under reeking garbage? Yes indeed, and the means are there, let me show you.
Most non-compostable, that is non-organic residential garbage comes from packaging. It is often asked: "Why do we need so much wrapping?" Packaging came as the result of mass production and wide distribution of agricultural goods, ease of transportation and less dependence on local products, public taste for off-season luxuries, and therefore increased need for better shelflife of food products. It killed Mom and Pop non-agribus small scale farming. Smalled packages became desirable as a result of more people and smaller living quarters in the cities, and therefore less shelf space in kitchens.
Some of us still know of "rushing the growler," that is going to a bar to have a reusable jug filled with beer from a reusable barrel. As a young child, I recall having reusable milk bottles filled from a twenty-gallon open-top milk can by a grocery clerk using a dipper (don't shudder, he closed the can between uses, with ladle and funnel inside). And today you can still order seltzer in reusable siphon bottles from a local soda maker. There are also greenmarkets supplying fresh vegetables and fruit all through the year, by storing the harvest in their local cold storage rooms, then bringing out the requisite amount for the market day. That is the way apples are supplied all year long, and the concept can be extended to some other fruit and locally grown vegetables. No need for most frozen vegetables, canned vegetables and fruit. Juices also can be served into reusable jars from reusable barrels. And the Japanese , for centuries, have brought home takeout food in beautiful stacked lightweight lacquer vessels. Consequently, we have the solutions for reducing the need for packaging and garbage in six major areas - beer, soda, vegetables, fruit, juice and takeout. Remember, nowadays we have the miracle of refrigeration at home. And a can of Coca-Cola could be reduced to a large pill, like Alka-Seltzer, plus water. Of course, they would have to change the refrain of their song to "Plop plop, fizz, fizz." Of course, it would hurt, but I'm willing to be brave. The real pain would be going to the Internet for the New York Times.
Of course, it would cost, more labor in the grocery store and less employment in the packaging industry. But it would also reduce destruction of forests and other natural resources. Again, refrigeration saves the day, the one great saving factor in preserving food which our forebears did not have. Everybody knows that the European discovery of the Far East was prompted by the need for spices that would help the taste of food turning rancid in the winter. Salt helped, and salt pork that kept was a major staple, as was smoked meat. This is no longer our problem.
Increasing the size of packaging of goods that cannot be sold fresh will further reduce garbage production. My cat's food now comes in a 15 oz can. In the drugstore, we can get a quart squeeze bottle of shampoo instead of a pint, and squeeze hair lotion instead of spraying it. Squeeze bottles are also reusable and refillable. Think of going back to reusable sanitary napkins and diapers, which should be not all that difficult, since we now have washing machines.
"Kia ora" (pronounced kiora) is the Maori for "hello," a bit classier than the Aussie "ay mate" (pronounced mite). Hands across the ocean and all that. This may be a local paper, but we are not provincial.