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Trash Disposal Crisis : No Dumping (There’s No More Dump)

Times Staff Writer

The City of New York is building a mountain range of sorts on Staten Island--bulldozing layer upon layer of reeking garbage into giant mounds of earth that will, a decade from now, form the highest point on the coastline between Maine and the tip of Florida.

Cranes as tall as six-story buildings work around the clock scooping trash from incoming barges. On roads paved with smashed garbage, tractors haul 26,000 tons a day up giant embankments that already block much of the distant view of the World Trade Center towers.

Atop peaks that ultimately will rise to 500 feet, huge bulldozers appear to be no bigger than Matchbox toys. Their plowing stirs up thousands of scavenging sea gulls, which return to their feast like a settling dust cloud.

This is what marine unloading director Mike Roselle proudly and accurately describes as “a vast world, a city within a city.” It is the world’s biggest dump, New York’s 3,000-acre Fresh Kills landfill.

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Symbol of a Crisis

Fresh Kills, New York’s only remaining big landfill, also symbolizes a crisis that faces communities throughout the Northeast. When it runs out of space around the turn of the century, 7.1 million people will have to find something else to do with three quarters of their trash.

That has city officials frightened. Even if long-delayed incinerators are built, if recycling takes hold and if costs remain stable--all of which are far from certain--New York will have to spend half a billion dollars a year to ship its excess refuse elsewhere.

“It would be devastating for the city,” Sanitation Commissioner Brendan Sexton said in an interview. “It is a very difficult prospect. I don’t actually know who would rush to our aid.”

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All over the Northeast, landfills have been closing down by the dozens, either because they are full or because they pose environmental threats. By 1990, ground water pollution fears will have shut all of the dumps on Long Island; Massachusetts expects to lose three-quarters of its currently available landfill space between now and then.

Time Running Out

“Literally, some communities are saying: ‘We have (only) months left. Where do we send our stuff?’ ” said Natalie Roy, senior planner in the solid waste division of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Quality Engineering.

The situation may be aggravated under new landfill regulations proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency last week. Federal officials say few existing dumps would meet those standards, which could encourage some to shut down earlier than expected.

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Many solutions are being offered, but none really gets rid of the problem entirely:

--Burning reduces garbage volume by as much as 90% and can add the bonus of converting waste to energy, but incinerators have a history of unreliability, air pollution and other environmental problems, and no one seems to want them in their neighborhood. The ash they leave poses a tricky disposal problem.

--Recycling is at best a partial fix, and depends on the largely untested proposition that Americans in peacetime are willing to make the effort it requires.

--Proposals to limit the use of nondegradable plastics--such as plans in New York, Massachusetts and elsewhere to slap taxes on packaging that is not recycled or recyclable--have run into intense political opposition.

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No matter which options municipal governments choose, they can expect further increases in garbage disposal costs. Many more may find themselves in the situation of Oyster Bay, a Long Island town that now spends more on getting rid of its trash than on all other municipal operations combined.

Meanwhile, people are tossing out more trash than ever. Each New Yorker, for example, now throws away an average of 1.13 tons annually, up 14% from only two years ago. The nation’s total output is projected to grow another 23% by the end of the century.

Everything from diapers to cameras to hospital gowns is being made to be used once and discarded. Food, medicine and other basics are sold cocooned in plastic, which, unlike its paper and glass counterparts, will never disappear on its own.

Ingredients Change

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At Fresh Kills, Roselle has seen the ingredients in the garbage pile change over the years: “You used to have all biodegradable material,” he said. “If you dig up an area from when we first started (40 years ago), you wouldn’t see any garbage. Now, it’s going to last forever.”

As local and state officials in the Northeast struggle with the question of where the garbage will go, they are seeing some horrifying answers.

One, evident to any New Yorker, is the speed with which abandoned tires, refrigerators, mattresses, construction refuse and sacks full of household trash accumulate in nearly every untended vacant space in the city.

Laura Magzis, 21, has found city sidewalks a bazaar of refuse. When she moved into her one-bedroom Chinatown apartment last month, she was able to furnish virtually all of it with the chairs, tables, and other castoffs she picked up within a five-block radius.

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Another warning sign this summer has been the filthy tide of medical and other waste, much of it believed to have been dumped illegally, that hit beaches from Massachusetts to North Carolina.

Medical waste--washed ashore in the form of decomposed laboratory rats, vials of AIDS-infected blood and even tissue identified as human stomach lining--has made for gruesome headlines. However, it is only part of the growing imbalance that comes from having more garbage and fewer places to put it.

The Northeast, the nation’s most thickly populated region, is feeling “just the opening shots” in what will become a national battle to bring solid waste under control, said Martin V. Melosi, a University of Houston professor who wrote the 1981 book “Garbage in the Cities.”

‘Going to Get Worse’

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“It’s going to get much worse,” added Bernard C. Melewski, deputy director of New York’s Legislative Commission on Solid Waste Management. “It’s a tide that’s going to wash across all beaches.”

Los Angeles, with more space and wider options at hand, is in “a far better situation” than many Eastern cities, but some of the same patterns exist, said Public Works Commissioner Kathleen Brown. Available county landfills are expected to be full by 1993 and the city’s primary dump at Lopez Canyon probably will not last beyond another nine years, she said.

For many East Coast cities, the short-run solution has been to export the problem, paying private contractors to truck their refuse hundreds of miles away.

The states on the receiving end have little power to keep it out of privately owned landfills, because the Constitution protects interstate commerce. But Philadelphia, which does not have a dump of its own, has learned that neighborliness has its limits.

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Ash from Philadelphia’s garbage incinerators has been turned away by facilities in Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, New Jersey and South Carolina. It has even been rejected from ports as far away as Africa.

Columbus, Ohio, expressed its sentiments in a 1986 newspaper headline: “Philly, Go Home.” South Carolina politicians were blunter, shipping box loads of their own garbage to Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode in protest.

Two years ago last Tuesday, about 15,000 tons of ash left Philadelphia aboard the 466-foot freighter Khian Sea. It has cruised much of the Western Hemisphere since then in an unsuccessful hunt for a welcoming dump.

In fact, this heap of Philadelphia ash has seen even more of the world than the famous barge load of Long Island trash that last year wandered more than five months and 5,000 miles in search of a final resting place. The Khian Sea, which spent July and August under repair in a Yugoslavian port, will be expelled soon from that country and may head next for Turkey, according to the environmental organization Greenpeace.

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Unable to cope any longer with its ash disposal problem, Philadelphia closed its incinerators July 1. It has contracted to haul its remaining 100,000-ton stockpile of ash to Ohio by the end of the year. Now its garbage will go to a landfill 15 miles outside the city, but officials say that solution will last six years at most.

The plan “is merely a window of opportunity while we find an alternative for the long run,” said Bruce Gledhill, Philadelphia deputy commissioner of streets.

New Jersey, long a dumping ground for waste from other states, has virtually run out of landfill space in its most heavily populated northeastern quarter. As of this year, New Jersey is hauling more than half its garbage to Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

The prices that its cities pay to get rid of trash have exploded, from a maximum of $12 a ton in 1985 to as much as $137 now, said Gary Sondermeyer, New Jersey’s assistant director for solid waste planning and finance.

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Higher costs have led to more illegal dumping. When trash pickup fees in Clark, N.J., tripled late last year, more than 300 of that town’s 5,500 households canceled their private garbage services.

The town’s Goodwill and Salvation Army collection boxes were suddenly jammed with “everything from spaghetti dinners to car tires, lawn clippings, refrigerators,” said Clark Police Lt. William Duffy. Businesses complained that their dumpsters were filled each morning before they got a chance to use them.

This summer, Duffy sent out a garbage posse--part-time officers, patrolling nightly in unmarked cars. At least 10 people were arrested and heavily fined, and the situation has been getting better, he said.

Cities and states are testing a variety of new approaches to dealing with solid waste, but none offers an inexpensive or painless solution.

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Most are moving in several directions at once, putting together long-range plans that would pool regional resources into a combination of recycling, burning and landfilling.

Recycling, in many respects, has the greatest appeal. Planners often point to Japan, where people sort their refuse like laundry before they throw it away. By some estimates, as much as half of the Japanese “waste stream” is recycled.

Household garbage there is typically grouped into: bottles, cans, newspapers and magazines, combustible, noncombustible, bulky and hazardous. Residents of the city of Zentsuji separate their refuse into 21 categories, said Gene Salerni, a New York waste consultant whose 1987 book chronicled Japanese recycling habits.

Sells It Back

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Japan has learned so well how to use recyclable materials that it has helped make scrap metal and waste paper the two biggest exports from the Port of New York, Salerni said, and Americans are literally buying back their own refuse in the form of Japanese cars and the cardboard boxes that hold their VCRs.

Salerni noted that Japanese habits have been cultivated over a century, and drilled into children as part of school curricula. “It’s going to take a long time” before such practices could become part of the U.S. way of life, he said.

New Jersey and Rhode Island have led the way, with the nation’s first two statewide laws requiring households to sort their garbage before setting it out on curbs for pickup.

Cities also are following the trend. Philadelphia, for one, passed a recycling law last year. It expects to implement it over the next three years, although initial results are falling far below its 50% goal. New York Mayor Edward I. Koch put a proposal before the City Council this year that would make mandatory the city’s voluntary curb-side recycling program. The program is now offered to 300,000 households, and expected to double its scope within a year.

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Massachusetts, which budgeted $260.5-million last year to help find a way out of its garbage bind, set a goal of recycling 25% of its waste. The state plans to build large-scale regional centers that could make recycling more efficient and profitable.

It will be years before any of these programs are operating full speed, and recycling, even if made to work, is far from the ultimate solution.

“It’s important to realize that even if we recycle 50%--and that’s very optimistic--we still have to do something with the other half,” said Howard Levinson of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment.

New Incinerators

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For most cities in the Northeast, the immediate alternative is building new incinerators, particularly facilities that could convert the heat into steam energy. But every proposal spells doom for the career of the politician who allows it into his neighborhood.

Philadelphia officials had been battling since the early 1980s over a trash-to-steam project, until Mayor Goode finally gave up on the idea in July. Ground has yet to be broken on the first of a series of new incinerators that was planned for New York as far back as 1978.

“We’re still faced with as fierce opposition as anyone could imagine,” Sanitation Commissioner Sexton said.

No one welcomes the idea of garbage trucks rumbling down their streets to ferry loads of trash to the incinerators, but other environmental problems associated with incinerators are more serious.

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One is air pollution--particularly airborne dioxins--suspected to cause cancer. Another is the ash incinerators leave, a distillation of many of the most dangerous chemicals from such standard household items as batteries and cleaners. It is too dangerous to bury in landfills, opponents say.

Their advocates say that today’s incinerators are a giant improvement from those of the early 1970s, which often broke down in addition to posing a hazard. Skeptical communities, however, are not willing to try largely untested new systems.

“It’s very clear that the technologies for new plants are a lot better, but it always comes down to a value judgment of what is safe,” said the Office of Technology Assessment’s Levinson. “Building up public confidence is a very critical factor.”

Cities and industry are also looking toward controlling the makeup of garbage, particularly troublesome plastics. Sexton said he expects New York’s City Council to soon ban the plastic foam packaging that has become a staple in the fast-food industry.

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Passing such laws may not be so easy. Manufacturers of plastic packaging--fearing for the health of their $15-billion market--have launched a political blitz against the measures.

Still, many plastics companies also recognize that some action along these lines may be inevitable. They are investing millions to develop biodegradable plastics, but the ones they have produced thus far are significantly more expensive and often not strong enough to do the job. There is also a danger that decaying plastic may release toxins or explosive gases.

Disposable Society

Whatever the answers, it appears that the public is finally beginning to learn the true price of living in a disposable society--a cost measured in staggering sums of money, in further poisoning of its air and water and in political agony.

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“People have taken it for granted,” said Roy, the Massachusetts solid waste planner. “It’s like there’s been this trash fairy that takes the trash away.”

For New York City, the eventual closing of the Fresh Kills landfill will mean more than a doubling of its current Sanitation Department budget.

And as the city turns to the rest of the country to take on its garbage burden, some predict that it could face a backlash far worse than it felt during the 1975 fiscal crisis that sent it looking to Washington, D.C., for a bailout.

As Gordon M. Boyd, former executive director of the state’s legislative commission on solid waste and now a private consultant, put it: “It’s not something the city can work its way out of with a few good budgets.

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“This one will go on forever.”

Researcher Eileen V. Quigley contributed to this story.


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