Trash It Without Guilt

Simply put, operators of garbage dumps are stuffing more waste than anyone expected into the giant plastic-lined holes, keeping disposal prices down and making the construction of new landfills largely unnecessary.
The clearest winner in this development is the City of New York, which exports 25,000 tons of trash a day to other cities and states, making it the waste industry’s biggest customer. But the benefits stretch coast to coast and will continue for years to come.
The productivity leap is the second major economic surprise from the trash business in the last 20 years. First, it became clear in the early 1990’s that there was a glut of disposal space, not the widely believed shortage that had drawn headlines in the 1980’s. Although many town dumps had closed, they were replaced by fewer, but huge, regional ones. That sent dumping prices plunging in many areas in the early 1990’s and led to a long slump in the waste industry.
Since then, the industry and its followers have been relying on time – about 330 million tons of trash went into landfills in the United States last year alone, according to Solid Waste Digest, a trade publication – to fill up some of those holes, erase the glut and send disposal prices skyward again. Instead, dump capacity has kept growing, and rapidly, even as only a few new dumps were built.
How could that be? Waste companies and municipalities have fit much bigger dumps than originally permitted onto existing acreage, piling trash deeper and steeper, and vastly expanding permitted capacity. They are burying trash more tightly, so that each ton takes up less space, increasingly using giant 59-ton compacting machines guided by global positioning systems that show the operator when he has rolled over a section of the dump enough times. They cover trash at the end of the day, to keep it from blowing away, with tarps or foam or lawn clippings instead of the thick layers of soil that formerly ate up dump capacity.
Some operators are blowing water and air into landfills to hasten rotting and thus the shrinkage of buried garbage piles, creating more capacity.
Each practice is fairly prosaic, and many operators have yet to adopt the improved methods, but taken together the waste industry is in the early stages of the kind of increase in efficiency more typically seen in technologies like computer chips and turbines that generate electricity.

Jeff Bailey. “Waste Yes, Want Not: Rumors of a Shortage of Dump Space Were Greatly Exaggerated.” New York Times (Fri., Aug. 12, 2005): C1 & C3.

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