Home > Environment, Safety & Health > This is why we have a ‘shortage’ of landfill space

This is why we have a ‘shortage’ of landfill space

May 25, 2006

It’s odd, I know, but I like to look in dumpsters.  Trash is where you see the whole chain of consumer value from the other side; what are people willing to pay to get rid of?  In this case, it’s a couple hundred 4-foot fluorescent light tubes.  Each one contains a few milligrams of mercury but they’re going to a plain old landfill alongside my dinner leftovers.

I commute on a bicycle and my route takes me past this dumpster, which is near a large building.  It has this many bulbs in it about twice a month.  And that’s just one building.  Multiply it by all the superstores and hospitals and… well you name it… and you get a pretty significant amount of mercury.  In landfills it is turned into particularly nasty organic compounds by bacteria, the kind that feed on my dinner leftovers.  These compounds can outgas with the methane that landfills constantly produce.

‘Simple’ solution?  (OK, not so simple) separate out toxic and non-toxic trash.  Then there’d be no shortage of space for bulky, non-toxic trash.  And we’d keep the mercury out of the biosphere.

Think it would cost a lot?  Many lakes and streams in Illinois can no longer produce edible fish due to mercury.  That’s a huge industry, shot down.  Much of the mercury comes from from burning coal, but a goodly amount of it – and other nasty chemicals too – comes from dumpsters like this.  Big economic impact. 

That’s why landfills need elaborate containment systems, and an expensive political process to locate them far from people with enough clout to mount an effective protest.  I have a hunch it would be cheaper to deal with the toxic stuff separately when you account the real cost.

  1. zilchf
    May 27, 2006 at 03:43 | #1

    “I have a hunch it would be cheaper to deal with the toxic stuff separately when you account the real cost.”
    Cheaper for whom?  That is the crux of our problem with the environment…

  2. May 27, 2006 at 09:32 | #2

    Probably cheaper for everyone who produces trash.  Landfill space is expensive now because it is scarce.  If toxics were separated out, landfill space would become plentiful and therefore cheap. 

    I hadn’t realized the size of commercial fish harvesting in Illinois, either.  Apparently it’s quite a paying (as in taxpaying) proposition.

    There is also a moral problem of burying extremely long-lived toxins like mercury.  As ore, they were relatively safe (don’t drink from that spring) but as landfill, they are a danger to eveyone. 

    We hope to have people living on this planet for a long time.

  3. May 27, 2006 at 22:13 | #3

    I’m with Zilch; the responsibility of environmental impact should be at the manufacturing level.  It’s amazing to me that of the Three Rs of conservation (Reduce, Re-use, Recycle), only the third (and least effective) has any focus these days.  One of my favourite shows on HGTV is Junk Brothers (http://www.hgtv.ca/microsites/junk_brothers/tips.aspx); these guys are incredibly creative, and turn curbside refuse into fashionable, highly useable objects.

    Placing the responsibility for disposal on the manufacturer would unleash heretofor creativity on their part.  The consumer (and taxpayer) should not be expected to bear the burden of the sloth of the producer.

  4. May 27, 2006 at 23:44 | #4

    Manufacturers have reduced their toxic output.  There’s a lot less mercury in these tubes than ones made ten years ago.  Trunk and hood switches in cars no longer contain mercury.  AA batteries no longer contain mercury.  The same has repeated itself with many other toxins.  They have not exactly been slothful.

    Apparently it would kill consumers to put toxics here, nontoxics there.

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