Five Major Myths about Garbage and Why They're Wrong

Smithsonian, July 1992 William Rathje and Cullen Murphy

The mass quantities of garbage in America have led to the creation of five major myths that need to be corrected.

A 20-year study suggests that we know way too little about what we toss out - and about what needs to be done with it.

Would that it were possible to study garbage in the abstract. But, alas, garbage isn't mathematics. To understand garbage you have to touch it, to feel it, to sort it, to smell it. You have to pick through hundreds of tons of it, counting and weighing all the daily newspapers, the telephone books, the soiled diapers, the foam clamshells that once briefly held hamburgers, the lipstick cylinders coated with grease, the medicine vials still encasing brightly colored pills, the empty Scotch bottles, the half-full cans of paint and muddy turpentine, the forsaken toys, the cigarette butts. You have to sort and weigh and measure the volume of all the organic matter, the discards from thousands of plates: the noodles and the Cheerios and the tortillas; the pet food that made its own gravy; the hardened jelly doughnuts, bleeding from their side wounds; the half-eaten bananas, mostly still within their peels, black and incomparably sweet in the embrace of final decay.

You have to comfort sticky green mountains of yard waste, and slippery brown hills of potatoes peels, and ossuaries of brittle chicken bones and T-bones. And then, finally, there are the "fine," the vast connecting mixture of tiny bits of paper, metal, glass, plastic, dirt, grit and former nutrients that suffuses every landfill like a kind of grainy lymph. To understand garbage you need thick gloves and a mask and some booster shots. But the yield in knowledge offsets the grim working conditions. To an archaeologist, ancient garbage pits, which usually can be located within a short distance of any ruin, are among the happiest of finds. Every archaeologist dreams of discovering spectacular objects-the mask of Agamemnon, the Ark of the Covenant-but the bread---and-butter work of archaeology involves the most common and routine kinds of discards. It is not entirely fanciful to define archaeology as the discipline that tries to learn from old garbage.

The Garbage Project, conceived in 1971 and officially established at the University of Arizona in 1973, was an attempt to apply archaeological principles to a modern society; ours. Over the years some 750 people working for the project have processed more than 250,000 pounds of garbage-14 tons of it excavated from landfills (SMITHSONIAN, April 1990), the rest obtained fresh from the truck or the curb.
Sorted, weighed, coded and cataloged, it has produced a unique database that yields all sorts of insights and questions about American life. Most notably the question of whether there is a garbage crisis at all.

Americans certainly do produce lots of garbage, and we have achieved no consensus about what to do with it. That is a big problem. But the work of the Garbage Project underscores a second problem, one that helps explain why we have been unable to deal with the first problem: much conventional wisdom about garbage and its disposal consists of myths and assertions that turn out, upon investigation, to be misleading-or dead wrong.

Myth No. 1: Fast-food packaging, polystyrene foam and disposable diapers are major constituents of American garbage.

Over the years, Garbage Project researchers have asked people who have never seen the inside of a landfill to estimate what percentage of a landfill's content is made up of fast-food packaging, expanded polystyrene foam and disposable diapers. In September of 1989 this very question was asked of a group attending the biennial meeting of the National Audubon Society, and the results were generally consistent with those obtained from surveys at universities, business meetings, and conferences of state and local government officials.

Estimates of the volume of fast-food packaging fell mainly between 20 and 30 percent of a typical landfill's contents; of expanded polystyrene foam, between 25 and 40 percent; of disposable diapers, between 25 and 45 percent. The overall estimate, then, of the proportion of a landfill's contents taken up by the three types of garbage together range from a suspicious high 70 percent to an obviously impossible 115 percent. The physical reality inside a landfill is, in fact, quite different. Of the 14 tons of garbage from nine municipal landfills that the Garbage Project has excavated and sorted in the past five years, there was less than a hundred pounds of fast-food packaging-that is, containers or wrappers for hamburgers, pizzas, chicken, fish and convenience-store sandwiches, as well as the accessories most of us deplore, such as cups, lids, straws, sauce containers, and so on.

Contrary to popular perceptions, fast-food packages make up far less than 1 percent of most landfills.

In other words, less than one-half of 1 percent of the weight of the materials excavated from landfills consisted of fast-food packaging. As for the amount of space that fast-food packaging takes up-a more important consideration than weight-the Garbage Project estimate is that fast-food packages account for no more than one-third of 1 percent of the total volume of the average landfill's contents.

What about expanded polystyrene foam? The stuff is, of course, used for many things. But only about 10 percent of all foam plastics manufactured during the past decade was used for fast-food packaging. Most foam was (and is) blown into egg cartons, meat trays, coffee cups, lightweight "peanuts" for packing delicate things, and the intriguing molded forms that keep electronic appliances safe in their shipping cases. Judging from the results of detailed landfill excavations, all the expanded polystyrene foam that is thrown away in the United States every year accounts for no more than 1 percent of the volume of landfilled garbage.

Expanded polystyrene foam, nevertheless, has been the focus of many vocal campaigns to ban it outright. It is worth remembering that if such foam were banned, the relatively small amount of space that it takes up in landfills would not be saved. Eggs, hamburgers, coffee and stereos must still be put in something.

When it comes to disposable diapers, some startling numbers do get bandied about. In 1987, the Portland Oregonian reported that disposable diapers made up one-quarter of the contents of local landfills. According to another estimate used by government agencies in recent years, disposable diapers constitute about 12 percent of total trash. These numbers are not, in fact, correct. The Garbage Project has consistently found that, on average, disposable diapers make up no more than 1 percent by weight of a typical landfill's total solid-waste content-and no more than 1.4 percent by volume.

Fast-food packaging, foam and disposable diapers have acquired high visibility because they are so noticeable among casual litter, and people think the components of everyday litter are the same as landfilled garbage. As a result, these items have become powerful symbolic targets. But if they disappeared tomorrow, landfill operators would hardly notice.

Myth No. 2: Plastic is also a big problem.

For the record it should be noted that the item most frequently encountered in landfills is plain old paper-it accounts for more than 40 percent of a landfill's contents; this proportion has held steady for decades and in some landfills has actually risen. Newspapers alone may take up as much as 13 percent of the space in American landfills. A year's worth of copies of the New York Times has been estimated to be equivalent in volume to 18,660 crushed aluminum cans or 14,969 flattened Big Mac clamshells.

There was a lot of talk some years ago about how technology, computers in particular, would bring about a "paperless office"-a risky prediction given the already apparent increase caused by the photocopy machine. Today there are 59 million personal computers in the United States with printers attached. Where the creation of paper waste is concerned, technology is proving to be not so much a contraceptive as a fertility drug. That said, what is the situation with respect to plastic? In landfill after landfill excavated by the Garbage Project, the volume of all plastics-foam, film and rigid; toys, utensils and packages-amounted to between 20 and 24 percent of all garbage, as sorted; when compacted along with everything else, as it is in landfills, the volume of plastics fell to only about 16 percent.

Even if plastics' share of total garbage is, at the moment, fairly low, isn't it true that plastics take up a larger and larger proportion of landfill space with every passing year? Unquestionably, a larger number of physical objects are made of plastic today than were in 1970, or 1950. But a curious phenomenon becomes apparent when garbage deposits from our own time are compared with those from landfill strata characteristic of, say, the 1970's. While the number of individual plastic objects to be found in a deposit of garbage of a given size has increased considerably in the course of a decade and a half-more than doubling-the proportion of landfill space taken up by those plastics has not changed; at some landfills the proportion of space up by plastics was actually a little less in the 1980's than in the '70s.

The proportion of space taken up by plastics in some landfills has actually decreased because of light-weighting.

The explanation appears to be the result of what is known in the plastics industry as "light-weighting"-making objects in such a way that the object retains all the necessary functional characteristics but requires the use of less resin. The concept of light-weighting is not limited to the making of plastics; the maker of glass bottles have been light-weighting their wares for decades, with the result that bottles today are 25 percent lighter than they were in 1984.

Using fewer raw materials for a product that is lighter and therefore cheaper to transport usually translates into a competitive edge, and companies that rely heavily on plastics have been light-weighting ever since plastics were introduced. Soda bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) weighed 67 grams in 1974; today they weigh 48 grams. In the mid-'60s high-density polyethylene milk jugs weighed about 120 grams; today the number is 65. Plastic grocery bags had a thickness of 30 microns in 1976; the thickness today is at most 18 microns. Even the plastic in disposable diapers has been light-weighted, although the super-absorbent material that was added at the same time (1986) ensured that while diapers may enter the house lighter, they will leave than ever. In most cases, when plastic gets lighter, it also gets thinner and more crushable. The result is that many more plastic items can be squeezed into a given volume of landfill space today than could fit 10 or 20 years ago.

Myth No. 3: A lot of biodegradation takes place in modern landfills. Plastic is the Great Satan of garbage: gaudy, cheap, a convenient scapegoat for people who claim we waste and consume too much. Although it is paper more than anything else that is filling up landfills, in paper's defense one frequently hears: Well, at least paper biodegrades; plastic remains inert and will take up space in a landfill until the end of time. Not really.

Misconceptions about the interior life of landfills are profound-not surprisingly, since so very few people can (or would want to) venture inside one. There is a popular notion that in the depths of a typical municipal landfill lies a roiling caldron of fermentation-intense chemical and biological activity. That perception is accompanied by a certain ambivalence. Landfills are seen, on the one hand, as places where organic matter is rapidly breaking down-biodegrading-into a sort of rich, moist brown humus, returning at last to the bosom of Mother Nature. In this view, biodegradation is something devoutly to be wished, an environmentally correct outcome of the first magnitude. On the other hand, coexisting with the romance of biodegradation, there is the view of landfills as environments from which a toxic broth of chemicals leaches into the surrounding soil, polluting groundwater and nearby lakes and streams. What both views have in common is the assumption that a great deal of biodegradation is taking place.

Well, some biodegradation is taking place-otherwise landfills would produce none of the large amounts of methane and trace amounts of other gases that they do in fact produce. In reality, however, the dynamics of a modern landfill are very nearly the opposite of what most people think. Biologically and chemically, a landfill is much more static than we commonly suppose. For some kinds of organic garbage, biodegradation goes on for a while and then slows to a virtual standstill. For other kinds, biodegradation never gets under way at all.

Biodegradation was the target of a major Garbage Project research program. The first question observers set out to answer was: After a period of 10 or 15 years, is there much identifiable paper and other organic debris remaining in a typical landfill? Or has it mostly been transformed into methane and humus? Landfills vary, of course, but when the paper items are combined with food waste, yard waste and wood (mostly lumber used in construction), the overall volume of old organic material recovered largely intact from the landfill excavated by the Garbage Project turned out to be astonishingly high.

For example, at the Mallard North Landfill, outside Chicago, organics represented 50.6 percent of the 10-to-15-year-old garbage excavated. Some 40 percent of 25-year-old garbage at Sunnyvale Landfill, near San Francisco, was organic. And at the Rio Salado Landfill, near Phoenix, organics totaled nearly 50 percent of the excavated garbage that dated back to the 1950s.

Almost all this material remained readily identifiable: pages from coloring books were still clearly that; onion parings were onion parings, carrot tops were carrot tops. In the course of every excavation the Garbage Project has done, whole hot dogs have been found, some of them in strata suggesting an age upwards of several decades. From the newspapers in America's landfills you could relive the New Deal.

The picture of biodegradation that emerges from these and other Garbage Project investigations is something like the following. Under normal landfill conditions-in which garbage is covered with dirt after being dumped, and the landfill is kept relatively dry-the only types of garbage that truly decompose are certain kinds of food and yard waste. And these obligingly biodegradable items account for less than 10 percent of the average landfill's contents. Even after two decades, a third to a half of supposedly vulnerable organics remain in recognizable condition. This portion may continue to experience biodegradation, but at a snail's pace. That finding accords with what is known of the typical life cycle of a field of methane wells, which are drilled to draw gas out of landfills. For 15 or 20 years after a landfill has stopped accepting garbage, the wells vent methane in fairly substantial amounts. Then methane production drops off rapidly, indicating that the landfill has stabilized. Henceforth, it would seem, whatever is in the landfill won't be changing very much.

Well-designed and well-managed landfills, in particular, seem to be far more apt to preserve their contents for posterity tan to transform them into humus or mulch. They are not vast composters; rather, they are vast mummifiers. But no need to panic. This may be a good thing. For while there are advantages to biodegradation, it is unquestionably true that the more things decompose in a landfill, the more opportunities there will be for a landfill's noxious contents to come back and haunt us.

Myth No. 4: America is running out of safe places to put landfills. There can be no disputing the fact that there is, for the time being, an acute shortage of landfills that are still available for deposits, especially in the Northeastern United States. Since 1978, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, some 14,000 landfills have been shut down nationwide (leaving some 6,000 in operation).

Still, as the University of Pennsylvania's waste-management expert, Iraj Zandi, has shown, these figures somewhat overstate the problem. Many of the shut-down "landfills" were actually open dumps being closed for environmental reasons. And whatever the nature of the sites, they have tended to be relatively small, whereas those that remain open are quite large.

In 1988, for example, 70 percent of the country's landfills-the smaller ones-handled less than 5 percent or the municipal solid waste that was landfilled nationwide; that same year, fewer than 500 landfills, or about 8 percent of the total-the bigger ones-handled nearly 75 percent of our landfilled garbage. "It appears," Zandi writes, "that the trend is toward operating fewer but larger landfills. This phenomenon coincides with the trend in the rest of the industrialized world." As of 1990, some 42 percent of all landfills were under 10 acres in size, 51 percent were between 10 and 100 acres, and 6 percent were larger than 100 acres. Regionally, of course, the situation is in many cases dire. In New Jersey (pop. 7.7 million), the number of landfills has dropped from more than 300 to about a dozen during the past 15 years.

The customary formulation of the problem that we face is that within the next five years 50 percent of the landfills now in use will close down. Describing the situation this way makes it seem as if Americans have somehow speeded up the throwaway society. As it happens, it has always been the case that half of all landfills in use at any given time will close within five years. It was true back in 1970 and in 1960, too, because the waste-management industry has never seen the need to maintain excess capacity beyond a certain level. In the past, however, new landfill capacity was rarely hard to obtain. The difference today is not that we're filling up landfills at a rapidly increasing pace, but that in many places used-up capacity is simply not being replaced.

Why aren't more permits being granted? The reasons usually have nothing to do with the claim most frequently offered: We are running out of room for landfills. Yes, it is sometimes the case that a community or a state has run out of room. In the congested Northeast there is not all that space left for landfills, at least not safe ones. In the nation as a whole, however, there is room aplenty. The United States is a big enormous tracts of empty countryside.

In a study published by the Washington-based think tank Resources for the Future, economist A. Clark Wiseman has calculated that at the current rate of waste generation, all of America's garbage for the next 1,000 years would fit into a single landfill space only 120 feet deep and 44 miles square-a patch of land about the size of three Oklahoma Cities. So vast a landfill is, for any number of reasons, completely impractical, of course. The point here is simply that the total amount of space necessary will not be all that large. Few nations are as substantially endowed with uncongested territory as ours is, and there is appropriate land available even in some relatively populous areas. Recently, Browning-Ferris Industries, one of the nation's two biggest full-service garbage disposal companies, commissioned an environmental survey of eastern New York State with the express aim of determining where landfills might safely be located. The survey pinpointed sites that represented 200 square miles of territory-which constituted only 1 percent of the region's land area. Yet with all this available land, the state has, since 1982, closed down 349 landfills and opened only 6.

The obstacles to new sanitary landfills these days are to some extent monetary-landfills are indeed expensive. But more important, the obstacles are psychological and political. Nobody wants garbage dump in his or her backyard. It is ironic. We have convinced ourselves that our big flaw is that we are wasteful and profligate, while a much more serious flaw goes unnoticed: as a nation, on the subject of garbage, at least, we have become politically impotent.

Myth No. 5: On a per capita basis, Americans are producing garbage at a rapidly accelerating rate.

Not much comparable data is available on garbage-generation rates during different periods of time, but what little there is does not support the view that per capita rates have steadily accelerated. Garbage Project sortings of large amounts of household garbage in Milwaukee during the late '70s found that households there threw out garbage at a rate of about a pound and a half per person per day. Fortunately, data exists on Milwaukee from a period 20 years earlier-1959, specifically. A study done at the time for a doctoral dissertation in environmental engineering by John Bell of Purdue University found that Milwaukee households were throwing away slightly more garbage than were their 1970s counterparts: about 1.9 pounds per person per day. Admittedly, this estimate involved only household waste, not the larger category of municipal solid waste. But household waste is by far the largest contributor to municipal solid waste, and the Milwaukee comparison at least deserves a place in the evidence pile.

Looking at the matter another way, let us assume that the Environmental Protection Agency is right when it estimates that the average American throws out about 1,500 pounds of garbage a year. That certainly seems like a lot. History reminds us, though, that many former components of American garbage no longer exist-major components whose absence does not even register in the collective memory. Thus, we do not see the 1,200 pounds per year of coal ash that the average American generated from home stoves and furnaces at the turn of the century-and usually dumped on the poor side of town. We do not see the more than 20 pounds of manure that each of the more than three million horses living in cities produced every day at the turn of the century, or the hundreds of thousands of dead horses that cities had to dispose of every year. We do not see all the food that households once wasted willy-nilly because refrigeration and sophisticated packaging were not yet widespread.

It is undeniable that Americans as a whole are producing more municipal solid waste than they did 50 or 100 years ago. But this is largely because there are more Americans than there were 100 or even 50 years ago (63 million in 1890, 132 million in 1940, 248 million now).

These days, debates swirl about the fine points of per capita garbage-generation rates and whether they've been going up slightly year by year in recent decades, and by how much. Certainly, wars, recessions and social innovation (for example, the advent of curbside recycling) cause yearly variations in the solid-waste stream, though in ways that economists and social scientists cannot yet accurately describe. But a long view of American's municipal solid waste would suggest that, on a per capita basis, the nation's record is hardly one of unrestrained excess. Indeed, the word that best describes the situation with respect to overall volume many be "stability."

If the work of the Garbage Project seems somewhat reassuring, the reassurance is an unsatisfying kind: it suggests that we may not be quite as bad as we thought, that our problems are perhaps not quite as terrible as we believed. But the disposal of garbage remains a matter in need of serious attention. And the most critical part of the garbage problem in America may be that our notions about the creation and disposal of garbage are riddled with misconceptions. We go after glamorous symbolic targets rather than the serious but mundane ones. Impelled by a sense of crisis, we make hasty decisions when nothing about the situation warrants anything but calm. We castigate ourselves for certain imperfections but not for the ones that really matter.

And we lose sight of fundamentals. The solid-waste stream has not suddenly become a raging torrent. The means we have for disposing of garbage-in landfills, through incineration, through recycling-have never been safer or more technically advanced. And since the late 19th century, America's record with respect to garbage disposal has been one of gradual improvement. It remains to be seen whether this record can be sustained in the face of not-in-my-backyard outrage that has led to political impasse on solid-waste issues all over the country.

What should be done? To a certain extent, that depends on where you are. Conditions vary. In the future, a congested place like New York City, hemmed by suburbs, will have to burn its garbage, whereas a place like Tucson, in open country, will probably be able to rely on landfills forever. Whatever the disposal means that are selected, we should be willing to pay prorated fees for the collection and disposal of non-recyclable garbage. Charging a fee for non-recyclable garbage thrown away, while not charging for recyclable refuse, has precisely the effect economic theory would predict: recycling rates improve, and the overall volume of non-recyclable garbage diminishes. This system, tried in cities like Seattle, works. Adopted on a broad scale, the impact will ripple backward, encouraging manufacturers to use less packaging and to make products with ease of recycling in mind.

We should buy goods and packaging with a high recycled content. The biggest problem faced by recycling is not the technological process of turning one thing into another. Anything can be recycled-and would be if demand for what it could be recycled into were great enough. The key, then, is demand, and demand for many recyclables is often soft. Consumers can increase demand of buying wisely. But to do so they will have to become garbage literate, because labels can be deceptive. For example, the word "recycled" on a package generally means not that a product has been made, at least in part, out of something that a consumer once bought and then turned in for recycling, but rather that it has been made in part with scrap left over from the normal manufacturing process-business as usual in any well-run factory. The label one needs to look for is "post-consumer recycled," and ideally the label will include a percentage, as in "30 percent post-consumer recycled." Anything above 10 percent is worthwhile. Finally, the garbage problems that the United States has experienced will have had an unexpected welcome outcome if they drive home a lesson relevant to multiple public policy issues: namely, that public and political notion of our situation and what our situation really is do not match. In many cases they do not even closely approximate each other. This conclusion has emerged time and again form Garbage Project studies. Disdained commodity though it is, garbage offers a useful, if ironic, reminder of one of the fundamentals of critical self-knowledge-that we do not necessarily know many things that we think we know. That is not the usual starting point of most discussions in America, especially political ones. But it is not a bad starting point at all.