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Landfill Hits and Myths

Landfills manage to inspire an extraordinary amount of passion as well as nonsense. Instead of being viewed as public health necessities, they often are viewed as the devil's creations. People who don't like landfills call them "dumps," regardless of whether or not the facility is operating in accordance with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C., and state environmental regulations.

This bias even manifests itself in the press. A reporter for a national newspaper constantly uses the word "dumps" instead of "landfills." Maybe he is afraid that if he called a landfill a landfill, he'd be admitting that these facilities are environmentally protective.

The bias really hits the fan when a new landfill is proposed. Some people attack landfills in language that is so vitriolic, you'd think they were talking about an underground Chernobyl, which would surely poison everyone in its path.

In northern Ontario, opponents of a proposed landfill went to the Vatican to have the Pope intercede on their behalf (apparently he did, the landfill will not be built).

Yet what do these people and the reporter really want? If we can't site new disposal facilities, are people prepared to bury or burn their garbage in their own backyards?

Landfills inspire people in other bizarre ways. Several years ago, a British restaurant executive admitted that polystyrene waste collected in a recycling program was tossed into landfills instead of being recycled. He insisted this was OK because "otherwise you will end up with lots of vast, empty gravel pits all over the country."

I quickly realized, he was just propagating another landfill myth. In this case, landfills are needed to level out the countryside. At first I thought he was a member of the Flat Earth Society. (Hey, I'm from Oklahoma, flatlands work for me.)

My favorite landfill myths involve Fresh Kills, Staten Island, N.Y. According to the first myth, this is the largest landfill in the world. Yet, in 1997, before New York City started closing Fresh Kills, the Puente Hills landfill in Los Angeles received more garbage. Even larger landfills might exist in other countries.

The other myth is that Fresh Kills is so large that it can be seen from outer space. Because you can't see Staten Island from outer space, how could you possibly see a facility that probably occupies less than 1 percent of Staten Island's landmass?

Landfilling is necessary and inevitable. Even if we recycle 50 percent of our solid waste, we need to dispose of the other 50 percent. If we burn that material in incinerators, we still will need landfills for incinerated ash, nonprocessible waste and bypass waste, which can amount to 50 percent of an incinerator's input.

Yes, we need to ensure that landfills are operated in accordance with all regulations. Also, it's probably a good idea to have monthly tours of landfill facilities so that the public knows how well these facilities are operated. Maybe then, we can dispose of these myths.