The Landfill Crisis

by Jay Johansen
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Are we running out of resources? You frequently hear statistics which, it is claimed, prove that some resource is near exhaustion. When you hear such claims, perhaps you should carefully examine the logic.

For example, a few years ago the news media in Ohio reported that Ohio was running out of landfill space. One radio report that I heard said that "all available landifll space in the state" would be filled in five years.

Think about that for a moment. What does that mean? It sounds like it means that every square foot of the state not already taken up by houses or factories or roads would be buried under trash within five years. That's pretty hard to believe. I live in one of the more crowded parts of the state, and just driving to work every day I pass many acres of open land. Granted some of this land may not be suitable for landfills for a variety of reasons -- dangerous chemicals would be likely to leak into ground water or some such. But there are still millions of acres of open land in Ohio.

The factual basis behind the story was that the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency had estimated that all of the space which had already been purchased, prepared, and approved by regulatory agencies for use as a landfill site would be filled in five years. Now a little thought will show that this is no reason for alarm or even surprise. Suppose you are an employee of a waste disposal company in charge of managing landfills. How much land will you buy for this purpose? Presumably you'll make some estimate of how much trash you will have to dispose of, and then buy enough landfill space to meet your needs for some reasonable period of time, maybe five or ten or twenty years. Under normal circumstances it would be foolish to acquire more land than this, because you'd just be tying up money that could be invested better elsewhere. (If nothing else, you'd be better to put your money in the bank for twenty years and collect interest, rather than buy land you don't need and pay upkeep and property taxes.) If every trash company in the state buys enough for 10 years at a time, and doesn't buy more until that is almost filled, then on the average we'd have 5 years of available capacity.

That warning came out in 1988. It's been more than five years, and I don't see garbage piling up in my back yard. So if you're wondering what happened, I'll tell you: The state legislature passed laws encouraging cities to reduce the amount of trash they produced and loosened some regulations to make it easier to open new and larger landfills. According to an article from the May 15, 1994 Columbus Dispatch, "Ohio has enough landfill space to take 10 years worth of trash. And space for another eight years worth of trash is already approved but not opened. Add another 10 years worth of space under review." The article went on to say that the companies that run these landfills are now furiously cutting their prices to try to attract business from each other, and environmentalists are concerned that these low prices may reduce the incentive to recycle.

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Posted 10 Sep 2000.

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