People are either attracted to or repelled by dumps. I know a kid who will drop anything he is doing at the moment whenever I mention I am taking a load to the county waste facility. He loves nothing more than to peer over the edge of the drive up disposal ramp and look down into the deep dumpsters and see what people don’t want anymore. He might not have the stomach for this if it were the actual landfill we had to visit but I have a feeling that his inquisitive nature would still win out. He says things like “that’s a perfectly good sofa” or “that lamp would look good in my room”. He is inadvertently healthy with his “reuse, recycle” mindset. When I tease him about wanting to run a junkyard like Fred Sanford from his favorite old sitcom, he just grins and gives a half nod. But I know today’s trip to the dump may well be taking him in the right direction when considering a future career.
A walk through a metal and plastic bone yard like Fred Sanford’s lot,(aka junkyard) is an antiseptic experience when compared with a visit to a landfill site. Archaeologists, those people who like to dig, haven’t skipped a beat when it comes to exploring the mountains of refuse we are building in this country. Like forensic sleuths, they don face masks and take samplings at various depths to draw conclusions about our history over the past century. Shreds of clothing, newspaper and food packaging tell a lot about how people live their lives. But there are other thought arresting environmental conclusions these archaeologists share with us.
Sounding an alarm, ecology experts and these garbage archaeologists have been trying for years to get the public to think more seriously about what so blithely gets tossed into the household trash. The statistics these scientists spiel are so drastic, they are mind numbing. To date, no one knows how long, if ever, it takes for Styrofoam to disintegrate, an ordinary soup can take 80 to 100 years to powder away and the decomposition of disposable adult diapers can take over 200 years. There is no such thing as a free lunch and our children are going to have to pay for the lunch wrappers, too, unless there is soon evidence of transformed thought and some serious innovation.
Why, you may ask, would I specifically bring up the topic of adult diapers? The fact is that a shocking 10% of all landfill bulk consists of diapers; baby diapers equal 3% of this figure, adult diapers 7%. With the large demographic of Baby Boomers shifting into senior life, along with a projected increased life expectancy, there is potential for a tremendous increase of demand for incontinence products. A baby usually wears diapers for only a little over two years and a baby’s bottom is small. Users of adult diapers do not have a predictable time frame for how long they will wear these disposable products; products which are easily three to four times larger than their juvenile version. Plus it can take literally hundreds of years for these particular disposed products to disintegrate in a typical oxygen starved landfill. These bleak facts should generate thoughtful discussion and action as to alternative methods and materials.
Perhaps to offset all the bleak and putrid facts, it is interesting to learn that waste management assigns color names to various household and office debris, albeit from a limited palette: White goods and Brown goods. The definitions of each are fuzzy from county to county, state to state. White generally means large appliances that can be recycled and the name Brown goods indicates what can’t be recycled, mainly small appliances and old computers. It is this unrecyclable category that consistently holds my boy’s attention on these visits and I take his avid interest as a hopeful sign for the future. He is giving these rejected objects some serious thought.
Ingenuity needs time to incubate and I have a hunch that this boy is interested in garbage for some very good reasons, reasons that will be good for the entire planet. Watching him, I suddenly realize that taking my son to the dump is my moral obligation and I am grateful for his fascination.
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Greg Asner: Ecology from the air