EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 6. Early Signs of Decline: Throwaway Economy in Trouble

Another distinctly unhealthy trend is the swelling flow of garbage associated with a throwaway economy. Throwaway products were first conceived following World War II as a convenience and as a way of creating jobs and sustaining economic growth. The more goods produced and discarded, the reasoning went, the more jobs there would be.

What sold throwaways was their convenience. For example, rather than washing cloth towels or napkins, consumers welcomed disposable paper versions. Thus we have substituted facial tissues for handkerchiefs, disposable paper towels for hand towels, disposable table napkins for cloth ones, and throwaway beverage containers for refillable ones. Even the shopping bags we use to carry home throwaway products become part of the garbage flow.

The throwaway economy is on a collision course with the earth’s geological limits. Aside from running out of landfills near cities, the world is also fast running out of the cheap oil that is used to manufacture and transport throwaway products. Perhaps more fundamentally, there is not enough readily accessible lead, tin, copper, iron ore, or bauxite to sustain the throwaway economy beyond another generation or two. Assuming an annual 2-percent growth in extraction, U.S. Geological Survey data on economically recoverable reserves show the world has 17 years of reserves remaining for lead, 19 years for tin, 25 years for copper, 54 years for iron ore, and 68 years for bauxite. 36

The cost of hauling garbage from cities is rising as nearby landfills fill up and the price of oil climbs. One of the first major cities to exhaust its locally available landfills was New York. When the Fresh Kills landfill, the local destination for New York’s garbage, was permanently closed in March 2001, the city found itself hauling garbage to landfill sites in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and even Virginia—with some of the sites being 300 miles away. 37

Given the 12,000 tons of garbage produced each day in New York and assuming a load of 20 tons of garbage for each of the tractor-trailers used for the long-distance hauling, some 600 rigs are needed to move garbage from New York City daily. These tractor-trailers form a convoy nearly nine miles long—impeding traffic, polluting the air, and raising carbon emissions. This daily convoy led Deputy Mayor Joseph J. Lhota, who supervised the Fresh Kills shutdown, to observe that getting rid of the city’s trash is now “like a military-style operation on a daily basis.” 38

Fiscally strapped local communities in other states are willing to take New York’s garbage—if they are paid enough. Some see it as an economic bonanza. State governments, however, are saddled with increased road maintenance costs, traffic congestion, increased air pollution, potential water pollution from landfill leakage, and complaints from nearby communities.

In 2001 Virginia’s Governor Jim Gilmore wrote to Mayor Rudy Giuliani to complain about the use of Virginia for New York City’s trash. “I understand the problem New York faces,” he noted, “but the home state of Washington, Jefferson and Madison has no intention of becoming New York’s dumping ground.” 39

Garbage travails are not limited to New York City. Toronto, Canada’s largest city, closed its last remaining landfill on December 31, 2002, and now ships all its 750-thousand-ton-per-year garbage to Wayne County, Michigan. Ironically, the state of New Jersey, a recipient of New York’s waste, is now shipping up to 1,000 tons of demolition debris 600 miles each day—also to Wayne County in Michigan. 40

In Athens, the capital of ancient and modern Greece, the one landfill available reached saturation at the end of 2006. With local governments in Greece unwilling to accept Athens’s garbage, the city’s daily output of 6,000 tons began accumulating on the streets, creating a garbage crisis. The country is finally beginning to pay attention to what European Union environment commissioner Stavros Dimas, himself a Greek, calls the waste hierarchy, where priority is given first to the prevention of waste and then to its reuse, recycling, and recovery. 41

One of the more recent garbage crises is unfolding in China, where, like everything else in the country, the amount of garbage generated is growing fast. Xinhua, a Chinese wire service, reports that a survey using an airborne remote sensor detected 7,000 garbage dumps, each larger than 50 square meters in the suburbs of Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Chongqing. A large share of China’s garbage is recycled, burned, or composted, but an even larger share is dumped in landfills (where they are available) or simply heaped up in unoccupied areas. 42

The challenge is to replace the throwaway economy with a reduce-reuse-recycle economy. Officials should worry less about what to do with garbage and think more about how to avoid producing it in the first place.

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36. Calculated from U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries 2007 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2007).

37. Eric Lipton, “The Long and Winding Road Now Followed by New York City’s Trash,” New York Times, 24 March 2001.

38. Lester R. Brown, “New York: Garbage Capital of the World,” Eco-Economy Update (Washington, DC: Earth Policy Institute, April 2002); calculations by author, updated with The City of New York Department of Sanitation, “DSNY-Fact Sheet,” updated 27 October 2003; Kirk Johnson, “To City’s Burden, Add 11,000 Tons of Daily Trash,” New York Times, 24 March 2001; Lhota quoted in Lipton, op. cit. note 37.

39. Gilmore quoted in Lipton, op. cit. note 37.

40. Joel Kurth, “N.J. Piles Demolition Trash on Michigan,” Detroit News, 28 December 2004; City of Toronto, Canada, Solid Waste Management Division, “Facts about Toronto’s Trash,” Fact Sheet, at www.toronto.ca/garbage/facts.htm, updated 10 August 2006; Lipton, op. cit. note 37.

41. Niki Kitsantonis, “ Athens Is in the Grip of a Garbage Crisis,” International Herald Tribune, 28 January 2007.

42. “Fast Urbanization Dumps Garbage in Chinese Cities,” Xinhua News Agency, 18 August 2006.


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