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Rubbish: The Archeology of Garbage.

For 20 years, researchers with the University of Arizona's Garbage Project sorted, catalogued, and analyzed America's rubbish--some 250,000 pounds of it, excavated from landfills and fresh from garbage cans in selected neighborhoods. In Rubbish, William Rathje, an archeologist and professor of anthropology who led the project, and Cullen Murphy, an editor at The Atlantic, summarize the project's findings and, in so doing, trash much conventional wisdom about garbage.

The Garbage Project's excavations produced the first hard data on what is actually in a landfill. Paper, it turns out, is the worst culprit, occupying some 40 percent of the total space. And its share is growing rapidly with the onset of the information age. Little of it degrades, and ink from newspapers pollutes. Recycling of paper has been stifled by glutted markets, so it is often stored in warehouses, then surreptitiously dumped in landfills under the cover of darkness.

Fast-food packaging, disposable diapers, and plastics in general "do not deserve the blame they have received." Less than 100 pounds out of 14 tons sorted by the Garbage Project consisted of fast-food packaging of any kind. More important, such packaging accounted for no more than one-third of 1 percent of the total volume of a typical landfill. Disposable diapers occupied a piddling 1.4 percent of landfill volume. Plastics as a whole made up an estimated 20 to 24 percent of the total volume of all garbage sorted by the project in the 1980s. The authors note, however, that "when compacted along with everything else, in order to replicate actual conditions inside a landfill, the volume of plastics was reduced to under 16 percent." This is well below the conventional estimate of 20 to 30 percent.

The project's researchers found that overall, besides huge quantities of paper, landfills contained construction debris (12 percent), food and yard waste, glass, metal, and plastic, each accounting for 10 to 17 percent of total volume. They also found that biodegradability in landfills is vastly overrated. Not much occurs--they found an intact 20-year-old hot dog--and what does degrade often causes polluting leachate. This is far from the usual environment-friendly image of biodegradable materials.

The project also discovered that waste from households is about as hazardous as that from commercial establishments. If, for example, one bought the chemicals contained in nail polish in 55-gallon drums instead of half-ounce bottles, one would be required by law to dump them in a hazardous waste disposal site; yet, in Tucson alone, 350,000 bottles of nail polish are thrown away each year.

Problem or crisis?

Rathje and Murphy look first at what's in America's garbage; they then examine how we dispose of it. They tell us that, contrary to popular wisdom, "our garbage is not about to overwhelm us." Communities have plenty of time to consider their disposal options and make wise choices. "The worst thing to do would be to blow the problem out of proportion, as if garbage were some meteor hurtling toward the planet." The authors point out that, on a per-capita basis, Americans are not producing any more municipal solid waste today than they were 20, 50, or 100 years ago. The total (12 billion tons) is greater, but only because there are more of us.

We also are not running out of landfill space, Rathje and Murphy assure us." All of America's garbage for the next 1,000 years would fit into a space 120 feet deep and 44 miles square--a patch of earth representing less than 0.1 percent of the surface area of the United States." But we are running out of land that some communities, especially in the Northeast, are willing to use as dumps--and that, say the authors, has been true for at least 100 years.

Although the authors deny that there is a waste-management crisis, they do acknowledge a "serious problem." They do not define that problem, but the reader can surmise that it is one of difficult policy choices, not of environmental constraints. Landfills are overflowing and Americans are unwilling, not unable, to create more of them. Rathje and Murphy consider four alternatives to landfills. The first is reducing the amount of trash produced, which, although obviously desirable, has inherent limitations. Composting, a second possibility, is one way of disposing of yard and food waste, but the authors are dubious about its practicality on a large scale because of its expense. That leaves incineration and recycling, the former--despite its pollution dangers--being the only alternative for the approximately 25 percent of our garbage that cannot be recycled.

The authors devote considerable attention to recycling and to the "hodgepodge" of laws that have been enacted to achieve it. They rightly note that much of what is perceived as recycling is in fact only collecting and sorting trash." Recycling has not occurred until the loop is closed; that is, until someone buys (or gets paid to take) the sorted materials, manufactures them into something else, and sells that something back to the public."

In 1992, about 15 percent of U.S. solid waste was being recycled. This is far from the target of 25 percent set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That goal cannot be reached unless recycling is made profitable--as indeed it is with aluminum, glass, and some varieties of plastic but as it definitely is not with paper. The remedy is to foster demand. As the authors say, "The problem is finding significant outlets for . . . recycled products that also make economic, political, environmental, and psychological sense. . . . The key is to maintain a tension between supply and demand."

Rubbish is a good book as far as it goes. It should cause us to learn more about garbage and its effects and to train professionals to manage it effectively. Unfortunately, however, the authors' infatuation with deflating the alarmists may confirm the view of many that since there is no crisis, there is no problem. And the authors' refusal to define that problem threatens to undermine their thoughtful comments on remedies and their obvious concern about the damage being done--by, for example, the millions of gallons of toxic ooze flowing from the monstrous Fresh Kills landfill into New York Harbor.

Options for the future

If we do not want landfills in our backyards, we must reduce the amount of waste produced or recycle or incinerate it. Since source reduction is inherently limited, we are left with recycling and incineration. If these alternatives are to be acceptable and effective, there are technological, economic, social, political, and ideological challenges to be overcome. The problem is systemic; there is no quick fix, technological or otherwise.

To begin with, we must know the facts. Rathje and his colleagues have made a useful and imaginative start, but additional research is essential to determine what is ecologically good and bad about landfills and incineration. For recycling to work, supply and demand must be managed and balanced. Today, plastics users who would like to convert to recycled plastic are refraining from doing so because they are not sure of the supply, and suppliers are reluctant to commit to recycling because of uncertainty about demand. One quick and easy step would be for all levels of government to purchase only paper and plastic products that are manufactured with recycled materials. Overnight there would be a massive increase in recycling.

To be efficient, recycling requires considerable economies of scale. The old notion that trash is the proper concern only of the local community no longer makes sense. Regions, states, and the nation as a whole are also appropriate communities to manage recycling. And such management requires the cooperation of many industries, suppliers, and users, together with representatives of government and science. (Elsewhere, Jeffrey Rayport and I have described in some detail a design for an effective infrastructure to make plastic recycling both efficient and economical. See "Knee-deep and Rising: America's Recycling Crisis," Harvard Business Review, September-October 1991).

The way to proceed is certainly not through a plethora of varying local and state laws mandating targets and restrictions. To start with, the new EPA administrator should establish a foundation for integrated multimaterial-recycling, including plastic. Its membership should include representatives of the major industrial stakeholders. This foundation would operate at national and regional levels to design and manage recycling infrastructures and to recommend federal, state, and local legislation to provide the carrots and sticks of public policy to make them work. As a nongovernmental organization, the foundation would have the flexibility to draw on whatever expertise is required and to design whatever system seems most efficient. At the same time, its charter would endow it with the authority required to make its decisions effective and politically acceptable.

To give but a few examples, the foundation could usefully concern itself with:

* Creating markets for recycled materials through procurement incentives for business and requirements for government agencies;

* Setting standards for environmentally acceptable products and packaging;

* Creating and administering "green" product certification through an ecolabeling system, such as Taiwan's Ecomark or Germany's Blue Angel, and

* Designing incentives and penalties to stimulate recycling, such as tax credits for the use of recycled materials and fees on the use of virgin material.

Establishing such a foundation is the only sensible way to approach the waste-management challenge. Because it would be neither public nor private, it would avoid the adversarial pitfalls that plague both sides, while joining authority and competence in a single body. It would be captive to no special interest, since it would be widely representative and charged with sharing the costs and benefits of waste management with all its stakeholders. And it could move aggressively in the short run to balance supply and demand, while-creating infrastructure that would benefit all parties in the long run.

George C. Lodge is the Jaime and Josefina Chua Tiampo Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business Administration at Harvard Business School and the author of Perestroika for America (Harvard Business School Press, 1991).
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Author:Lodge, George C.
Publication:Issues in Science and Technology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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