natural systems

A short history of solid waste management

The explosive population growth combined with an increasing appetite for consumer goods, has led to an explosion in the amount of garbage we produce. Virtually every aspect of our daily lives generates waste, and it is impossible to think of any man-made process that does not create some waste. The spectrum ranges from refuse produced by all of us in our daily lives, to highly toxic industrial wastes from the production of specialized goods such as cars, electronics computers, cell phones and plastics. What happens to all this waste?

Some is recycled and re-introduced into the production cycle. Some is incinerated, and when this leads to the generation of electricity, useful steam or heat, it can be considered a form of recycling, or more appropriately, a conversion of waste to energy. The remaining waste winds up, as it has over the last three millennia, in a landfill. This basic method of placing garbage in large pits and cover it, at intervals, with layers of earth as remained relatively unchanged.

In Athens (500 B.C.) it was it was the responsibility of each household to taking their garbage to the disposal site located at a minimum of 1.5 kilometers from the city walls. With the Roman Empire, came the first garbage collection service. People threw their refuse into the streets from where it transported to an open pit, often located within the community, by horse-pulled carts. Centuries with no organized waste collection followed. Land was plentiful and people were few, and so garbage was simply dumped in convenient places and forgotten. By the 1700s, refuse had become a major problem: waste was still dumped in the streets and open burning of garbage was a common practice. And yet, it took another 150 years before scientific reports linking disease to filthy environmental conditions finally helped launch the ‘age of sanitation’.

In the United States, the modern concept of solid waste management first emerged in the 1890s. By the turn of the 20th century, a growing number of American cities provided at least a rudimentary level of solid waste collection and disposal, and around 1930 virtually all cities offered garbage collection services. Once removed from urban centers, the wastes were disposed of in a variety of ways, including landfills, incineration, water and, ocean disposal. The latter was outlawed 1933, however industrial and commercial wastes were exempted.

The post World War II era led to a significant escalation of the waste management problem for two reasons: consumerism (over-consumption) and the rise of the chemical age, which, together, resulted in dramatic changes in waste volumes, composition and toxicity.

The 1950s also brought us the so-called Sanitary Landfill, typically defined as an engineered method of disposing solid wastes on land by spreading the waste in thin layers, compacting it to the smallest practical volume and covering it with soil at the end of each working day. But despite the new terminology, it remained in essence an earth moving operation.

That only changed in the 1970s and 1980s, when people recognized that landfills were causing significant contamination of groundwater. The problem was compounded by the fact that once groundwater becomes contaminated it is exceedingly difficult to remediate.

As a result, a number of features were added. Bottom liners made of clays or synthetic materials such as impermeable high-density polyethylene were introduced to stop leachate from leaving the landfill. Caps made of similar materials were placed over the landfill to decrease the infiltration of precipitation. In addition, engineered collection systems were installed to capture leachate and gas. Monitoring of groundwater, surface water, and gas emissions became a routine part of landfill operations.

Despite all the improvement we have made to siting and operating landfills, the real problem is simply their large numbers and the expanses of valuable real estate they occupy. All along, landfills have been a child of convenience. Time has come to develop and implement waste management systems that do not impair our environment, use up valuable resources, or place limitations on future resources.

Public involvement is essential. Wastes are very democratic – they are produced by each and every one of us and so we all should contribute to the solution. The objective must be to minimize the impact on the environment through a combined strategy of reduction/reuse/recycling, and incineration and/or waste to energy conversion. Instead being the first choice, landfills will have to become the last resort.

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Can we discipline ourselves?

As humans we have the desire to understand and explain the world around us. For millennia we have strived to answer questions about life, physics and natural laws. Now it seems we are forced to seek answers to problems we have caused ourselves. The questions are whether we still have time to act, or whether the natural systems have already reached a point of no return.

During times, when nature in general seemed to be indestructible, exerting power and control over all remaining life was considered a natural right. Nature was considered an interference factor and we did not think, and many still don’t, that our own behavior could, in one way or another, significantly impact the natural systems, let alone throw them out of balance. The reality is that the planet reacts very slow; so slow in fact that it requires long-term observations to measure disturbances, disruptions, breakdowns and malfunctions. Hence, the warning signs reach us with such a delay that we mistakenly conclude we could behave and do what we want without consequence. And so we release smoke, soot and toxins into our environment, polluting the place that gave us life, nurtured us, quenches our thirst, provides food and fills our lungs with air.

A mere 150 years ago, natural disasters were practically not influenced by humans at all. Solely reacting to events for millennia, many of which we could not even put into any context, let alone explain, we are incapable to anticipate the outcomes of our actions over the time periods our planet needs to react to man-made pressures and changes.

An additional handicap is that man’s time horizon is short, at best 25 years. He will, if he was alone, do nothing to protect the earth. In an ironic twist of fate it is our intellectual abilities and our technology-based civilization (which have advanced the quality of our lives) that now threaten the survival of all living things on earth – including humans. As the German philosopher Hans Jonas put it, in man nature has disturbed itself with our morality being the only mitigation factor. We are approaching the abyss, and the fundamental question we are facing is whether or not we will be able to discipline ourselves and change course.

We have lived through paradigm shifts before: we once believed that the sun moves around the earth only to have science prove that the opposite is true. Now we are told that the problems (global warming, sea level rise, depletion of the life-protecting (stratospheric) ozone layer, marine pollution, soil degradation and the loss of species and biotope diversity) don’t exist, are not as urgent, are not caused by us, or a combination of all of the above. Again, science has been providing evidence to the contrary but many people continue to believe that the future will be much like the past, the task of avoiding disaster falling to markets and technologies. But think about this: the earth is stable, it does not grow. The input of the sun likewise remains constant. Much of the wealth, derived from that input and stored over tens of millions of years in fossil fuels, has already been consumed in less than two centuries. No technology in the world can alter this equation. The greatest problem is the illusion that subtle changes in course direction could guide us towards a life of cozy shopping malls while ensuring the survival of the natural systems, the glorious diversity of life that surrounds us, and our own species.

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