Katrina, Rita, Stan, Wilma: The hurricanes of 2005 follow last season’s onslaught of vicious storms that slammed Florida and the Caribbean. But this year, the toll is much higher. Katrina’s raging winds and water killed hundreds, displaced more than a half-million, caused tens of billions of dollars in damage and pulverized the social order of one of the largest cities in the United States. A few weeks later, Rita incited the biggest exodus ever seen in American history, as more than 2 million people fled their homes. And outside this country, Hurricane Stan triggered horrific mudslides in Guatemala that buried more than 1,000 people alive, turning their villages into mass grave sites. Today it’s increasingly accepted that the ferocity of these storms is stoked by global warming.
Think greenhouse gases, and what most readily comes to mind are industrial smokestacks and bulky, gas-gluttonous SUVs. But there is a stealthier and increasingly threatening culprit driving climate change, and it’s equally close to home: the massive landfills where we stash our garbage.
In contrast to the Gulf Coast, things appear relatively calm in the Virginia countryside. Amid the encroaching suburban sprawl that rolls south from Washington, half-vacant strip malls along Highway 3 slowly give way to verdant corn and soy fields. About twenty miles east of Fredericksburg, a neatly tiered hill, about 170 feet high, asserts itself in the hazy blue sky, well above the billowing oak trees. This is the King George County Landfill, operated by the world’s chief rubbish handling corporation, the multibillion-dollar Waste Management Inc. (WMI).
King George looks like any typical modern-day garbage landfill, except it’s not. Atop this grass-cloaked trash butte is a ten-acre parcel dedicated to research and development on the next generation of sanitary landfills, known in the industry as the “bioreactor.” This facility pumps enormous volumes of toxic liquids into the guts of the landfill to speed the decomposition of organic materials, which will hasten the dump’s settling and make more room for discards. The bioreactor’s intensified decaying also forces a sharp spike in methane gas, a natural byproduct of biodegradation. This is a problem because methane is a serious global warming threat: According to the Environmental Protection Agency, it’s twenty-one times more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide. Peter Anderson, executive director of the Center for a Competitive Waste Industry, explains, “Bioreactors are giant greenhouse gas machines.”
Regardless, firms like WMI–which, according to a senior company official, has spent more than $22 million on R&D at the King George facility and nine other demonstration bioreactors in North America–are working hard to make this new technology an industry standard. Michael Thomas, the engineer at King George, says that if these tests go well, “you’re going to see landfills all over the country converting to bioreactors.”
Despite a growing chorus of environmentalists, climate experts and political leaders calling urgently for remedies to global warming, projects like the bioreactor are proceeding apace, largely outside the realm of public debate. But the bioreactor would drastically reshape the way rubbish is disposed of in the trash-rich United States, generator of more than 30 percent of municipal wastes created by Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development-member countries.
So what are the forces driving the development of this new technology? The bioreactor, with all its hazardous potential, is the latest product of an industry that’s undergone intense corporatization over the past several decades, fostering a system reliant on ever greater levels of wasting, no matter the environmental toll. The corporations that handle much of the country’s garbage today make their money in direct proportion to the amount that gets thrown away: the more trash, the more cash. In fact, these companies earn the highest profits from castoffs that get landfilled; burying rubbish generates more before-tax income than all other waste company operations combined. And since organic items make up almost two-thirds of all landfilled waste, these firms would stand to lose vast profits if those discards were diverted to, say, a composting program. Bioreactor technology, by contrast, is designed to maintain maximum flows of discards into the ground.