Titans of Trash

Titans of Trash

Gas-guzzling SUVs take a lot of blame, but landfills make stealthy stealthy contributions to climate change. While they should be developing innovative waste disposal strategies, corporate-owned landfills use techniques that generate heat-trapping methane that accelerate global warming.


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.

According to David Kirkpatrick, managing director of a Durham, North Carolina, firm that invests in clean technologies: “Clearly, [for-profit landfill operators] will make more money the more tons that come in. Any front-end separation for composting reduces the volumes going into the landfill, and that reduces revenues.”

In an Orwellian flipping of the script, WMI markets the bioreactor as a means of “enhancing environmental protection.” The corporation claims it can readily capture the dramatically increased methane output through wells dug into the bioreactor. This gas would then be channeled to power plants for conversion into electricity. In full green-washing mode, Gary Hater, the firm’s senior director of bioreactor technology, lays it out: “By going from methane to energy, you’re decreasing reliance on imported fuels and domestic fuels; you’re taking a waste material and generating green energy in a renewable way–you’re creating green energy!”

Never mind all the energy that’s wasted when discards are buried in landfills instead of getting reused or recycled. According to Neil Seldman of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 80 percent of US products are used once, then thrown away. If those items were built to last longer, if they were easier to repair and reuse, a lot less energy would be consumed in the first place.

How is it that waste treatment–such an integral part of daily life and environmental health–is overseen by a handful of corporations that can ignore these realities? As of 2003, the country’s top three garbage firms controlled more than 40 percent of the almost $45 billion market. And beneath their greenwashed veneers, these firms are mostly concerned with revenues. Their dominance has come about thanks to a dramatic industry restructuring in the past thirty years in which garbage conglomerates took over the waste business, rolling up mom-and-pop outfits and shoving publicly owned operations to the sidelines.

Two early players in the corporatization of garbage were WMI and Browning-Ferris Industries. These giants spearheaded the sector’s consolidation, buying out smaller firms in towns across the Sunbelt, then spreading north and into international markets. In building their empires, WMI and BFI also took their trash public, offering stocks to raise revenues, diverging sharply from previous industry norms. And in the 1990s a handful of newly powerful corporations like Allied Waste Industries and USA Waste Services followed WMI and BFI into the staggeringly profitable world of high-volume trash.

Viewed from the outside, this momentum appeared to hit a snag when, in 1991 the EPA instituted tighter controls for landfills. While further regulation may have seemed like a good move for the environment and an obstacle for the garbage corporations, in reality the big players benefited. The measure, known as Subtitle D, required all landfills to protect against groundwater and air pollution by converting to “dry tomb” technology; this entailed the costly installation of liners, along with gas and liquid leachate collection and monitoring systems. The big trash firms liked Subtitle D because it created barriers to entry for their less capitalized, smaller rivals and would price out many municipalities, facilitating yet further consolidation of the waste industry.

With their competitors on the ropes, the conglomerates went on a buying spree, plucking up defunct dumps to upgrade and opening new disposal sites in regional hubs like Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio and Michigan. Here the trash corporations built mammoth new “mega-fills,” giant disposal sites fully outfitted with all the required monitoring equipment.

During this time, the overall number of landfills nationwide declined as substandard dumps were shuttered. But meanwhile, under the conglomerates, actual burial capacity soared. Whereas yesterday’s landfills could take in anywhere from dozens to several hundred tons of refuse daily, new mega-fills could handle thousands of tons per day. This facilitated another shift in the industry, toward the inequitable exporting of wastes across state lines, mostly from urban centers like New York City to economically hollowed-out rural regions nearby.

Under the current regime, corporations are in charge of treating a huge portion of US household discards. With their colossal budgets and the political power they therefore wield, the trash giants exercise considerable influence over the way garbage will be treated in the coming decades. And they aren’t investing in waste-reduction, recycling or composting technologies in any significant way, although these are proven, ecologically sound methods. The bioreactor, with its dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, represents the latest effort by these firms to keep the spent, used and broken riches of our society pouring into the landfill.

Eliminating obstacles to accumulation has long been the goal of US business–whether it’s in manufacturing or waste disposal–and has led to a profoundly antienvironmental, undemocratic system. With increasing corporate ownership of garbage treatment and disposal, the public has been denied a meaningful role in devising better ways to reduce and recycle our wastes. Concern about profits and expanding markets, not human and environmental health, is what drives how we handle our garbage today.

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