Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Buried alive! Preserving garbage for the future

Cedar Hills LandfillI've been mulling over something that I wanted to get your opinion on.

When I'm sorting through my garbage determining what I can recycle and what has to be thrown out because we don't have the technology or system to deal with those types of materials (many kinds of plastics, aluminum foil, etc.) I fantasize about the garbage going into the landfill to be recovered one day. I believe it's plausible that future generations will have better technology to deal with reusing many of the materials we can't today (or don't because of cost).

Now, call this wishful thinking and perhaps I'm trying to assuage some of the guilt of throwing out those old shampoo bottles or other things we had been given as gifts or just end up buying and using without paying attention to the packaging. But what about the possibility of retrieving these things if and when it gets to the point where new materials aren't likely to be made?

One of the things that strikes me is that when we run out of the cheap barrels of oil that we've relied on for the last fifty-plus years for making plastic, will it become cheaper to try to mine landfills for materials rather than make new ones out of a scarce resource? It may be cheaper to dig through the garbage rather than source new veins of metals and other materials.

If this is a possibility, does it make sense to bury like waste so if this does occur, future generations won't have to scrounge through heaps of food scraps, dirty diapers (although there might be something usable there) and other debris to get at the plastic waste or electronic waste they are mining? In other words, bury similar materials together (all styrofoam here, all e-waste there, etc.).

Of course, I am not suggesting that we not be absolutely careful about what we are using and throwing away, but there does exist a tremendous amount of electronic waste in the form of cell phones, computers, TVs, CFL bulbs, etc. that are chock full of hazardous but potentially valuable metals and other materials. The same thing goes for other types of waste, too.

Does this just further push the problem onto future generations while costing the current ones more for disposal since there would need to be separate containment facilities for each type of material? Or since we can't properly dispose of them anyway, should we charge users more for their disposal and containment?

What do you think?


JennAMom said...

Hmm, that's an interesting question! I have no idea. But it did remind me of a movie I saw a little while back: Idiocracy, by the same guy (Mike Judge) who wrote/directed Office Space. It takes place in a future that is dumbed-down and overrun with garbage (the garbage pile is important to the story.) It wasn't promoted because it totally skewers brand names like Starbucks. If you have Netflix, get it, you'll love it! (Sorry for going off topic!)

Robj98168 said...

You know Ms. CHicken, I think that man is an animal that is slow to learn a lesson. I think that our natural instinct is to leave it for the next generation. Maybe I feel that way because I still remember the eighties and thej era of excess and what is in it for me attitudes that ran our economy and government. You may be on to something about having to mine landfills for metals to fuel our need for more. We need the oil to make the plastic so some asshole can have his bottle of water. I have already seen on the inter-web thingy that they make a soy-oil based spray foam insulation, which both gladdened and saddened me at the same time- glad because this means they can make plastics from plant life, sad becasue it is a sign we will never leave our dependency on oil.

Howling Hill said...

In the documentary "The Corporation" this very thing is discussed. I highly recommend it if you haven't watched it yet.

Rev. Peter Doodes said...

Hi CC,
This week we had less than 10 ounces of waste that we could not recycle. Our neighbours (lovely people) have, for the second time this year, a 'skip' load (huge open lorry lifted container) of rubbish in addition to their normal binful. I can well imagine the landfills being mined in the future for what theyn have disposed of.


Anonymous said...

I definitely think it is worth sorting everything for future recycling possibilities as well as reuse possibilities for today. Where my grandparents live in Kingston, RI they have an amazing town "dump"- everything is sorted in a rather dignified way. You need a book, flower pots, newspaper for the compost, part for the head to the dump. Everything is so well kept and organized that it isn't a dirty thing to scrounge the dump...everyone does it. I don't have numbers for you, but I'm sure per capita they are wasting a whole lot less than the average town with a more traditional disposal approach. And in the future, if they find a way to recycle those poopie diapers into hats or granny will know just where they are.

Anonymous said...

This is interesting. In our rural landfill site most waste is already semi sorted into metals, compost(brush,leaves), appliances, plastics, paper, and toxic waste:batteries, electronics, oils, paints, medicines etc. Anything that is reusable and resalable is deposited in a depot/shop. The rest is considered household waste and put into the landfill. It is a start at least. I suspect in the future, further mining landfills will become necessary.
Some landfills are currently 'mined' for methane. Methane is collected and used to power municipal generators - Kirkland, Montreal comes to mind.

Joyce said...

We kind of do this, too, because our landfill doesn't accept large appliances and yardwaste, as well as techwaste types of things. But I think you are talking about smaller plastic items. So much of that can be recycled, it seems to me it would be better to just continue down that path and get strict about that going in the landfill.

Anonymous said...

this is off-topic, but it reminded me of something... when i was really young i didn't understand where oil came from. so i imagined that my dead pets (which we had buried in the backyard, near the vegetable garden) would one day turn into tiny pools of oil, which future generations would somehow find and use. oh the things kids imagine...

Anonymous said...

Heh, this post seems to remind folks of a lot of different things. I was put in mind of an old sci-fi short story, from David Brin I think, where one of the popular and viable industries of the future is landfill mining. This job consists of digging back out all of the plastic bottles, bags, and everything else for reuse, since there's no longer any oil to make new ones. Seems like a good idea to me...

jewishfarmer said...

I think this makes terrific sense, quite honestly - it would be great to get "local dump" style sorting for urban waste, for example. But then again, we already offshore our computer waste, for example, and send it to poor countries where desperately poor people extract the metals from toxic ooze. To do this on any scale, we'd have to be willing to pay for it, and also have a sense that we are throwing things other than "away" - but yes, this would be very wise.


Anonymous said...

It's an interesting idea, but I wonder if you could justify the expense of sorting or having additional collections (with added emissions) for an undertaking that may never bear fruit.

Then again, the organic stream (food and yard debris) is one that we're sure will yield energy. When organic materials rot, they emit methane. As sc said, methane can be used as a natural gas fuel or harnessed to create electricity. It's a win-win, as these landfill gas-to-energy schemes also prevent emission of a methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more harmful than carbon dioxide.

If you could get people or at least restaurants and supermarkets to separate their food waste, then bury it all in one place, it'd be easier to collect...Then again, if you can get people to separate food waste, it'd probably be wiser to send it to a commercial composting operation or an anaerobic digester.

Lisa Zahn said...

I have a book/cookbook called "Full Moon Feast" by Jessica Prentice (Chelsea Green Pub.) in which she writes about people studying how some mushrooms/fungi can eat our landfills to nothing. I thought that was amazing, and I hope it will someday soon happen as a program on a wide scale.

Still, reusing things already made is an even better idea. I like that some dumps make this possible! I've never heard of that.

In our city, St. Cloud, Minnesota, we have almost 100% recycling compliance because we have to pay for our garbage by the bag. It's $2 a bag--we buy special biodegradable plastic bags at the grocery store and they are the only ones acceptable for trash pickup. You see recycle bins out at everyone's homes, and usually not more than one trash bag a week.

Now, it takes our family 2-4 weeks to fill up one of those bags, which are slightly smaller than the big black trash bags that fit in the outdoor garbage cans. Still, even at one bag a week our city residents tend to have less trash than most because they're all recycling. People complain mightily about this "communist-style" trash system, but the truth is it works and our city has won awards for it. It's a start, anyway.

DC said...

Yep, I'm thinking in about a hundred years that they'll start mining these out of landfills to make new baby bottles (you may have to scroll down to see the entire image).

Anonymous said...

It's an interesting idea, though probably too cost-prohibitive to implement. I feel pretty sure we will be at the point of mining landfills sometime in the future, but those generations will just have to deal with sorting past old banana peels and alkaline batteries from the '80s in order to hit that Apple IIe vein. It'll be the future-modern-day equivalent of black lung, I guess.

There was actually some big shot in the computer world (can't remember exactly who at the moment) who actually suggested that we dump old computers into empty, tapped-out mines "because someone will be mining them for the metals eventually". Of course, that would be pretty bad for the environment - no liner to keep things out of ground water. And he was mostly suggesting it as a way to get out of dealing with computers as hazardous waste. But still...interesting.

Anonymous said...

(sorry, hit 'publish' a little early)

Although from what William Rathje has found, landfill mining may not be anywhere near as messy a task as we might think. When a landfill preserves stuff so hermetically that you can not only read the newspapers, but use them to date the food scraps nearby...not much is actually decomposing. They've found recognizable lettuce from the 70s before!

Chile said...

I definitely think landfills will be mined in the future. Whether they'd be willing to spend the money now to separate garbage is pretty dubious even if it's a good idea. The problem is getting companies and governments to spend money NOW for something that benefits someone else LATER. Rarely happens. Heck, that's partially why we're in the mess we're in now!

Couple pop culture references to this sort of thing. I haven't read the book, but Kunstler's new fiction book, "World Made by Hand," apparently talks about the local motorcycle gang taking over the local landfill/dump and bullying the residents when they come to mine it.

And, my favorite scene from an old futuristic movie, "Cherry 2000", is at the very beginning where there are huge lines of people pushing shopping carts of stuff to be recycled and reused. You can hear an ongoing announcement over the loudspeaker directing people to "Appliances on level ...". The movie itself isn't anything special but that scene warmed my heart.

Joy Choquette said...

While it would be WONDERFUL if future generations figure out a way to make use of all our garbage, I think we should live assuming that it won't happen. Otherwise, it just makes it easier for us to be wasteful.

The "pre-buy" is the most important part of the buying process in my opinion. Avoid buying stuff with lots of packaging if at all possible and you will be doing a world more good than trying to recycle the extra materials (most of which can't be recycled as you said).

We are trying to buy more bulk food items and have pretty much stopped using the plastic bags for produce at the grocery store--small changes, small changes!

Walking Green said...

In my opinion, each county in every state should offer recycling for all items. The thing is, you can re-use the #5 plastics. Just look at what Terracycle is doing. You, or your organization, collect it, they pay you for it, then they turn it into bottles for their product. Wouldn't it be great if big corporations did the same?

Personally, I think countries like New Zealand have got a good idea of what you have to do to reduce consumer waste. The garbage collectors sell color coded bags in supermarkets and other stores. It includes cost of collection and the bags are color coded for recyclables. It would be nice to see that--especially if you were given a discount for your recyclables--or they were picked up for free. Monetary incentive, which sadly, is what it is going to come down to.

The area I live in has NO mandatory recycling. You can only recycle hazardous household waste 4 times per year (batteries, light bulbs, etc.). It's a joke. So, I have my own recycle bins, sort my recycling and take it myself, while making sure I keep track of my mileage so I can offset the extra carbon.

Theresa said...

Our local landfill does a pretty good job of the sorting thing. There are all of the separate recycling bins, and then areas to leave items for reuse. There is an area for yard 'waste' as well, which gets composted and you can buy the compost there for a pretty good price. Then all the non-recyclable, non-reusable, non-compostable stuff goes into another area. They keep old appliances and stuff separate as well, to be dismantled. It's not perfect, but it's not bad.

JessTrev said...

I only skimmed your comments but I so daydream about this too and all I can say is: Mad Max! And you should read On the Trail of Trash, i am riveted so far. And we should all consume less (thanks for the challenge).

Jenette said...

A lot of things can be recycled that are not recyclable locally. My area only accepts plastic 1 and 2 but I know other types can be recycled. Also things that can be down cycled like tires to road surface. It would be great if we could sort out theses items and get them to where they can be used. As for future mining I think the cost would make it impractical. The reasoning being the best recyclable stuff is likely at the bottom of the pile (unless people stop recycling things that are recyclable).

Anonymous said...

Hi Crunchy! Not a regular poster here but I just had to comment. How funny that you posted this today...this morning on CBC radio I heard a very interesting story about turning garbage into energy. Here's the link:
Scroll about halfway down the page and you'll see (and be able to hear) the story. Very very fascinating...especially the part about ALL plastics being recyclable it's just the city administrators that don't want to incur the cost!

Beautiful Each Day said...

I have been telling my family for years that we will run out of oil and then go mine plastic out of old landfills. Now I can show them your post and they'll know I'm not the only raving enviro-lunatic out there. ;)


ps: does anyone else get a laugh out of trying to pronounce the word you have to type to verify your comment?

Natural Louisville said...

Hmmm ... I don't know. It sounds like a practical idea to me. But I would want to see some estimates on how long the trash supply would last (it seems enormous -- but so did the coal boom of the 1970s, and as a Kentucky girl I can tell you it bottomed out in a big way eventually). And how much trash it would take to fuel, say, a day of American plastic use as we know it now.

If there's not enough retrievable plastic to last a number of years, I'm not sure the idea would get off the ground. I guess my thought is 100 years or so of plastic versus the thousands (millions?) of years of coal formations, and the amazing human ability to plunder resources.

In other words, I'd have to see more facts before I could make a call on the practical viability of the plan and taking into account the energy required to realize it. (As if my call matters to anyone!) It may be entirely worthwhile economically.

Idealistically, I think it's entirely worthwhile ethically -- I'm all for it and hope it happens.

Natural Louisville said...

Just wanted to add -- the Kentucky coal boom was a benefit of the 1970s oil embargo and subsequent rocketing coal prices, not a sudden supply situation, as far as I know. But as it's tapped out they have to mine further and further to find more ... and a figure I saw put the coal reserves at powering the world's needs for 50-100 years at current usage rates.

Sorry, as a Kentuckian I feel it's important not to look TOTALLY ignorant on public message boards :)

Crunchy Chicken said...

jennamom - Brawndo's got what plants crave!

beautiful each day - glad to oblige. I think.

green panther - I wouldn't worry. At least you aren't from Arkansas. Just kidding everyone!

It's interesting reading how other municipalities deal with recycling. Our local landfill (Cedar Hills) was one of the first to implement the landfill gas-to-energy program. And Seattleites recycled 47 percent of their waste in 2006. But we still throw out 400,000 tons of garbage every year. One-third of which is food waste.

I've had the pleasure of a personal tour by one of the senior (old-timer) engineers that works at the landfill. Yeah, I know. I'm a dork. I still need to arrange the waste water treatment plant tour.

Anyway, I think Seattle will start recycling all numbers of plastic next year (got that info in the mail today).

I'm glad to hear that other areas are further ahead in the game.

Anonymous said...

I think the idea that future generations might be able to mine our landfills and make use of items we couldn't is a wonderful concept. However, I don't think we should add to our costs right now in order to make something like that happen when we really have no idea if and when it would become a reality.

beautiful: I totally do! Mind is pronounced "nuh-so-buh-jim", lol.

Chile said...

Oh thank goodness, Crunchy, I'm not the only total geek. About 6-7 years ago, I wanted to tour the mixed stream recycling facility in Phoenix and they thought I was so strange. They didn't have public tours except for school groups, so I had to tag along with a bunch of little kids. Now that I know there are other trash geeks out there, I don't feel so odd.

Crunchy Chicken said...

Chile - I hate to burst your bubble on geek-solidarity, but I actually work for the landfill, so it's not so strange that I do the private tours.

That must have been weird doing the tour with kids. I can only imagine what they were saying :)

I'm kidding you. You know that don't you? By the way, we finished off the last of your jam you sent me. I made a very non-vegetarian meal using it as a chicken glaze that my Mom totally loved!

Chile said...

Sigh, it's been an odd day. Starts off with finding out you think I'm "full of crap." Then I get a PM elsewhere in which someone who just checked out my blog calls me a "GODDESS." Then DC depresses me with links and facts about junkmail on my blog. I get a call outta the blue from someone who bought our bike trailer from craigslist and we hit it off on the phone. She checks out my blog and emails to tell me I'm "cool". Then I see that maybe I'm not the only eco-freak out there but no, that little bright thought's dashed.

Oh well. I guess I should just be happy I'm a Cool Goddess.

Glad you liked the jam. I just had to refill the foamy soap container this week. Mint and lemongrass do not go well together...

Crunchy Chicken said...

Ah, Chile. You can't cut the crap if you're not already full of it. And I mean that in a nice way.

Tomorrow's post should have some meaning for you. Well, at least part of it.

Laura said...

I day dream that future generations will be mining our garbage piles for good stuff, too! But, as far as the separation idea goes, I think funds could be better spent elsewhere. Maybe education about how to reduce the waste you produce, requiring companies to do the same types of reduction, encouraging the use of reusable packaging.

As I understand it plastics are not recyclable like metal or glass. A glass bottle for milk, say, can be melted down again and again into new milk bottles or other glass containers. Plastics are not the same. The individual-serving yogurt container will never again be an individual-serving yogurt container. This site has more info about plastic misconceptions.
Also, catchy tunes always help. (He really starts rockin' out about one minute in. And bewarned, I think he drops the f-bomb once.)

beautiful each day ~ my word verification word sounded kind of gaelic!

Anonymous said...

I think landfills will be mined for plastics & tapped for methane someday...but in the meantime, we should separate stuff for *us*.

A lot of stuff, as people noted, is recyclable or compostable, and a lot of the rest isn't because it's toxic. Every landfill leaks, eventually.

And it shouldn't be local governments that pay for it. That just leads people to cheat. We should make manufacturers and retailers responsible for their products cradle-to-grave. Let them figure out the cost of disposal (they have more MBAs than local government, right?) and let them charge those costs up front instead of passing them on to the future generations.

When municipalities or counties charge for toxic waste disposal, or charge per bag like parts of Minnesota, they get lots and lots of illegal dumping. That's why we have monitor & electronics disposal amnesty days - to keep all that lead out of the ditches & back alleys.

I worked in a city Parks dept (not in Minnesota) where the park workers had to routinely track down people who put all their household waste in our containers because they didn't want to pay for regular garbage pickup.

Anonymous said...

I like your idea although it sounds like there are many other options suggested in the comments. The conversation reminded me of a recent interview on the Colbert Report with the Earthship designer Michael Reynolds about making garbage into houses: