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No, I am not talking about this or this. I just finished sorting through my trash for recycling … cardboard boxes in one bin, plastic bottles in another, plastic containers in another, glass bottles in another, and what can’t be recycled out in the trash can.

Even if my time were not valuable, this is seeming to me to become more and more of an insane activity. Why? If doing this were so valuable, and so important, how come I am not getting paid to do it? It seems to be a neat racket … someone has figured out a way to tap the reserve army of workers to their advantage, and it doesn’t seem like it is the greedy capitalist caricature either.

The garbage problem is that one of the primary reasons people are urged and sometimes coerced into recycling is this notion that we are drowning beneath mountains of trash – soon all that will remain of our planet are vast National Parks of Garbage. This is flat out ridiculous. I don’t think many of the recycaholics ever sat down to do some math.

  • Americans produce about 250 million tons of municipal solid waste each year. Though we have been producing less and less waste for each unit of output we produce, let’s make the assumption that we will produce double this amount, per year, for the rest of eternity (unlikely, since waste is costly, and greedy producers can increase their profits by reducing how much waste is produced along with their products).
  • Each ton of waste consists roughly of two cubic yards by volume (this is a mid-point, if trash were compacted first, it would be far, far smaller than this amount – but let’s be generous).
  • So, the 500 million tons of waste we hypothetically produce each year in the future are the equivalent of one billion cubic yards of waste. That’s a heckuva lot of garbage! … or is it?
  • This is the equivalent of a volume of waste that is 20 million square yards in area and 150 feet deep (the larger landfills are much deeper than this, over 200 feet in some places).
  • Doing a little conversion, each year then, we produce enough trash to fill a 4132 acre hole to a depth of 150 feet.
  • This means, that if we produce this much every year for the next 1,000 years (an entire millennium), then we will produce enough garbage to fill a 4.1 million acre hole to a depth of 150 feet! That’s enormous … but just how enormous is it?
  • Doing a little algebra, we can see that over the course of the next 1,000 years, if we produce TWICE as much trash as we are producing today, in total, we would be able to fill a hole with garbage that is 150 feet deep and 80 miles on each side (if it is a square).

That might sound like a big hole, but there are vast tracts of land in the Midwest and Western US, and in particular in Alaska, where a piece of land that size is thought to be quaint. Alaska has 656,425 square miles of land, most of it completely barren. The amount of trash we would produce would make up less than 1% of the land there. Yes, that is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware, but they are small places. It is also larger than Rochester or whatever neighborhood you happen to live in.

There might be fantastic reasons to recycle (greenhouse gas worries, chemical worries, etc.) but one of those reasons most certainly cannot be because there is no place to put our trash.  That is just some ridiculous trash talking.

3 Responses to “We Have a Garbage Problem”

  1. Michael says:

    When I was a little kid, I thought about opening a business where I just hire people to separate garbage as it comes in to be recycled. Now that I’m older I understand that it would have been a good idea except that recycling doesn’t pay, at least in America. China’s a bit different, though: http://www.reuters.com/article/latestCrisis/idUSPEK108829.

  2. JP says:

    But spreading this common sense would prevent beautiful motion pictures like WALL-E from being produced 🙂

  3. Colin says:

    In Portland, OR, you just dump all your recyclables into one container (except glass in a separate bag), and the City sorts them for you. But now people complain about the roller carts being too big and unwieldy.

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