Disposable Products Become Indisposable Garbage
TO BE oblivious to the garbage crisis and what contributes to it is to ignore the practices of this throwaway society. For example, do you find that paper towels in the kitchen are a more attractive option than cloth ones? Do you substitute paper napkins for linen ones at mealtime? If you have babies still in diapers, do you use disposable ones rather than cloth diapers? Have you found that disposable razors and cameras are just too convenient not to buy? Few young people today have ever written with a fountain pen; ballpoint pens, some that are themselves throwaways and others with throwaway cartridges, have long since taken their place. Businesses order ballpoints by the thousands. Advertisers give them away by the millions.
Take-out orders of tea, coffee, colas, milk shakes, and fast-food hamburgers are no longer put in paper cups and on paper trays. Polystyrene containers have made them obsolete. There are plastic knives, forks, and spoons, all to be thrown into the trash after one use. The number and variety of throwaway conveniences are endless. “We have been a throwaway society,” said the director of the New York State Division of Solid Waste. “We simply have to change our ways.”
What can be said of milk bottles of plastic instead of glass; shoes of plastic instead of leather and rubber; raincoats of plastic rather than of water-repellent natural fibers? Some readers may wonder how the world was able to function before the age of plastics. Notice, too, the row after row of products in oversize containers, screaming at you from the shelves of supermarkets and wherever else packaged goods are sold. The age of computers—spewing out thousands of millions of pages of paper—adds to an already large paper pile that has become mountain high.
How much inconvenience are we willing to tolerate to see some relief from this mounting garbage problem? Although Americans alone toss into their garbage cans an estimated 4.3 million disposable pens and 5.4 million disposable razors on an average day, it is not likely that this society will step back a half century to the time before the age of plastics and high-tech disposables, even though the price we pay for these conveniences may be staggering.
The same can be said for disposable diapers. “More than 16 billion diapers, containing an estimated 2.8 million tons of excrement and urine, are dumped each year into a dwindling number of landfills around the nation,” reported The New York Times. More than 4,275,000 tons of discarded diapers may be an eye-opener. “It is a perfect case,” said a Washington expert on solid waste, “where we’re using a disposable product that costs more than a re-usable product, is more environmentally dangerous and uses up nonrenewable resources.” Are parents willing to tolerate the inconveniences of laundering their baby’s diapers or subscribing to a delivery service? To many, a world without disposable diapers is unthinkable.
Disposable diapers have become a symbol to environmentalists of the entire garbage problem. “What is worse,” writes U.S.News & World Report, “every plastic diaper made since they were first introduced in 1961 is still there; they take about 500 years to break down.”
Environmental experts and officials of government, however, say we must change our habits or else be buried alive in our own garbage. Modern throwaway products may be a boon to consumers, but they are a bomb to earth’s garbage dumps. No end is in sight for the life of discarded plastics. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the 350 million pounds of paper thrown out each day by Americans and an unknown tonnage worldwide does not break down and disappear in landfills even under tons of garbage for years. Newspapers unearthed in landfills after being buried for over 35 years were as readable as on the day they were published.
The Recycling Problem
It has been written that there are only four ways to deal with garbage: “Bury it, burn it, recycle it—or don’t make as much in the first place.” Buried garbage in landfills not only presents a noxious eyesore to those who must live nearby but can become a health hazard as well. As waste decomposes in landfills, it produces a colorless, odorless, flammable gas called methane. If not controlled, methane may migrate underground away from the landfill, kill vegetation, seep into nearby buildings, and explode if ignited. In some cases death has resulted. Underground water reservoirs, or aquifers, are threatened as hazardous chemicals percolate through the earth and contaminate man’s water supply.
The problem with recycling newsprint, in particular, is the tremendous oversupply. “The inventory of waste newspaper is at an all-time record high,” said a spokesman for the American Paper Institute. “Mills and paper dealers have in their warehouses over one million tons of newspapers, which represents a third of a year’s production. There comes a point when the warehouse space will be completely filled.” As a consequence of this paper glut, many cities that were getting $40 a ton for their paper a year ago are now paying contractors $25 a ton to haul it away—to be burned or dumped in landfills.
What can be said for plastics? “The plastics industry has been scrambling to support recycling, mostly out of fear that its ubiquitous products will otherwise be banned,” said U.S.News & World Report. Plastic bottles, for example, can be turned into fiber for making polyester carpets, fillings for parkas, and a host of other things. The industry, however, does well to be concerned about its market. Some places have already passed legislation banning the use and sale of all polystyrene and PVC (polyvinyl chloride) products in retail food establishments. The ban includes plastic grocery bags, polystyrene cups and meat trays, and the polystyrene containers that hold fast-food hamburgers.
It is estimated that more than 75 percent of municipal solid waste in the United States is recyclable. Because of public indifference, however, and the deficiencies in technology, this potential is not now being achieved. “Recycling is entering a very dangerous period,” said one recycling expert. “A lot of governments are going to have trouble riding out the slump.”
Some officials say that burning the garbage in giant municipal incinerators is the answer. But here again, problems exist. Environmentalists warn that incinerating plastics and other trash releases toxic chemicals, including dioxin, into the air. “You can just think of an incinerator as a dioxin factory,” said one noted environmentalist. “The incinerators also produce tons of ash often contaminated with lead and cadmium,” reported Newsweek magazine. A hue and cry can be heard from citizens living near proposed incinerator sites. No one wants them in his neighborhood. They are seen as a hazardous threat to health and environment. So the garbage crisis continues to escalate. Does anyone have the answer?