AFTER THE LITTER HUNT IN MISS APONTE’S SCIENCE classroom, it was time for a guest lecturer on garbage. A fifth-grade class was brought in to hear Joanne Dittersdorf, the director of environmental education for the Environmental Action Coalition, a nonprofit group based in New York. Her slide show began with a 19th-century photograph of a street in New York strewn with garbage.
“Why can’t we keep throwing out garbage that way?” Dittersdorf asked.
“It’ll keep piling up and we won’t have any place to put it.”
“The earth would be called the Trash Can.”
“The garbage will soon, like, take over the whole world and, like, kill everybody.”
Dittersdorf asked the children to examine their lives. “Does anyone here ever have takeout food?” A few students confessed, and Dittersdorf gently scolded them. “A lot of garbage there.”
She showed a slide illustrating New Yorkers’ total annual production of garbage: a pile big enough to fill 15 city blocks to a height of 20 stories. “There are a lot of landfills in New York City,” Dittersdorf said, “but we’ve run out of space.” Showing a slide of Flushing Meadows, a former landfill that’s now a park, she asked, “Would you want to live on top of one of these landfills?” The place didn’t look too bad, actually, but Dittersdorf explained that toxic threats could be hidden in a landfill. “Have you ever heard of a place called Love Canal? It was an old landfill that belonged to a chemical company, and they sold it to build a school on, and everyone who went to that school got very sick. There was poison in the dirt underneath.”
A supermarket package of red apples appeared on the screen. “Look at the plastic, the Styrofoam or cardboard underneath,” Dittersdorf said. “Do you need this much wrapping when you buy things?”
“Every week,” Dittersdorf said, “75,000 trees are cut to make the Sunday New York Times.” The children were appalled. A few glanced reproachfully at me sitting in the back of the room. I didn’t try to justify my — or your — role in this weekly tree-slaying, garbage-generating, earth-defiling ritual. The children were in no mood for heresy. Dittersdorf had masterfully reinforced the mythical tenets of the garbage crisis:
We’re a wicked throwaway society. Plastic packaging and fast-food containers may seem wasteful, but they actually save resources and reduce trash. The typical household in Mexico City buys fewer packaged goods than an American household, but it produces one-third more garbage, chiefly because Mexicans buy fresh foods in bulk and throw away large portions that are unused, spoiled or stale. Those apples in Dittersdorf’s slide, protected by plastic wrap and foam, are less likely to spoil. The lightweight plastic packaging requires much less energy to manufacture and transport than traditional alternatives like cardboard or paper. Food companies have switched to plastic packaging because they make money by using resources efficiently. A typical McDonald’s discards less than two ounces of garbage for each customer served — less than what’s generated by a typical meal at home.
Plastic packaging is routinely criticized because it doesn’t decay in landfills, but neither does most other packaging, as William Rathje, an archaeologist at the University of Arizona, has discovered from his excavations of landfills. Rathje found that paper, cardboard and other organic materials — while technically biodegradable — tend to remain intact in the airless confines of a landfill. These mummified materials actually use much more landfill space than plastic packaging, which has steadily been getting smaller as manufacturers develop stronger, thinner materials. Juice cartons take up half the landfill space occupied by the glass bottles they replaced; 12 plastic grocery bags fit in the space occupied by one paper bag.
Our garbage will bury us. The Mobro’s saga was presented as a grim harbinger of future landfill scarcity, but it actually represented a short-lived scare caused by new environmental regulations. As old municipal dumps were forced to close in the 1980’s, towns had to send their garbage elsewhere and pay higher prices for scarce landfill space. But the higher prices, predictably, encouraged companies to open huge new landfills, in some regions creating a glut that set off price-cutting wars. Over the past few years, landfills in the South and Middle West have been vying for garbage from the New York area, and it has become cheaper to ship garbage there than to bury it locally.