Out of Control Policy Blog

Room aplenty for trash

Are you old enough to remember the NYC garbage barge, sailing up and down the east coast, looking for somewhere to dump its load? Nightly updates and helicopter footage made it the poster child for the latest environmental crisis of the 1980's--running out of room in landfills.

In one of the great untold success stories of privatization, private solid-waste firms stepped into the fray, and as thousands of government owned landfills closed, private ones opened. We how have more landfill capacity and lower disposal costs than ever.

Geoff Segal and I had the scoop on this a few years ago.

This NY Times article talks about some of the technology and other changes that came with this transformation.

From the NY Times story:

Waste companies and municipalities have fit
much bigger dumps than originally permitted onto existing
acreage, piling trash deeper and steeper, and vastly expanding
permitted capacity. They are burying trash more tightly, so
that each ton takes up less space, increasingly using giant
59-ton compacting machines guided by global positioning
systems that show the operator when he has rolled over a section
of the dump enough times. They cover trash at the end of the
day, to keep it from blowing away, with tarps or foam or
lawn clippings instead of the thick layers of soil that formerly
ate up dump capacity.

Some operators are blowing water and air into landfills to
hasten rotting and thus the shrinkage of buried garbage piles,
creating more capacity.

Each practice is fairly prosaic, and many operators have yet to
adopt the improved methods, but taken together the waste industry
is in the early stages of the kind of increase in efficiency
more typically seen in technologies like computer chips and
turbines that generate electricity.

. . .

At $35 a ton, the 330 million tons buried nationally cost
$11.6 billion. (Actual prices are typically lower than gate
rates.) Had rates merely kept pace with inflation, disposal
in dumps would average $39 a ton, or a collective $12.9 billion
a year. And the annual cost would be $16.5 billion had prices,
as widely predicted years ago based on an expected shortage,
hit $50 a ton.

. . .

Environmental regulations, which many feared would cause a
disposal shortage, actually helped encourage the glut. The
Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, passed in 1976 but
put into effect over more than a decade, requires that liners
be used to protect groundwater and that systems to extract
water and methane be installed. The cost of all that forced
thousands of small dumps to close and encouraged huge new
landfills that could pile trash hundreds of feet deep to
maximize the return on investment.

A 10,000-ton-a-year dump would cost $83 a ton to operate,
estimates Solid Waste Digest, while a 300,000-ton-a-year
site's cost would be $14 a ton. Dumps taking a million or
more tons a year have even lower per-ton costs.

Adrian Moore is Vice President, Policy


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