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December 10, 2002

A public radio commentary

This morning I'm taking out the hallmark of human presence: Trash. We've found two thousand year old waste from Mayans; and the first time humankind left the earth - to visit the moon - we left our urine bags behind. But I'm gonna stay closer to home today, I'm going to take a look through my trash as I wait for my trash truck.

I'm looking for fast food packaging, diapers, and styrofoam because most people think dumps are overflowing with these things, estimating that they take up over fifty percent of a landfill's volume.

I don't see much of any of this. Yet, what could be more emblematic of our wasteful culture than fast food? The reality is this: Fast food packaging makes up less than one-half of one percent of a landfill's volume.

Now, I see foam products: Egg cartons, meat trays, coffee cups, and packing peanuts - yet all of this adds up to about one percent of the volume of a landfill.

What about diapers, then? The New York Times called them the premier "symbol of our nation's garbage crisis." Nearly ninety percent of American babies are diapered with disposables, yet diapers take up a bit less than two percent of a landfill.

Ah, here comes the truck.

So, if the main things in trash aren't diapers, foam containers, and fast food packaging - which most people think fill landfills, yet only take up about three percent - what exactly is this truck going to pick up? As I take a look through here I see some plastic trays and bottles. That's part of the answer. They take up about fifteen percent of a landfill's volume, but this percentage has been decreasing because plastic things are now made thinner than they used to be. So where is the problem with landfills?

What clogs our landfills is paper.

A year's worth of the New York Times weighs fifty pounds and takes a volume equal to about fifty thousand Big Mac containers. Landfills are stuffed with paper packaging, paper plates, junk mail, and computer paper. The computer - the foundation of our paperless society - is the root of our paper problem.

It would seem the answer is recycling. About thirty percent of paper is recycled, but that percentage is staying steady. Partly because the recyclers have picked the low hanging fruit - things that are easy to recycle like newspapers and corrugated cardboard. They've got to find a way to cheaply recycle mixed papers, and contaminated papers. So, in the meantime there is one thing you can do to help the landfill problem - it isn't less fast food, or using cloth diapers, its using less paper. I'm Bill Hammack.

Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises