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Landfills: A concern piling up

October 23, 2006

CLEAN Living
Geoffrey Castro
Original article here

With just over four million residents living in the Houston –Galveston Area Council’s (H-GAC) region, garbage is piling up although most of it is kept out of sight. The region is expected to grow by as much as 40 percent over the next twenty years creating a concern about disposing of the trash, paper and yard waste all those people will add to already bulging landfills.

Americans generate trash at an alarming rate— almost twice that of other countries. In Houston residents throw away 8.2 pounds of garbage everyday, twice the national average.

Within the H-GAC region as much as 4.5 million tons of solid waste is produced each year. According to a report by H-GAC, an estimated 60 percent of the waste stream is composed of paper, cardboard, aluminum and yard waste such as grass clippings, leaves and other litter from lawns and gardens. Residential collection accounts for an estimated 58 percent of the region’s waste whereby the rest is generated from business and other activities. Of this waste, roughly 90 percent ends up in landfills.

Currently there are 2,300 acres allocated for landfill space for this region – a capacity that Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) reports will fill up within 20 years. Estimates of capacity are constantly changing as new permits are accepted or denied making it difficult to obtain an approximate number for years of remaining landfill capacity.

Trends over the past 30 years have given way to building fewer and larger landfills in response to federal legislation that regulate landfills. As a result, many smaller city and county dumps have closed and giant mountains of trash are emerging. This has caused TCEQ to become lambasted by environmental groups crying a dramatic increase in problems such as water contamination, noxious gases, erosion and terrible odors.

“We have a very poor way of planning for landfill capacity in Texas,” says Robin Schneider, director of Texas Campaign for the Environment, a group working to strengthen and enforce trash rules across the state. Schneider, who has been focusing on landfill regulations around the state since 2001, feels that Houston and much of the state are behind in adequately addressing source reduction.

Zac Trahan, a campaign organizer for the organization, says that there is a general lack of education about landfilling because there are so few of them. “They have been reduced in number and centralized into regional landfills where most people don’t see the consequences of big mountains of trash on a day to day basis.” He says most people put their garbage out once or twice a week, it gets picked up and they never think about it again. “There is no such thing as ‘away’,” he adds.

Although it appears cheap and easy to operate landfills, an EPA study shows that almost all landfills eventually end up leaking into the ground adversely affecting water sources.

Currently, there is no system for containing this waste. Some states require a double liner for leak protection, but Texas has yet to follow suit. Although landfills in Texas have groundwater monitoring, proximity of ground monitors have been widely debated. TCEQ’s current standard requires monitors to be at least 600 feet apart. Schneider says this standard does not adequately protect public health. She argues that plumes extending from leakages might be very narrow and that they may go undetected.

Schneider says product manufacturers and local governments have the largest role to play in change. Crockett Texas, for example, has perhaps made the biggest stride for other cities to follow by passing a law which mandates recycling. The city currently recycles 50 percent of is waste, more than any other city in Texas. Other cities such as Austin, have signed on to the Urban Environmental Accord, a plan to have zero waste by 2040.

Houston ranked among the lowest in recycling rates in a survey earlier this year. Waste Stage, an industry publication, compared recycling rates for the 30 largest cities in the U.S. and found that Houston recycles 2.5 percent of its waste compared to other cities such as San Francisco which recycles 67 percent of its waste.

The low recycling rates throughout the region and the state are often attributed to the cost structure of landfills. “Because landfilling is so cheap, the costs of recycling don’t often match up,” says Schneider.

Progress & Solutions:

In response to low recycling rates, Mayor White recently unveiled “Go Green,” the city’s new recycling awareness program. “Recycling is the environmentally right thing to do. It saves landfill space, saves tax payer dollars, and helps conserve natural resources,” says Mayor White.

The H-GAC is also working with local municipalities and providing solid waste stream analysis as well as assistance to increase recycling efforts through its Solid Waste Implementation grant program. The program distributes 3.5 million dollars each year for funding the purchase of recycling equipment and facilities including the City of Houston’s Westpark Recycling Center. Each month, the center serves more than 6,000 Houston residents who are not served by curbside recycling to collect an array of goods including computers, newspaper, used oil, tires and much more. According to an H-GAC spokes person, grant money also funds local enforcement of illegal dumping and anti-litter.

What we can do:

Groups like Schneider’s, Texas Campaign for the Environment, are committed to zero waste as a long term goal. This will take a comprehensive change in many areas that includes not only landfills and recycling but design, consumption, packaging and waste. Long term solutions must be aimed at making products easier to recycle and making producers and manufacturers responsible for the end of life of their products.

Ultimately, reducing waste begins at the source – the people who create the trash. To reduce your contribution to the growing landfills try:

  • Reducing—use less energy, water, materials, and toxic products.
  • Reusing—use items again and again, until they cannot be used anymore.
  • Recycling—make new products or packaging from used materials.
  • Rebuying—consume products made from recycled materials.

The steps are easy. For more tips on simplifying your lifestyle and minimizing your personal waste stream click here . Source reduction programs are paramount and will ultimately depend on an informed public. Citizens just like you need to plug into more recycling efforts and become more educated about the long-term consequences of landfills and the benefits of recycling. If citizens have curbside recycling programs they need to maximize their participation. If not, they need to demand better recycling options and take advantage of drop off points.

The mountain of trash and debris is rising. Houston can still support this type of policy and legislation on producer takeback, minimize its waste and save taxpayers money. How will you make a difference?

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