Wouldn’t you just love to take one of my classes? Oh, the field trips I have taken students on! Not so much anymore, because of liability and financial issues, but in the past. I have taken students to such wonderful places as sewage plants and landfills.
I took an environmental science class from Wheaton College Science Station (almost 13 years ago) to the Rapid City dump. We got to experience it with all our senses. The landfill director told us that there was probably a million dollars’ worth of aluminum in the landfill. Two of my entrepreneurial students instantly began discussing plans to recover it. Of course, they didn’t follow through once they realized what the cost of recovery would be. If you want to get that million dollars, you need to get it before it enters the landfill.
The archaeology books all tell us that some of the richest sources of information about ancient and prehistoric human life is garbage heaps, tastefully called kitchen middens. While the great monuments and cave paintings proclaim what people of those times wanted others, including us perhaps, to think about them. Trash heaps tell it like it is. Archaeologist Bill Rathje is already using our landfills to study our recent history. You want to know what people ate? Look for bones and seeds in their trash piles. You want to know what they consider valuable? Look for what they did not throw out. What do you find when you look at our trash piles? You see that we are throwing away the future.
First, even where it is illegal, people still throw thousands of tons of toxic waste into the garbage and then it goes to the landfill. Some of the toxins, such as heavy metals, never decompose. We do not care if seepage contaminates the water sources of other people besides ourselves today, much less people of the future.
Second, we throw away so many things that have value. Recycling is often a more economical source of materials than manufacture from raw materials. The only reason that, in many cases, recycled paper is more expensive than paper from freshly-killed trees is that the trees are either raised in plantations using sometimes ecologically unsound techniques or the National Forest Service is willing to sell them to timber companies dirt cheap. (Actually, soil is valuable. Try replacing it once it has eroded away.) The only reason that rare metals such as germanium may be cheaper to mine and refine than to recycle is that the taxpayers are paying for military operations in Afghanistan, which has immense deposits of rare metals, and one result of this is that we can have access to those metal ores (more on this in the next essay).
So if someone says that recycling isn’t cost effective, ask some questions, such as:
- How did you calculate the cost effectiveness of recycling vs. use of raw materials?
- How did you calculate the cost of depleting supplies and dumping poisons on future generations—or did you do any such calculations?
What will future archaeologists (if any; humans may survive but civilization may not) think when they dig up our trash heaps? Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Machine Age, Electronic Age, Garb-Age. They will marvel out how little value we placed upon our planet, upon our fellow humans, and upon or descendants.