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Friday April 20, 2001

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Landfills filling up, recycling needs to increase, studies find

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By Ayse Guner

Arizona Daily Wildcat

William Rathje, UA's garbage studies project's director for the past 30 years, wants his program that sorted more than 30,000 tons of solid waste to shut down.

He is not yearning to leave his job because his hands are getting dirty from touching solid waste. Besides, "you can't scare an archeologist by saying you are going to touch garbage - they do it all the time," says Rathje, an anthropology professor who is headed to Stanford University to teach archaeology in the fall.

But the reason lies down beneath the ground, where most people don't know how much garbage is deposited in landfills and how much of that could potentially become hazardous. In addition, the available landfills are closing up because the waste does not decompose the way it should, Rathje says.

While the recent efforts in the United States focus on reducing the amount of garbage by recycling - such as the garbage studies recent effort to form recycling programs for 300 Tucson businesses - the actual level of consumption is accelerating at a dramatic rate.

In 1960, the average person threw out 2.7 pounds of garbage a day. This figure grew to 4.4 pounds in 2000, according to the garbage study's findings - the only program worldwide where participants hand-sort and study garbage.

The idea to study garbage stemmed from two UA students, Frank Ariza and Kelly Allen, who in 1971 devised a class project to investigate garbage. The students collected fresh garbage from two households in Tucson - one from a low-income and one from a high-income neighborhood - and hand-sorted the trash to make scientific analyses about human consumption and disposal.

Their professor, Rathje, was so impressed and amazed by their idea that he offered "garbology" as a class for the next three decades - and the class is still popular among students.

Carmen Ruiz, a recent University of Arizona anthropology graduate, was enrolled in garbage studies last fall, and she traveled to seven rural cities near Tucson. She sorted out the garbage, weighted and measured volume to form a recycling program for cities like Nogales and Douglas.

"When I got into this, I though it was disgusting," she says about the required hands-on work. "But when you are actually sorting, you are amazed what you see in it. People don't know what they can recycle and not recycle."

Society's consumption has increased because recent technology has created non-recyclable items, such as compact discs, that began filling up more space in landfills, says Kathy Cisco, a research specialist in the garbage studies project. Also, in the years that followed the Depression, people were reluctant to throw things away.

"We consume more because people's lifestyles keep going up," Cisco says. "You always want more for your children."

The garbage studies project has been independently funded by government and private agencies to investigate environmental issues such as contamination to the ground water.

Over the course of the project's diggings in 21 landfills across North America, researchers have excavated hundreds of undecomposed hot dogs, corn starch and lettuce dating back to the 1960s. They also found 2,425 newspapers - still readable - that were essentially used to date the food.

All these findings have trashed the idea of what many people believed would happen in the landfills - biodegredation.

Biodegradation involves the breakdown of organic materials to rot away in a certain amount of time due to micro-organisms. Over the years, people dumped materials in landfills assuming this process would eventually begin and allow more to be put in - however, the garbage project proved the contrary.

The problem the country faces today is that people run out of landfills because the dumped garbage has been accumulating, and recycling has not been enough contributing to the re-use of products - at least not yet.

For instance, the world's largest landfill in New York - called Fresh Kills, which housed 2 billion tons of trash - was closed in March because of its overload. New York's 11,500 daily tons of municipal trash is now sent to landfills and incinerators outside the city.

The closure is one of many indicatives that North America is running out of room for garbage, especially in the East Coast, Cisco explains.

"You would be surprised to know how many people pay for their hazardous waste to be transported," she says. "But me, personally, I don't want their hazardous waste."

Some of the hazardous waste in landfills include household materials like aerosol spray cans, pesticides, batteries and bleach bottles. Garbage studies excavated these in large quantities.

In order to combat the problem, Rathje and Cisco say, people need to recycle and consume less so that there eventually will be nothing left for the garbage project to study.

"But I don't believe that is going to happen. I would like it to happen, but it is not going to happen," Rathje says. "As long as people are around, there is always going to be some garbage."

At the university level, UA transports its trash to the Los Reales landfill southwest of Tucson, and pays $23 per ton. Also, the recycling program, which began as a test program in 1989, became official one year later.

To date, the UA's recycling program has gone from recycling only white paper to a campus-wide service for more commodities, such as aluminum, office materials, plastic, cardboard, newspaper and plastic. UA phone books are recycled once a year in conjunction with the city's phone book collection. These equate to a landfill "tipping fee" savings of $12,445.

Because Arizona's climate is so hot, biodegradation is hampered, the experts agree.

Wilson Hughes, former co-director of the garbage studies project who is the now waste reduction planner for Tucson, says the Los Reales landfill is expected to fill up and shut down by 2015. After that, Tucson has to look for another site to transport garbage to, but at a yearly cost of about $3 million.

One of the things that decomposes very slowly - newspaper - takes up about 50 percent of landfill space.

"In one situation, a carrot or a newspaper might last less than year, while, in another context, it could remain after 3,000 years," Rathje noted in a recent article he wrote for Scientific American Discovering Archaeology.

Although computers were once thought to reduce the amount of paper, Hughes says, printers have increased that.

"We don't know what's going to happen in the future," Hughes says.

"Nobody knows," Rathje adds.

Although the garbage project's involvement in environmental issues follows a financial trend - right now is a down time - the future will need the garbage experts.

"Trust me, we will be back in a year," Rathje says. "Let's get that decadent mentality - the mentality that says that we recycle, re-use to save resources - before we are forced into it. Because it we are forced into it, it is too late."

Earth Day 2001 events

10 a.m. to 1 p.m. - Free yoga and tai chi classes

11 a.m., 1:30 p.m. - "Composting" presented by the UA Recycling Office

11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. - Xeriscape walks with grounds and labor staff

12 p.m. to 1 p.m. - Free concert by "Turban Jones"

5 p.m. - Janet Napolitano, Arizona attorney general, will speak on the environment and gun control in the Rincon Room in the Memorial Student Union

7 p.m. - Robert Kennedy Jr., lawyer and political activist, will talk about the "destiny" of the environment in the Arizona Ballroom in the Memorial Student Union

Also, about 40 environmental groups will set up free information tables by the Old Main fountain