Report from the Landfill
Indeed, Protect the Barnes Aquifer,
But, There are Even Bigger Issues
By Edward Shanahan
As I struggled to manhandle a rolled-up hunk of filthy carpet into the waste container at the city landfill the other day, my eye caught a similar activity going in a nearby shed.
A young man was struggling in his own fashion to box up one of the score of orphaned television sets in the shed, which also contained a mounting tower of used mattresses, and other disposed items.
Finishing my labors, I asked him what he was up. He explain he was getting the TVs ready to be carted away eventually by a scrap dealer. This required either packing the TV sets in cartons, or in some cases enveloping them in shrink-wrap for easier removal by the recycler.
How many sets leave here, I asked. Some 100 every two weeks he said. What about the mattresses? About 250 a month, he explained, adding I don’t know where so many of them come from. How in hell do they get rid of bulky, dirty mattresses, I asked. Incineration, he said. You know there are bugs and toxic material embedded in those mattresses. Can’t be recycled.
What about this dehumidifier I had brought for disposal? That went over with the abandoned refrigerators behind the metal collection container.
The more we talked the more depressed we both became as we pondered the useless items coming into the landfill for disposal, such as the broken chair and huge carton filled with Styrofoam ‘peanuts’ I had just dumped, painted wooden shelves and ugly and useless plastic items.
Surveying the container, I was appalled to observe the products, big and small, once valued but now worthless, which cannot be thrown away responsibly. So many materials contained in these items are dangerous, lethal, toxic and inherently beyond destruction or reduction, other than storage following incineration or nuclear explosion Of course, there is a downside to those ultimate approaches.
Thus, we are left to cope with all of this endlessly accelerating trash in an imperfect way, and for now it goes into a landfill, which grows in scope daily. At the same time this method of disposal generates its own hazards and risks in the form of methane gas emitted from the partially decomposing mass underneath its earthen blanket.
Later in the d ay, I had occasion to stop in at the Locust Street transfer station where a fleet of vehicles filled with recyclables and bags of household trash was lined up to disgorge the unwanted junk. I was there to drop off a carload of heavy cardboard.
People usually feel pretty good about a trip to the transfer station where you can chat with neighbors and friends, discuss city politics or last night’s Red Sox game and maybe pick up a good read at the book shed. We are doing the responsible thing – recycling – and it affirms our sense of good citizenship.
That is what is so great about Northampton; its commitment to recycling, a robust civic life that addresses issues like the landfill, and down the road a maybe even creates a greener community.
In fact, on this day, a small group had set up a table to collect signatures in order to put a non-binding referendum question on the fall ballot asking if the city should “expand the Northampton landfill over the Barnes Aquifer,” a subject that has been percolating out in Ward 6 and among property owners on Glendale Road with great intensity over the last couple of years. And before that worries about the landfill had been quietly simmering for at least three decades.
Possible expansion of the landfill has now been elevated to a prominent issue in the community as landfill capacity shrinks and safety and water quality issues arise. The recent decision by the City Council to buy out some property owners to forestall potentially expensive legal fees or a costly negative judgment against the city has only added kerosene to the landfill fire.
Naturally, I added my signature to the petition, not that I favor the state or the city relying on the outcome of referendum questions as the best way to make important public policy decisions.
While protecting the Barnes Aquifer is critically important, equally essential is the larger citywide debate on the issue of solid waste disposal. And that seems to be developing as a result of the circulating petition; witness the public forum the other night.
There are no easy solutions. The options facing the city at the moment, as outlined in a report by consultants for the Board of Public Works, would expand the landfill and keep the Locust Street transfer station, or close the landfill and transfer station at Glendale Road, have the city or a private company be responsible for citywide trash and recycling collection, ship the trash out of town and out of sight, or let residents figure out for themselves how to handle getting rid of their trash.
Most of us are oblivious to the staggering volume of dangerous, valueless stuff that is dumped into the landfill every hour of each weekday. Recycling as it is currently practiced, especially in light of the non-recyclable material used in most manufactured products and the stagnant market for recyclables, takes care of only a small fraction of the waste.
What we do with the rest is the more pressing issue because time and space are running out while the volume of trash grows ever larger.
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