J500 Media and the Environment

Pharaohs and Prophylactics, Preserved for the Afterlife by jenh
May 7, 2008, 11:49 am
Filed under: Waste + Recycling | Tags: , , , ,

Jen Humphrey

The 600,000 people of northeast Kansas generate this amount of trash, about 2-3 feet deep, daily at the area’s sanitary landfill. photo credit: Jen Humphrey

Egyptian pyramids have their mummies, and landfills have their petrified banana peels.

Yes, the banana peel your aunt Edna threw out more than three decades ago is almost perfectly preserved, still partly yellow, a mummified testament to the garbage she took to the curb that sunny day in June 1972.

It’s a common misconception that food scraps, condoms, soup cans and celebrity gossip magazines rot in commingled gooey bliss in the landfill. At least, it was my misconception until I became a junk junkie, rifling through the glorious world of garbage.

Engineer Charlie Sedlock at Hamm Waste Services north of Lawrence set me straight. Trash doesn’t decompose. It stays suspended in time in a landfill, largely locked away from air, sunlight, moisture and even the microbes that might go to work on that banana peel.

Under the visible trash at Hamm’s rock quarry and landfill is an entire sewer system that drains away all moisture, leaving the garbage veritably toasty and dry. And above the trash, Hamm employees top the waste with soil and later with prairie grass. Charlie tracks every such tomb and the gases each emits at the 600-plus-acre operation – one of about 1,850 landfills left in the United States.

Those landfills hold the roughly 251 million tons of trash Americans generate annually – or about 4.6 pounds of trash per person, per day.

As in most modern landfills, the chief item you’d find at Hamm is paper – beer cartons, corrugated cardboard, office paper, junk mail and newspapers. On average, the federal government estimates that paper accounts for more than 40 percent of a landfill’s contents.

On one hand, it might not be a bad thing that all the leftovers of our lives, from cat litter to packaging, can be preserved in a landfill. Think of what could happen in a couple hundred years, long after Peak Oil, when we are scraping for scarce manufacturing materials (or that quintessential ugly college couch). Plus, that trash could help us develop energy from landfill methane.

However, when Charlie tells me he can find a banana peel from the year I was born (let alone some toy pharoh with gold peeling paint), it encourages me to keep potential petrifying material out of the landfill entirely.

For more information on getting rid of your goods, check out the city’s recycling and composting, and for big items, there’s freecycling or Larryville.

— Jen Humphrey

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