New Jersey uses bales of trash to turn landfill site into a park

De Korte State Park in New Jersey may not look like a pile of garbage, but it is -- 10 million tons of refuse to be exact. And that's only a small portion of the billions of tons of domestic refuse that Americans set out at the curb each year.

Landfill eyesores have long concerned communities across the United States. Most states now prohibit open dumping. Many have enacted legislation that encourages treatment and reuse of waste. But Reagan administration budget cuts mean fewer dollars will be available for garbage recovery projects.

Despite cutbacks, New Jersey is making small bursts of progress in refuse disposal. Over the last 10 years, the state has developed an unusual disposal method: ''bale'' garbage. Using refuse collected from five local counties, the Hackensack Meadowlands Commission (HMC) has transformed an ugly 815-acre landfill into a 2,000-acre De Korte Park.

''There are 12 balers in the world; and the HMC has the largest,'' says George Cascino, the commission's chief engineer. The baler compresses 2,300 tons of refuse a day into building blocks the size of refrigerators. The HMC then uses those blocks for landscaping.

Before legislation brought the HMC into being in 1969, New Jersey was better known for its pollution. Today, the state is becoming a leader in environmental management and control, and is counseling local governments as far west as Los Angeles.

In San Fransisco and in Du Page, Ill., mountains of garbage have also been converted into recreational assets. But rather than using bales, raw garbage is spread over an area and is covered with layers of gravel and clay to prevent decomposition. One such area in Illinois, called Mount Trashmore, is actually 120 feet of layered garbage that now serves as a slope for local skiers and tobogganers.

Some environmentalists contend that garbage must be reused and recovered and not just compressed. Sierra Club spokesman Diane Graves charges that the baling of garbage diverts efforts and funds from the construction of a long-term solution: solid-waste treatment plants that convert trash into energy or fuel. Conservationists agree that budget cuts will stall new recovery systems.

Resource recovery refers to a process of incineration that converts trash into fuel, salable metals, and a residue suitable for road foundations. These facilities have been put off for at least a decade.

The HMC is planning a facility that will dispose of 5,500 tons of refuse daily. Eighty-five percent of the waste volume will be converted to fuel, while 15 percent will be sold as ferrous metals and aluminums.

New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection sees only positive advantages to using baled refuse. Says Bart Carhart for the DEP, ''It is a constructive stopgap measure.''

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