WASHINGTON — REMEMBER the garbage barge? It wandered the oceans last year, scorned and looking for a place to drop Philadelphia's incinerator ash. It dumped some at water's edge in Haiti and returned its cargo in infamy.
But don't snicker at the hapless barge. The threat of garbage overflow all over the country is building support for a stronger national policy on what has been a mostly local matter - dumping solid wastes. A report released Sunday by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) finds a serious need for a strong federal policy for reducing waste and managing it better.
Two Senate bills have already been introduced that aim to do that. While renewing the Clean Air Act will consume the attention of Congress over the summer, this fall it will take up the renewal of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) - a major forum for beginning a serious federal role in landfill dumps, waste incinerators, requiring products and packaging that produce less trash, and recycling.
The problem is this: The average American throws away well over half a ton of waste a year, according the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This is 80 percent more than in 1960.
On the other hand, the EPA estimates that half of the nation's landfills will close by 1995, and new ones have become much harder to open.
For some areas, the situation will be even more severe. In Illinois for instance, officials project that all remaining landfills for the Chicago metropolitan area will be closed by 1995.
``The federal government should take a much stronger role in reducing the waste stream,'' says Merilyn Reeves, board member of the League of Women Voters of the United States from Salem, Ore. The RCRA bill, she adds, ``is a very good place to start.''
If a strong clean air bill passes, she says, then Congress is likely to take on solid wastes decisively as well.
``There's certainly the highest level of public concern about the garbage problem that I've ever seen,'' says Blake Early of the Sierra Club's Washington office.