One of the biggest misperceptions people have about the landfill crisis is that ``paper is good because it goes away real fast; plastic is bad because it lasts forever,'' says Patricia Poore, editor of Garbage magazine, based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Some think ``if you can just avoid plastic in your life, it will solve the problem,'' she adds.
``Paper will decompose in composting, but in a landfill, it's entombed,'' she says - the nearly airless environment actually helps preserve objects.
``Look at the whole picture,'' says Robert Grant, spokesman for the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission, which oversees state landfills. ``Forty percent of our waste stream is paper. ... All the stuff that gets the most publicity tends to be, from the garbage perspective, the minutiae,'' he says.
If all the disposable diapers were removed from New Jersey's waste stream, for example, the 26,000 tons of garbage daily would fall to 25,740 tons - a one percent drop, according to Grant. Every little bit helps, but ``let's deal with the big part first,'' Mr. Grant says.
Ms. Poore agrees. ``Volume is really what the big problem is,'' she says. ``Plastic's use is expected to grow, but right now it's a small part of the waste stream,'' even though people are ``hysterical'' about it. On the other hand, a larger proportion of what gets thrown away (about 17 percent) is yard waste, which could easily be composted, she says.
Perceptions are changing quickly, adds Poore, because of education and perhaps necessity: ``The rest of the country needs to keep in mind that in the next 10 to 20 years, every state will be facing the problem of where to put trash.''
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 80 percent of the legal landfills will close within 20 years.