Garbage alchemy

IF garbage could be turned into gold, the old myth that America's streets are paved with that precious metal might become reality. But optimistic claims that recycling and so-called ``resource recovery'' systems could, in effect, convert the nation's rising tide of nontoxic waste ``into gold'' haven't panned out. Instead, landfills are fast filling up, and acceptable sites for such disposal facilities are becoming very scarce -- especially in metropolitan areas. Although many US communities do still have perfectly adequate places to put landfills, not many are willing to be hosts to regional waste-disposal facilities.

Recycling was the rage for a while, and it is an essential part of any waste-disposal program. But while those who manage recycling centers were counting at least modest profits as recently as a couple of years ago, now they are talking about how much it will cost them to get rid of the bottles, cans, and newspapers they collect.

Resource-recovery and ``cogeneration'' systems are on the increase, but there are air-pollution and siting problems. Also, some highly touted systems have failed to live up to the promises of their designers.

Garbage disposal is a nationwide problem, but that doesn't mean solutions need to be administered or paid for by Washington. The federal government could, however, help focus national attention on it and encourage sharing of ideas for managing locally generated waste.

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