New York's barge to nowhere - 3,100 tons of refuse that have traveled 6,000 miles looking for a dump - has been the brunt of jokes as it been rejected by six states and three foreign countries. But as the barge Mobro sits off Coney Island awaiting its fate, environmentalists hope it will become the flagship for a renewed attack on the national problem of garbage. States and communities around the country need to face the issue of rapidly filling landfills, while more vigorously promoting waste reduction, recycling, and incinerating trash for energy.
``The whole thing of the barge epitomizes the problem,'' says Nancy New of the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL), whose policymaking branch recently passed a proposal on ``source'' reduction. ``We've been very concerned about hazardous wastes, and rightly so. But in fact now we are faced with the sleeping giant of solid waste.''
US citizens generate two times the garbage per capita that most other developed countries do, such as Japan and West Germany. And landfills around the country are closing at a rapid rate.
In New York State, there are about 300 operating landfills, as opposed to 1,600 in the 1960s. On Long Island, where the garbage on the Mobro originated, dependence on ground water means tough strictures on landfills, and most towns are within a year or two of closing their operating landfills.
The city of Islip has agreed to take back the refuse for $124,000. But the barge sits while it is inspected for hazardous or infectious material at the order of state judge, in response to a suit by the Borough of Queens. If the garbage goes back to Islip, it will have to dock in Queens and be sent back by truck.
``We may not have seen a barge with garbage before, but there have been a lot of trucks carrying garbage [from one locality to another],'' says Joanna Underwood, executive director of Inform, a nonprofit environmental research group. She cites the example of Philadelphia, where a fierce battle over a trash-to-steam plant has been waged, and where municipal garbage has been shuttled as far as Ohio and West Virginia.
``The key is, the more garbage we have to manage, the more cities and communities will battle over incinerators and landfills,'' Ms. Underwood says.
A coalition of groups such as Inform and NCSL advocates an integrated solid-waste management program, emphasizing a ``hierarchy'' of methods. At the top of the list would be waste reduction.
``Why do we need to take home cucumbers in a plastic wrap in a paper bag in a plastic bag?'' asks Underwood. She points to a New Jersey levy against products in disposable packaging. The NCSL policy urges Congress to remove financial incentives that promote the use of throwaway rather than reusable packaging.
The next tier is recycling. Rhode Island and New Jersey have mandated recycling programs, and Oregon has passed an Opportunity to Recycle Act, which allows citizens to separate refuse for recycling - paper, glass, cans - and have it picked up that way by local municipalities. And the NCSL proposals call on the Environmental Protection Agency to foster procurement of recycled products by the federal government.
After reduction and recycling or reuse of waste, management programs would turn to resource-recovery systems, where trash is burned for energy. Building such plants often engenders community controversy, because of what some call the NIMBY syndrome - not in my back yard. In Japan and Western Europe, such plants are used more regularly, with stringent environmental protection programs.
``The technology is there, but you have to avoid words like safe,'' Underwood points out. There are ways of reducing hazardous ash and emissions, but it is hard to consider any garbage totally safe - even in landfills.
The last two options, according to most experts, are incineration of trash without capturing energy, and landfills.
New York State is in the midst of adopting a solid-waste management plan. Today, says John F. Moore, a Department of Environmental Protection spokesman, 80 percent of the state's 17.5 million tons of garbage each year is placed in landfills. About 12 percent is eliminated through resource-recovery plants, 4 percent through recycling, and 4 percent shipped out of state or incinerated.
In 10 years, state goals will be 50 percent of garbage eliminated by waste reduction and recycling, Mr. Moore says, with 40 percent processed through resource recovery and 10 percent in better-designed and safeguarded landfills.