AMERICA'S refuse pile - including everything from old phone books to medical waste - is growing with all the speed of Jack's legendary beanstalk. That growth, accompanied by increasing environmental, economic, and political concerns, poses new dilemmas for major cities such as Chicago. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the average American now throws away a full 80 percent more garbage a year than in 1960. In addition, more than half the states are expected to run out of landfill space in five years.
The Midwest does not face as tight a squeeze as the more populous East. Yet for the last several years Chicago's City Council has had a moratorium on the siting of any new city landfills or the expansion of existing ones.
About half of Chicago's refuse comes from large apartment buildings and offices and is collected by the private sector. Much of it is shipped out of state. Most of the remaining garbage collected by city workers is hauled to rapidly filling sites inside the city to the south and to nearby counties to the west and north. Tipping fees for the use of such sites have tripled in the last four years. Illinois says the region's landfills will be full by 1993.
``Chicago is in a real bind,'' says James W. Ford Jr., assistant director of governmental affairs of the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission. ``The problem is that everybody is running out of capacity regionwide.''
``Americans have just somehow assumed that this stuff is always going to magically disappear,'' says Doug Ziesemer, Chicago's assistant commissioner for solid waste. ``As the clock continues to tick, our hauling times are going to increase because the landfills are going to be further and further out from the urban area.''
Yet political resistance to such sites is growing. ``Land exists,'' says Dr. Charles Haas, a professor of environmental engineering with the Illinois Institute of Technology. ``The question is the willingness to accept a site, the so-called NIMBY [Not In My Backyard] syndrome.'' In Dr. Haas's view such difficulties are likely to trigger a dramatic increase in refuse disposal costs in the coming years and a sharp hike in illegal roadside dumping as a desperation move. ``You've got to put it somwhere,'' he says.
One controversial proposal that could ease pressure on area landfills calls for a new landfill site in western Cook County. The plan, if it survives several legal hurdles, would channel large amounts of compressed and baled refuse from a number of northern Illinois communities to a new ``balefill'' site.
Environmentalists say Chicago, which sends about 75 percent of its refuse to landfills, should have turned sooner to other disposal methods. After a lengthy debate that continued through two mayoral administrations, the City Council finally voted to try a curbside recycling program of glass, plastics, and cans last October in four of the city's 50 wards.
``Chicago is not moving as aggressively as some of the other major municipalities,'' says Kevin Greene of the Chicago-based Citizens for a Better Environment. ``Our Chicago Recycling Coalition [his group is a member] wants to see the city develop a solid waste plan with a 50 percent recycling goal.''
``It's unbelievable how disorganized Chicago has been with regard to recycling initiatives,'' says Dr. Allen Hershkowitz a garbage specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. ``Less than 3 percent of the city's waste is recycled. ... Chicago is a case study in lost opportunities. The Midwest has extremely strong markets for just about all recyclable materials. You couldn't ask for a better location if the city could just get its act together.''
Two ambitious proposals which could move the city forward are currently before the Chicago City Council.
One, to be voted on Feb. 28, calls for a citywide recycling program by mid-1993.
Another aims at reducing the waste stream at its source by calling for a 10-cent deposit on all beverage cans and bottles and use of only recyclable packaging, be it glass, paper, wood, or metals, beginning in 1992.
``Recycling is going to become a way of life not just in Chicago but everywhere,'' says Commissioner Ziesemer. Still, he cautions that the city cannot afford a ``recycling at any cost mentality.''
Also easing the pressure for the moment on area landfill space is Chicago's one working incinerator which burns 15 to 25 percent of the city's refuse. The steam is bought by a neighboring candy company and the ash is shipped to Michigan for disposal.
Federal clean-air regulations in the 1970s forced the shutdown of three other incinerators in the city. Such facilities are expensive to build and difficult to make profitable. That's just as well with environmentalists concerned about the risks to the air and ground.
Mr. Zeisemer says Chicago wants to develop an integrated long-range management plan for the 1.2 million tons of refuse city workers collect each year: ``There's definitely no single best answer.''
Adding to the pressure on Chicago to agree on a strategy is a state goal: to recycle by the mid-1990s at least 25 percent of the waste collected. A new Illinois law effective in July should make that job easier. It requires that all yard waste be kept out of landfills. Chicago plans to pick up such waste separately and is searching for markets to buy the composted remains.
Garbage has become a much more visible issue to most Americans in the last few years. The famous 6,000-mile voyage of the New York garbage barge which finally had to return to the United States with its contents alerted many. ``I think it brought the issue home for a lot of people,'' says Ziesemer. Mr. Ford of the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission agrees: ``Before people used to doze off when I said I was in the field of solid waste. Now everybody's got an opinion.''
In Ford's view there is no grand solution: ``Part of the task of public education - which I think is working in the case of recycling - is to convince the public that a whole bunch of tiny steps are worth doing. .. There are a zillion little solutions.''