Producing the materials that become garbage takes a huge toll on forests, waterways, and other natural resources; disposing of them creates a different set of environmental issues. Landfills generate hazardous and uncontrolled air emissions and threaten surface and groundwater supplies. They are the largest U.S. source of emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas, and they can also leak, polluting groundwater. Of course, they eventually get full, a fate that can be delayed by keeping garbage out of landfills.
Recycling, reuse, and source reduction (efforts to design, produce, and distribute products in ways that will generate less garbage) are key to reducing the amount of garbage going to landfills. Recycling can extend the life of landfills while simultaneously conserving precious resources and preventing the generation of waste. For instance, a ton of material collected by a typical curbside recycling program can save the energy equivalent of $265 worth of oil, natural gas, electricity, or coal. And, of course, the more material that's recycled or otherwise reused, the less that winds up in landfills.
Keeping Bay Area Garbage Out of Landfills
To save natural resources and preserve critical landfill space, the state legislature passed the California Integrated Waste Management Act in 1989. It set an ambitious goal: cities and counties were to divert half of their garbage from landfills by the end of 2000.
The Bay Area would likely have even more serious garbage problems, if counties had not made such progress toward meeting the mandatory diversion level. As of 1998, the last year for which complete data are available, the average diversion rate of the counties that reported data was 44 percent, thanks largely to the success of curbside recycling programs.
The Limits of Diversion
Although the Bay Area has made progress in improving the percentage of diverted garbage, all nine counties increased the amount of garbage they sent to landfills from 1995 to 1999. In most cases, the increases occurred steadily throughout the entire period. Five counties, however (Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Francisco, and Solano), did have single years during which they managed to reduce the amount of garbage they sent to landfills; two others (San Mateo and Marin) saw reductions in two nonconsecutive years.
In 1999 alone, Bay Area counties together sent more than 7 million tons of garbage to landfills, according to the California Integrated Waste Management Board. That year, Marin County generated 2.88 pounds per day per resident, while Sonoma produced the least residential garbage -- only 1.20 pounds per day per resident. Sonoma had the largest average per-employee generation of garbage -- 12.4 pounds per day -- while San Francisco had the lowest at 5.3 pounds per day.
Taken together, the data paint a disturbing picture of disposal problems that could plague the Bay Area in the future, even as progress on reusing and recycling waste continues. The region's steady increase in the percentage of garbage that is diverted will mean little if the total amount of garbage increases. Moreover, the sheer quantity of garbage guarantees that existing landfill space will be exhausted sooner rather than later.