“We don’t want our community to become a city dump,”
~ Julian McEachin, resident of Bunnlevel, NC
Trash. What do we do with it? How do we manage it? These questions face us today as they did our ancestors. There’s no doubt they’ve become far more challenging amid modern cultural, socioeconomic, geographical, and political landscapes. Landfills remain the primary method of trash disposal in the United States, although the last few decades witnessed the emergence of other waste management strategies and facilities like recycling centers, composting plants, waste-to-energy plants, and incinerators.
People tend to maintain the “NIMBYism” (“Not In My Backyard”) attitude towards waste management facilities. They, along other facilities such as jails, prisons, halfway houses, abortion clinics, mental healthcare facilities, drug treatment centers, wastewater treatment plants, mobile phone towers, energy/power plants, homeless shelters, and sewage plants are undesirable and unwanted in a given community. This is especially true for communities that are primarily residential in nature.
Yes but No
The majority of people would sympathize with the Bunnlevel resident regarding the construction of a new landfill. In some respects, we are all justified in our opposition due its collateral damages. Our collective “NIMBYism” highlights a core reality of waste management and other undesirable facilities. While most people would not dispute the necessity and importance of them, most people would passionately maintain that their community should not host them. In other words, we agree we need undesirable facilities to serve vital societal functions, but disagree over where they should be located. Like the atmosphere, “NIMBYism” facilities are a common good and shared resource from which there is a direct or indirect societal benefit. Everybody may value undesirable facilities and may be their direct and/or indirect beneficiary, but the majority of people are unwilling to incur their costs. In this context, the costs are not solely financial.
Costs of Landfills
Landfills impose many costs upon communities that host them. Leachate is water that has percolated downward through trash after a precipitation event and contains high levels of toxicity. When improperly managed (i.e. spills, leaks), it can pollute soil, ground water, and surface water (oceans, lakes, rivers, etc.) and pose a direct threat to public and ecological health. Both ground water and surface water are primary sources of drinking water. Pollution can also occur when infrastructure becomes overwhelmed from leachate, sewage, and stormwater sharing the same plumbing. Since many landfills accept trash generated miles and even states away, hosting communities become inundated with heavy truck traffic that generates noise, dust, odors, and fumes. Their presence is a driving nuisance and overwhelms local infrastructure. Local taxpayers alone are responsible for related repairs and upgrades. It’s disheartening enough that litter exists in the first place. Add to that the litter of landfills and garbage trucks from which trash will escape despite the best of control measures. Landfills have great potential to depreciate values of commercial and residential properties. Like with litter, the best of control measures will never eradicate foul odors. As they grow taller for all to behold, landfills quickly become an eyesore and sour an otherwise beautiful countryside or cityscape horizon. They can also cause a lack of and/or decreasing business and economic investment in hosting communities, which in turn negatively impacts career prospects. Lastly, their construction and development causes habitat loss.
Due to a landfill’s collective costs, hosting communities are likely resentful. Many communities would view them as a direct threat to their community identity while few would embrace the persona of a dumping ground, especially by outside waste generators. Like other undesirable facilities, the presence of a landfill has the potential to cause community stigmatization. Landfills and other undesirable facilities represent an overt and/or diffuse threat and assault on a given community’s identity.
The Greater Good
Landfills and other undesirable facilities will always exist. Their siting, construction, and operations are key issues surrounding environmental and social justice, as many are and become located in areas where people collectively are of lower socioeconomic status. The question, containing moral, ethical, political, environmental, and public policy dimensions, is “How do we balance and reconcile the collective costs of communities hosting undesirable facilities that serve a greater, societal good?”
~by Angelo Teachout
photo credit of featured image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/fibonacciblue/29555901422 (License)
photo credit of cooling towers: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Grangemouth_cooling_towers._-_panoramio.jpg (License)
photo credit of ACE tractor trailer: https://www.flickr.com/photos/acesolidwaste/4647947414 (License)
photo credit of urban decay: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Camden_NJ_poverty.jpg