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Affluence and effluence

AMERICA'S garbage glut is by no means unique. Much of the world is similarly troubled, for one reason: the population explosion. The earth's population has doubled in the last 35 years. What's worse, most of us also throw away a lot more than our parents or grandparents did.

In industrialized societies, rising affluence since the 1950s has been matched by increasing effluence. In short, the richer we are, the more we can afford to waste. New York City residents lead the world in this respect, throwing away nine times their weight in garbage each year.

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Changing life styles have contributed much to today's throwaway society. As more women have entered the job market, and two-income families have become the norm rather than the exception, there's been a marked rise in the use of convenience products - right down to disposal paper clothing. Take-out foods and ``pop in the oven'' products with heavy packaging have replaced a good deal of home cooking. The returnable bottle of the '60s, which made an average of 30 round trips, has given way to the disposable container. Moreover, plastic, the hardest of all materials to recycle, is steadily replacing steel and aluminum cans.

In industrial countries, packaging often represents half the household waste. In fact, according to the US Department of Agriculture, Americans last year spent more money on food packaging than the nation's farmers earned (in net income) to produce that food.

According to the Worldwatch Institute, more than half the paper and glass produced in the United States and about one-third of the plastics are used to make items that last less than a year.

These trends have put a strain on the nation's landfills, and communities have been caught by surprise. The Shelter Institute, a home-construction school in Bath, Maine, tells this tale of a nearby community: When the landfill that had served the town for nearly 100 years was almost full, town officials promptly bulldozed out another hollow of equal size and went away satisfied that the community's needs were met for the better part of another century.

Instead, the new landfill was exhausted in less than 15 years. P.T. CHART: GROWING GARBAGE CANS. Just what is garbage? Garbage is a term we throw around freely. In this chart, it refers mostly to the stuff that goes into your in Glad bags and the municiple garbage truck. But the chart, and our thinking about garbage, leaves out an awful lot: wastes from mining, agricultural and industrial processing, and demolition and construction, as well as sewage, sludge, junked autos, and obsolete equipment. Also elbowing for disposal space are hazardous chemical wastes and nuclear wastes. Where does it all go?

The US produces about 400,000 tons of garbage a day: That's nearly 4 pounds a day for every woman, man, and child in the country. Most of that mess is trucked miles away and dumped into landfills.

Those dump sites are beginning to bulge at the seams, and by 1992, half the nation's landfills will be used up.

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The price of hauling and dumping garbage is going up, up, up; by the year 2000, the US may spend a whopping $100 billion on waste management.

Less than 10 percent of our refuse is disposed of through incineration and recycling, which are the leading alternatives to landfill.

Almost as significant as the statistics on America's garbage problem is the remarkable lack of compiled national statistics. Our researches turned up conflicting and incomplete data from government and private sources. In short, no one seems to know for sure how much the country throws away, and how much it's costing. Says an EPA statistician: `In five years, we'll know all this.'

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