IT'S been called the ``Matterhorn of matter.'' When it's finally capped at the turn of the century, the Fresh Kills garbage dump on Staten Island will be so huge that it should feature prominently on topographical maps. In fact, it will be the highest point on the Eastern Seaboard south of Mount Desert Island in Maine. The amount of garbage generated in this country defies description. Americans discard about 400,000 tons a day: That's enough to fill a fleet of about 40,000 garbage trucks; enough to float an armada of 125 garbage barges like the orphan scow from Islip, N.Y., which raised such a storm of public opinion.
In fact, the barge, with its rotting cargo, is by no means the first such vessel to be turned away from port; ``just the first one to catch the media's eye,'' notes Neil Seldman, director of waste utilization at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, in Washington.
But the concern generated by the episode could prove to be a turning point in America's willingness to face up to its growing solid-waste crisis.
Unlike many other countries, the United States, by far the biggest garbage producer in the Western world, incinerates or recycles very little of its refuse. Most of it is dumped unceremoniously into the ground.
And the space in which to bury it is running out. In the next three to five years, half the nation's landfills will be used up, leaving 100 million or so people with nowhere to dispose of their garbage, if alternatives are not found.
In such an event, a flotilla of garbage scows could put to sea in a desperate search for dump sites. In the worst scenario, the ocean itself would become a dumping ground.
The City of Philadelphia has long been casting around for a place to deposit its trash. The local landfills are full, so much of the garbage is now trucked to Ohio; ash from solid-waste incinerators is shipped as far as Panama. Other cities routinely transport their garbage over long distances - from 50 to 150 miles - by rail, truck, or barge. That makes garbage disposal very expensive.
The Worldwatch Institute in Washington estimates that the cost of disposing of garbage increases by as much as $1 a ton for every mile the waste travels overland. Tipping fees, the charges levied by the landfill operations for accepting the garbage, are also on the increase, and may rise severalfold in the next few years, as available space diminishes.
Largely because of rising transportation and tipping fees, Philadelphia's average disposal costs have risen more than fourfold in this decade alone - from $20 a ton in 1980 to $90 a ton at the beginning of this year. By year's end, the city estimates, the figure could exceed $100 a ton.
New York's and Boston's disposal costs are similarly high. Cities and towns of California are collectively approaching $1 billion in annual trash disposal costs, according to Cynthia Pollock, author of ``Worldwatch Paper 76 - Mining Urban Wastes: The Potential for Recycling.''
The growing cost of garbage comes at the expense of other city services. In 1984, the streets division of St. Paul, Minn. (which includes solid-waste management), was in sixth place on the list of city expenditures. Today, just three years later, it has risen to first place, ahead of the police, according to studies by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
Small towns in more congested regions are often particularly hard pressed by the growth in garbage. With their local landfills likely to close within a few years, many see themselves having to follow Philadelphia into costly long-distance waste hauling. Unlike sewage treatment, for which federal funds are sometimes available, solid-waste management is purely a local or sometimes a county expense, notes Jerome Goldstein, publisher of the waste-management magazine Biocycle.
Beyond the costs, the often negative impact on the environment caused by disposing of waste in the old fashioned bury-it-and-forget-it manner - notably in polluted ground water and contaminated wells - is becoming better known.
While towns flounder over what to do, speculators are buying up landfill sites in hopes of cashing in on a future garbage crisis.
Hull, Mass., which is searching for a competent private organization to manage its rapidly filling landfill site, has had several offers to buy it outright. Even if it soon fills up and is closed, the speculators reason, it will ultimately have to be reopened because of pressure caused by mounting disposal needs.
Mr. Goldstein confirms that big business as well as individual entrepreneurs is buying up landfills. ``It's a stopgap approach to the problem,'' he says, ``but one that will be very profitable [for the landfill owners] in the near future.''
Indeed, the trash that cities and towns find a growing financial burden is in fact a potential profit center. By most estimates some $100 billion will have to be spent on solid-waste management nationwide between now and the turn of the century.
Those who come up with acceptable methods and technologies for treating solid waste stand to do very well.
Malcolm S. Forbes, editor in chief of Forbes magazine, indicated his convictions on the subject in a ``Fact and Comment'' column when he said: ``Doesn't anyone want a piece of the toxic pie? Or, for that matter, a chunk of the vast nontoxic waste pile? Out of our millions of test tubes can come no biological, chemical solutions? ... No bugs or compounds that eat, dissolve, disperse garbage, toxic or nontoxic? No lasting containments, ... no system or catalyst for transforming these stuffs from costly problems to profitable products? There may be no magic bullets, but there are solutions out there. And $billions in business for those with some answers.''
On a worldwide scale, urban solid waste contains metals more concentrated than the world's richest ores; paper representing thousands of acreas of forest lands; and highly refined petrochemicals in the form of plastics, along with countless tons of glass.
David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance describes cities as mother lodes of raw materials. ``The question is how to mine it most effectively.''
Recyclers, among them the nonprofit National Recycling Coalition, say large amounts of any community's waste-wealth can be mined if recycling is given a better share of the funding that now goes to traditional solid-waste management techniques.
City governments, however, tend to favor a different form of resource recovery: mass-burn incineration plants, which extract energy in the form of steam, either to provide heat or drive electric generators.
So the lines are drawn. A cautious public, concerned over the perceived health hazards of incineration and the high capital expenditures involved, often backs the environmentalists in local controversies over solidwaste disposal; while many city mayors, seeing in mass-burn a quick, turnkey solution to the problem, are calling for incineration.
To what extent heightened public awareness following the Islip barge incident will fuel the debate has still to be gauged. Most waste-watchers agree, however, that a good deal of public ignorance disappeared with all the publicity surrounding the episode.
As Worldwatch's Cynthia Pollock puts it, more people will now recognize that when they throw something away, ``there is no real `away' at all.''
One way or another, the nation's solid-waste problem will have to be tackled - and soon. The eleventh hour has arrived. In the view of some it may even have passed the hour.
Tomorrow: Getting a grip on garbage - a detailed look at incineration and recycling.