BARGES piled high with garbage on long-term odysseys through exotic ports have drawn ridicule. Yet the same people who laugh are often drinking and eating from disposable plastic products, and using many of the other amenities ``necessary'' for modern life. The saga of these ships' journeys might be funny were it not for the incredible seriousness surrounding our inability to manage our own wastes. The peril of the solid-waste problem can be appreciated in the example of the plastic-foam beverage cup. Built to keep coffee warm for minutes, it lasts virtually forever. Resistance to salt, acid, rust, bacteria, and breakage made it into the miracle substance that transformed our culture. It was so cheap, efficient, and convenient that its use proliferated wildly.
Plastics, however, are found to be less expensive than alternative materials only if we disregard their true environmental costs. By weight, plastics comprise about 10 percent of the 450,000 tons of refuse produced in the United States every 24 hours; however, they account for as much as 30 percent of landfill volume. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one-third of America's cities will run out of landfill space within three years, and half will do so within 10 years.
Municipal waste incinerators are looming large on the horizon, offering a quick-fix solution to those with little foresight. Over 100 such facilities are in operation in the US today. In the process of burning waste, toxic pollutants such as lead, mercury, arsenic, hydrochloric acid, and dioxins are released as emissions.