LONDON — Burn it? Recycle it? Dump it into landfills that soon will fill up? Trash and what to do with it has become a big issue in industrial countries, where each household throws out about a half-ton or more of it every year.
Worthless as it seems when it goes out the door, trash has immense value, and many countries are trying to extract more hard cash from it in the form of raw materials and energy.
And more attention is being paid to trash as higher levels of government realize the coordination required to get the most out of all the refuse that emerges as the end product of the process of consumption.
Waste Division Established
The Executive Commission of the European Common Market has just set up a Waste Division, and its chief, Stanley Johnson, has estimated the amount of money at stake:
"If we could increase recycling and reuse of waste, we could possibly save 12 billion ECUs ($8.4 billion) a year in imported raw material. We could save costs of waste disposal by over 1 billion ECUs ($700 million) a year."
(ECU stands for European Currency Unit, which is used as a bookkeeping device by the Common Market. Its value, which fluctuates, is determined by a "basket" of currencies of the 10 member countries.)
Johnson said in an interview in Brussels, Belgium, that the new European commissioner in charge of the environment, Stanley Clinton Davis, plans soon to propose a comprehensive Common Market waste-management strategy.
Emphasis on Recycling
While aiming to tighten rules on handling and disposal of dangerous, toxic wastes, the trading bloc also will strive for a "much bigger emphasis" on recycling and reuse of wastes, Johnson said.
Common Market countries produce 2 billion tons of waste a year. This mountain is increasing at the rate of 3% annually, and only about 35 million tons, or about 2%, is recovered for reuse.
In Britain, The Trade and Industry Committee of Parliament recommended in December that a Cabinet-level minister of waste be appointed to halt the loss of an estimated $860 million worth of materials that could be reused annually.
'Minister of Garbage'
Newspapers in London poked a bit of fun at the idea of a "minister of garbage," but the committee said testimony showed there was confusion as to which ministry should take the lead, and overall coordination was essential to give recycling programs the central government sponsorship they need to flourish.
"Waste is too often treated as rubbish," the committee's report said.
While about $2 billion worth of waste products are recycled annually in Britain, "the potential is significantly greater," the report said. About 90% of Britain's solid waste goes into landfills.
"We are not overwhelmed by the packaged society as in North America," committee Chairman Kenneth Warren, a Conservative, said. "But landfill sites are filling up. Disposal is becoming a concern and will become a major problem by the end of this decade if we don't come up with better solutions."
London's 6.75 million people produce 3.25 million tons of household waste a year, of which only 400,000 tons goes to an incinerator where it is burned to produce electricity.
Sources of Power
Getting power and heat out of garbage is a well-established idea in some countries.
Denmark, producing more than a ton of trash annually per person, burns about one-fifth of its solid waste for area heating and provides 3% of the country's heat requirements. Switzerland burns 50% of its household and business wastes for power or heat, and Sweden and Austria also dispose of some waste by this method.
Italy's city of Genoa has been burning garbage in huge furnaces since 1972 to produce heat and electricity. Rome recycles garbage at a plant that extracts metal with a huge magnet, sifts out paper and plastic with fans and whirlpools and separates organic matter to be made into animal feed and fertilizers. What can't be used is burned, and the resulting steam runs the plant.
With a shortage of open space for landfills, crowded countries, such as Japan, Belgium and the Netherlands, still have to dump some wastes but try to make the best of it.
The Dutch, sending 45% of their waste to carefully controlled landfills, have added a dimension to their very flat country by making hills of their trash, landscaping them and turning them into recreational areas.
Reclaiming the Land
The Japanese use some of their waste to reclaim land from the sea, a process that has been going on for centuries. Examples of important reclaimed land include much of eastern Tokyo, the capital's Haneda Airport, a "Dream Island" in Tokyo Bay with sports stadiums and Portopia Island off Kobe, where a big international fair was held in 1982.
But dumping accounts for only 32.3% of Japan's household wastes, and the rest is burned.