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Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

United States' Garbage (p. 292)

From chapter "The Future: Business As Usual"

A Boeing 747 can carry a load of about 377,000 pounds. If we wanted to ship every ounce of municipal waste produced in the US over to some “underpolluted” foreign nation, we would have to send 1.3 million Boeing 747s per year (using the 2005 numbers for garbage production). If you went and put your lawn chair down at the end of the runway at our imaginary garbage-shipping airport, you would watch a 747 filled to the brim with garbage roar over your head every 24 seconds, day and night, every single day of the year. But as always, we have to remember that most of the waste an industrial culture produces is made at a factory, not a household. So let’s throw those 7.6 billion tons of industrial waste into the mix. If we decide to ship that waste on the 747s as well, then we might have to hire some more air traffic controllers at our imaginary airport. We now have to arrange to launch 31.5 million 747s per year. If you’re sitting at the end of the runway with your lawn chair and your stopwatch you’d better have a good pair of earplugs. A 747 will be screaming past every 1.3 seconds, twenty-four seven. Picture a nose-to-tail string of 747s launching perpetually.

And all of this is just from one country. We haven’t even talked about the rest of the industrialized nations.

I don’t know about you, but my head is spinning a little now that we’re talking about tens of millions of airplanes. So let’s pick something a bit larger for comparison. Let’s pick something big and famous and recognizable. A skyscraper. Let’s look at something the size of a World Trade Center tower.

Each of the big World Trade Center towers had 110 stories, with a total of 3.8 million square feet of office space. Imagine every office and every corridor and cubicle and elevator filled with garbage, nine feet deep. We can assume garbage has a density of about 1500 pounds per cubic yard. This means we should be able to fit about 32.4 million cubic feet, or 1.9 billion pounds of garbage, into our skyscraper. That’s just shy of a million tons per skyscraper.

So let’s take annual waste production, both industrial and municipal,

and add them together, which gives us about 7.8 billion tons. That would fill 8211 of these skyscrapers per year. That’s 22.5 skyscrapers per day. So imagine that we have a construction crew building a new skyscraper every hour of every day—minus a one hour lunch and two fifteen minute breaks, to make the math work out to 22.5 buildings per day (and to meet labor laws). And the first thing they do, each hour, once they’ve finished the construction, is to fill the skyscraper from the lobby to the observation deck with the previous hour’s garbage production.

If you wanted to stick to building these skyscrapers only in American cities with a population of more than half a million, you could put a new skyscraper in every city on just about every working day, Monday to Friday, of the entire year.

Imagine we were building a garbage metropolis filled with garbage skyscrapers. Our WTC-sized tower is 208 by 208 feet. A standard Manhattan block is 264 feet by 900 feet, so we should be able to cram in four per block if we don’t care about parking or parks, which is a reasonable assumption since a neighborhood with four million tons of rotting garbage on every block probably won’t a be very popular tourist destination. If we put four of these skyscrapers on every block, we’d be building nearly forty new blocks every week. The total land area of all of Manhattan is just shy of 23 square miles. Within less than four months, our tireless construction crew would cover every single acre of Manhattan—Central Park included—with garbage-filled skyscrapers. They’ll fill three Manhattans per year, with a few hundred million tons leftover.

Now, dramatic as these illustrations may be, we have a caveat. So far we’ve been looking at total garbage output. But the fact is, of course, not all waste goes into the landfill. We would never actually see all of this waste in one place. According to the EPA, more than a third of municipal waste is recycled or incinerated, and most industrial waste goes into water. Though this would decrease our net waste quantities, it’s not as much of a consolation as it could be. It essentially means that while the great majority of the waste is still being wasted, it’s just being disposed of in the larger world. Hence, dioxin in every stream. Hence, plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean outweighing phytoplankton ten to one.

Back to our scenario. What if business as usual continued? What if current trends were extrapolated into the future? Since we’ve been talking about a forty-five year interval, let’s use that same time interval for our extrapolation, and we’ll look at the a time between 2005 and 2050. It’s difficult to predict exactly how things will change, so let’s keep things simple and use the same percentage changes over this interval.

Between 1965 and 2005, municipal waste production increased 179 percent. So let’s apply that to our combined municipal and industrial waste production, which gives us 21.8 billion tons per year for 2050. What I want to answer is: how much garbage would be produced in the US in forty-five years of business as usual? If we assume we have a constant increase each year between 2005 and 2050, it all adds up to (in a rather devilish coincidence) 666 billion tons over forty-five years.

To go back to our earlier comparison, that’s 3.5 billion 747s. That’s over seven hundred thousand skyscrapers full.

That’s 263 Manhattans.

That’s seventy-three Grand Canyons full of garbage.

That’s a hell of a lot of garbage.

And that’s just for the United States.