Life on a plastic island: what it’s like to live near a landfill


Here at The University of New Orleans, our recycling program is poised to make strides in making a difference in staying environmentally friendly, “We . . . plan on overhauling the recycling program and implementing more environmentally friendly practices on campus in general,” explains UNO Service Coalition vice president Michael Sinegar. “It’s an exciting time to be involved in the program.”

As campus recycling resources expand, intuitively, participation will become more convenient. Increased participation would demonstrate a more prevalent desire at The University of New Orleans to divert waste from local landfills.

Now the scenery is a collection site for the contents of our trash bins. One might imagine the air to be infiltrated with an ever-intensifying tang of decay as the bacterial breeding ground seeps a hostile stench into the atmosphere and leaks a toxic concoction into the ground. One might envision gusts of wind sweeping these fatal fumes into nearby neighborhoods and schoolyards, where they linger insidiously in the undertone of every breath drawn in. Certainly swarms of scavengers and crawling things should be infesting the landfill and turning up in the homes of nearby residents, whose windows reveal the image of a grim and rotting landscape.

You might presume that life near a landfill must bear some semblance to this depiction, right?

You would be wrong.

There is one community not too far from a landfill that I know very well. Near its border with the southern shore of Lake Pontchartrain lies its student apartments on the west side, and on the east a towering smoke-stack. Indeed, our very own University of New Orleans campus lies in a surprising vicinity to not one, but multiple landfills. You may be startled to learn this, but our country’s overall waste generation is actually so massive that it would be rather difficult, especially in the eastern half of the United States, for you to distance yourself very far from a landfill, no matter where you went.


Landfills near New Orleans: closer than you think

When a piece of garbage leaves our fingertips, we often tend to behave as though it were swept from existence at the moment of disposal. In reality, disposal of waste only initiates a journey that requires the use of technology, labor, time, and a destination for that waste. For us here at University of New Orleans, there are a total of seven landfills within a mere 14-mile radius of campus (Save on Energy via the Environmental Protection Agency, 2018; New Orleans Department of Sanitation, 2018). Of those seven landfills, three of them are open and actively receiving garbage: Gentilly Landfill, River Birch Landfill, and Jefferson Parish Sanitary Landfill (the other four are retired). Together, these seven local landfills contain over an astonishing 37 million tons of waste. And according to Zero Waste America, there are over 3000 active landfills and 10,000 more retired landfills in America.


The Abyss at the Bottom of Your Trash Bin

Placing an item in a garbage bin can be compared to dropping a coin down the Kola Superdeep Borehole. Drilled by Russian scientists intermittently from 1970 to 1994, the hole now extends 7.5 miles into the Earth’s crust, deeper than the Mariana Trench. The hole may seem bottomless to a viewer from the top, and it has been calculated to take staggering 50 seconds for a dropped item to reach the bottom, but nevertheless even the lengthiest of freefalls results in an eventual collision with the earth below. In a similar manner, because smaller private trash cans get dumped into increasingly larger and more public garbage cans, then are collected by even more massive garbage trucks which finally deliver the garbage to landfills, you can imagine each of the smaller trash cans as bottomless tubes that lead straight to a landfill near you. The odds are that if you have placed garbage in a bin at any time near New Orleans or a number of the surrounding parishes, that piece of garbage has made its way down the New Orleans ‘Superdeep Trash Chute’ to one of the seven landfills mentioned above.


The Net Worth of a Recycling Bin

In recent years, as both the economic and environmental cost of waste management have continued to climb, as well as a growing awareness of the alternative measures, recycling has become an increasingly available option. While waste management and recycling management both require the input of technology, labor, and time, recycling yields resources with value, such as materials to preserve food or manufacture clothes and bedding, among many other purposes. In contrast, waste disposal entails the setting aside of potentially valuable materials to sit unconverted in their valueless form, to pollute rivers and streams, to choke and maim wildlife, and to degrade landscapes. As greater quantities of people grasp this, recycling resources become more abundant and accessible.