If you want a quick lesson in recycling and waste in the U.S., watch Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage. This 19-minute documentary, produced and directed by Heather Rogers, is an eye-opening look at the world of waste. Rogers connects the dots between modern industrial production, our consumer culture and our disposable lifestyle. The film was first released in 2002, but its relevancy isn’t lost today. Gone Tomorrow brings into question the benefits of recycling, especially plastic, and advocates the course of reducing and reusing before recycling. Only 5% of plastics are recycled, and many of those are made into products that cannot in turn be recycled again. And the process of recycling plastic, Rogers explains, is called downcycling because when plastic is reprocessed the chemical bond breaks down, so a large amount of virgin plastic has to be added to the recycled plastic so it can be made into a product. As Rogers walks viewers through the history of rubbish handling from the 1800s to the present, she explains that over the past 30 years, garbage output has exploded worldwide, doubling in the U.S. alone.
Freshkills Park recycling
The massive Fresh Kills landfill in New York will be turned into park space in phases over the next 30 years.
According to a recent ranking, the U.S. leads the world in the amount of municipal waste we create per capita, with Australia coming in a close second. And, despite popular wisdom, this deluge of trash is not only the responsibility of the consumer. In fact, shoppers often have little choice in the wastes they generate. Consider packaging: tossed cans, bottles, boxes and wrappers now take up more than a third of all U.S. landfill space. More abundant today than ever before, packaging is garbage waiting to happen. Then the garbage is buried or burned. Landfills, even the most high tech, are environmental time bombs. They emit greenhouse gases and leach harmful chemicals and heavy metals into groundwater and soil. Waste incinerators are just as bad. They emit 70% of the world’s dioxin, and pollute the air with toxic particulate matter and a host of gases that cause acid rain. There was a glimmer of hope, though. At the time of the film’s making, the infamous Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, NY, was the largest human-made object on earth — so large, in fact, that it was visible to the naked eye from space. Since then, the landfill has closed and is now the site of Fresh Kills Park. According to City of New York Parks & Recreation, it continues to be transformed into reclaimed wetlands, recreational facilities and landscaped public parkland — the largest expansion of New York City parks since the development of the chain of parks in the Bronx in the 1890s. Construction on the actual park began in 2008. The three-phased development, which will include a September 11 memorial, is expected to last 30 years. As of mid-2011, construction drawings for the first phase of development in the South Park section were being completed. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates as many as 3,500 landfills have closed since 1991 (the number from earlier years wasn’t tracked). There isn’t an official record of all the parks and public recreational sites created on old landfills, but the Center for City Park Excellence did a cursory study of major American cities and found more than 4,500 acres of successful landfill parks. With an excess of trash, a shortage of urban green space and advances in land-conversion technology, the landfills-to-parks movement has enormous potential.