Landfill Salvage: The Benefits of Waste Recovery

Landfill salvage offers tremendous potential for waste recovery and reuse, but few municipalities are taking advantage of it.

| May/June 1981

Not so many years ago, most local garbage dumps were alive with on-the-spot waste recovery and recycling. Folks would come by to drop off something "useless" and—more often than not—discover items that they needed among the material that had been left for junk by other people. Frequently, the dumps were managed by old-time local residents, individuals who had a flair for setting aside select pieces of trash, knowing they would soon be another person's treasures.

Today, landfill salvage is all but a lost art. It's not that folks are no longer interested in reusing things, though. The problem is that, at most city and town dumps, landfill salvage is illegal. People can get hurt rummaging through the garbage, the reasoning goes, and might salvage goods that could be unhealthful or hazardous.

The argument sounds logical, too, until you consider how much a well-managed landfill salvage operation can boost a community's self-reliance without any significant danger. First, when material that would otherwise go to waste is rescued, local dumps don't fill up so rapidly. Thus the need for expensive disposal alternatives, such as long-distance hauling or incinerators, is postponed and perhaps avoided indefinitely.

Salvage also saves energy. Far more BTU go into manufacturing a new stove than into fixing up an old one.

And finally, dump foraging creates jobs; some of the money earned by selling reusable material goes toward paying staff salaries. (In landfill without salvage, on the other hand, valuable resources are lost forever, and citizens are taxed to pay for the destruction.)

A few communities, distressed by rapidly filling dump areas, have rediscovered the value of landfill recycling. In Oregon's Lane County, for instance, recyclers convinced waste management officials to run a ten-week experiment. At the end of the test, about 70 tons of material had been diverted from the dump, producing just over $3,200 in revenue. County officials were so pleased with the results that they now run a permanent landfill salvage program, through a private contractor.

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