In 1987 the public of the United States was awakened to its growing municipal waste problem when a barge of New York State garbage wandered for five months in search of a disposal site. The barge with more than 3,000 tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) aboard was rejected by several disposal facilities along the Atlantic Coast and in the Caribbean and was eventually returned to the New York area and burned. More recently a trainload of New York City garbage--commonly referred to as the "P.U. Choo Choo"-- roamed the Midwest in search of a home. After traveling for more than a month through a number of towns in Illinois, Kansas, and Missouri, the train was returned to New York's Fresh Kills landfill in July 1992, and the waste was buried.
Media coverage of these and other similar events and related reports on the status of garbage in America have elevated MSW to one of the most visible and, in the eyes of the public and many government leaders, most problematic environmental issues of our time. Polls routinely find that MSW ranks near the top of the public's environmental concerns, and a recent survey found that solid waste management is the top environmental priority among state legislatures. 1 Municipal waste management is also the focus of intense debate within the U.S. Congress and executive branch as different views about the problem, potential solutions, and the appropriate role of government clash.
In many ways the severity of our municipal waste problem has been overblown, and in some cases real problems have been overshadowed by hype over trivial concerns. Referring to the problem as a "crisis situation" is not appropriate at this time. 2 However, if recent trends continue, municipal waste management could very well be at a crisis level within a decade.