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Do Landfills Need Regular Showers?

The next time you put out the trash, bear in mind that you are creating a foul-smelling time capsule. Our garbage, lodged in the local landfill, lingers for an average of a century before biodegradable parts such as paper, bones, cloth, and the like are completely decomposed. It seems that a large part of the reason our refuse refuses to rot is that landfills are too dry to support the bacteria that digest the garbage.

To test this hypothesis, researchers at Ohio State University sealed trash inside tanks for 15 months. They added a little sewage sludge to provide a working stock of bacteria to the system, and watered it continuously by recirculating the fluid, or leachate, that seeped out the bottom of the pile. Over that time, the mass of the trash decreased by 1.3%. While this was slower than anticipated, researchers say decomposition rates could be accelerated by as much as 10 times.

Professor Olli H. Tuovinen, a professor of microbiology at Ohio State University, believes that similar treatment of trash in landfills on a larger scale might allow it to rot away in as little as 10 years. "Trash can decompose about 10 to 20 times faster through this system," says Tuovinen. The research could mean more rapid redevelopment of the landfills. By Petti Fong

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