Archive for May, 2007


Analyzing Highway Trash

I knew of course that there’s garbage all over the California highways. I see it lying in sweet repose by the side of the road every day, wondering how things like shoes make their way to the median across four lanes of traffic. I’ve swerved around boxes. I’ve waited in traffic jams caused by mattresses and appliances and other objects too large to swerve around. And I’ve seen the crews of convicts clearing the shoulders.

But until the New York Times pointed it out yesterday, I never suspected that there are people who devote their professional lives to the study of it. There are litter anthropologists (employed in universities) and litter analysts (employed in the waste industry). I can already envision the hilarity at cocktail parties when someone asks the inevitable question, “And what do YOU do?”

It turns out that California tops the nation in debris-related traffic deaths as well as in volume and oddity of items lost or tossed (including a live ostrich spilled on the Golden Gate Bridge in 2005). The annual volume is estimated at 130,000 cubic yards, equivalent to a jam of garbage trucks 45 miles long. Pickup trucks are blamed as well as our general slovenliness.

This is not to suggest that highways in other parts of the country are spotless. Georgia highways on average yielded 2289 items of flotsam and jetsam per mile in a recent survey. The unintentional yield contains the mysterious category of “packages from food usually eaten at home,” easily my favorite. Unfortunately, the article doesn’t say how long it had taken for this treasure to collect.


Social Hub

Mary Jean Place, a woman who was instrumental in the creation of Byxbee Park in Palo Alto, recalled the Palo Alto dump in former days as a social hub. Before recyclables were picked up curbside, everybody used to go there to drop off their recyclables on the weekend. Politicians would make it a stop on the campaign trail because of the traffic.

Mary Jean’s story reminds me of the stories John Connolly told me of long lines of cars at the dump on Saturdays in days now long gone, come to drop off regular trash. He remembers queue jumpers and brawls at the gate.

And then there was the picture of Byron Sher–dating to some time in the 1970s, I think–in the city historian’s garbage archives. Sher, who later become a California state senator, was shown dropping off his own household waste of a Saturday during a campaign to be elected to the Palo Alto city council. The point of the picture appeared to be that Sher was not above the usual household chores.

All of these tidbits suggest that we have only become further removed from our garbage dumps, even as we have gained more environmental consciousness. Or have we?


Landfill Methane

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported a 1 percent increase in overall greenhouse gas emissions in 2005 compared to 2004. The waste industry (garbage haulers and disposers) was responsible for more than 2 percent of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Landfills accounted for nearly 24 percent of all methane emissions.

For details, visit

May 2007
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