Archive for February, 2008


Fortified Mozzarella

The Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad reports that the Napels garbage crisis is half solved. That is, trash is being collected in the city itself, after months when household waste simply accumulated in the streets. Hotels are welcoming tourists once again.

A provisional landfill has been opened–“provisional” presumably meaning that it is not properly engineered to contain contaminants. Some trash is being sent to Germany, after being separated locally. An incinerator is under construction and might start to make short shrift with Naples’ municipal produce in a year and a half.

But in the suburbs the accumulated trash from earlier months lines the streets. In the dark hours of the night, garbage trucks still dump toxic industrial waste from northern Italy and other parts of Europe among the buffalo farms and apricot orchards, as they have been doing for 25 years. But not to worry. Government inspections certify the mozzarella as within allowable dioxin limits. Buon appetito!

Update: March 26, 2008 — As you might expect, the more we hear about the toxic waste abutting the buffalo farms from whence emerges our mozzarella, the less appealing the notion of ingesting such a delicate puffball of snow-white cheese. In recent months, the New York Times reports, the sale of mozzarella has declined by 40%, and inspections have in fact turned up some cheese exceeding the dioxin level considered acceptable by the Italian government, whatever that might be. The author of the NYT article speculates that the politicians might finally act to clean up Campania under pressure of falling mozzarella sales. The world is a very strange place–who would have guessed it was possible to force a little bit of change by spurning the caprese salad?

People all over Campania have set the piles ablaze, out of protest.Update: May 9, 2008 – The European Union is sueing Italy over its garbage practices, charging that the country “had failed to meet its obligations to collect and dispose of its rubbish,” as the New York Times put it. Meanwhile, the temperatures are rising and the smell is getting worse all over Campania. People have started setting the accumulating piles ablaze in recent weeks, out of protest and to try to reduce the public health threat posed by festering waste all over the streets in gigantic piles.

Update: May 25, 2008 – A few days ago, the papers reported that Berlusconi, newly re-installed at the helm of the Italian sort-of-government, has announced that he is really going to get tough on the garbage crisis and illegal immigration. Interesting combination of priorities, no? Even more interesting is his proposed solution: use the army to squash all protests against the siting of new garbage facilities. It’s not news that Berlusconi is a fascist, but I don’t know that he has displayed his colors in such an effective single brush stroke before.


Another Mountain

I was born in Hilversum, at a time when the nature area known as Anna’s Hoeve was still used as landfill and an open-air water purification system. I visited the place last year with my dad and found the “mountain” he used for sledding when he was a kid.

Later researches revealed that the mountain was built out of garbage (bottom layers) and soil excavated to make the decorative ponds across the road (higher elevations) as a public works project in the Depression. Reportedly, the garbage–mostly ashes and glass, since it dates to before 1933 or so–is coming to light in the walking trails. I had to go see for myself, of course.

I found an unusually high concentration of glass shards and and the remains of broken dishes–not quite the potsherds of legendary anthropological finds, I’ll admit. I frankly thought they looked so new, so clean, actually, that I had trouble imagining that they had been buried in dirt for 75 years or more. But who knows, maybe they are the real thing, vintage garbage, so to speak. (This in opposition to recent contamination, the handiwork of partying teenagers, which, I hardly need to point out, does not have nearly the same cachet. In fact, I saw very little trash that was indubitably “new.”)

It’s interesting how garbage is transformed by the ages. Where up-to-the-moment garbage is repulsive, time not only disinfects by decomposition of organics, but hallows by remoteness and singularity. If a few broken potsherds is all we know of a vanished people, then those potsherds become treasures. In Europe at least, they have traditionally taken on an eponymous/metonymous character, as they bestow their qualities on the people who created them, for lack of other known identifying characteristics.

The Netherlands were inhabited in prehistoric times by the bell beaker people, a very large group loosely scattered across huge swaths of Western Europe. Local distinctions break the larger group down into smaller huddles of people who made tulip beakers, others who made corded ware, herring-bone beakers, band ceramics, and zone beakers. By comparison, the people whose dishes are coming to light at Anna’s Hoeve are the mass-produced factory-ware people. I’m afraid current tribes would mostly show up as the disposable-cup folk. It’s tough for me to imagine how many centuries would have to go by to hallow that.

My climb to the top of the mountain revealed that the natural ponds on the other side of the mountain–where the makeshift water purification system once operated–are being dug up. The contamination that was found in the 1970s is finally being cleaned up, it seems.

Larensche Was

More interestingly, once on top of the mountain, it occurred to me that I might be standing on the highest point in the entire province of North Holland. I don’t know, it’s maybe 25 or 30 meters high. What else is there that could compete in the flat lands of North Holland? There are a few high-ish dunes near Haarlem, but that’s just about the only possible competition. Then again, there may be garbage mountains elsewhere in the province that reach even higher.

The Netherlands is lucky to have hung on to the province of Limburg in the 17th century. The southernmost reaches of the Ardennes lift the land there above the garbage summits scattered throughout the united provinces, so we narrowly escape the ignominy of being the people whose garbage towers over absolutely everything else.


Weber’s Pit

As best I can understand, some of my garbage slumbers here in Weber’s Pit–somewhere underfoot or in the aspiring ski-slope atop the cumbrous piles. Until the late 1970s, this was just farmland. Then, the construction company Weber dug out sand as the foundation for the motorway Utrecht-‘s Hertogenbosch, creating a huge pit. Now of course the pit is nowhere to be seen. A part of it was filled up with garbage that eventually rose a respectable distance into the air while another part filled up with water, as tends to happen with pits in the Netherlands.

From on top of the bump, I bet I could get a pretty good view of Utrecht, but not today. It’s indecently cold and wet and blustery. Even the measly trees look sorry they ended up in this mess.

Put van Weber


The Highest Point in Drenthe

The Netherlands started out in its career in modern history as a combination of morass and hard-scrabble country. Pliny reports that the morass dwellers looked like shipwrecked sailors: “They try to warm their frozen bowels by burning mud, dug with their hands out of the earth and dried to some extent in the wind more than the sun, which one hardly ever sees.” The more stable uplands in the back country could only with the greatest effort be made to yield a meagre subsistence to small huddles of peasants. Not exactly the land of milk and honey.

The soggy lowlands were eventually improved, but the hard-scrabble uplands pretty much stayed that way into the 20th century, when the Dutch government hatched a scheme to transport garbage from the western cities, which had become overwhelmed by their own trash, to poor Drenthe, for use as soil amendments. A nice instance of what I like to think of as social metabolism, the exchange of food and ordure between urban and agricultural areas to keep the whole thing in more or less in balance.

I was born in one such trash-embarrassed city, Hilversum, which started exporting its leftovers to Drenthe in the early 1960s and lived for a while in Amersfoort, which started participating some time in the 1950s I believe. I hereby publicly take responsibility for having done my best for Drenthe.

Garbage Boil

Anyhow, what started out as a large-scale composting venture eventually got derailed by cheap chemical fertilizers. And all of that is why Drenthe has a gigantic garbage dump, repository of noncompostable trash from its early days and from trash not suitable for incineration more recently, all of it cemented together by the ashes produced by the ovens next door. More than 20 million cubic meters of unpleasantness quietly simmers below the surface of the neatly landscaped hills, like a boil in the skin of the earth.

A View of Drenthe, from Atop the Trash

In fact, the thing is still growing, as the waste stream from the west has diminished but not dried up. At more than 40 meters above sea level, it is the highest point in the entire province of Drenthe. Ironically, it is the best vantage point from which to admire the local landscape.

The dump is now also a park, very lovely if you don’t pay too much attention to the plastic bags that escape from the active face and blow about here and there before being snagged by the orange-vested workers patrolling the trails. A little visitor center at the summit maintains a guest book, in which I found the following roughly-translated entry, probably written by a high school student on a field trip: “I think it is incredibly beautiful here, but it’s a pity there’s so much trash lying around. If you guys just pick it up, it would be really nice.”

Oude Diep

At the foot of the slopes runs the peaceful little river Oude Diep, recently restored, where a father and his son are angling for fish. Putting the catch on the dinner table might would require quite a bit of optimism, it seems to me. More than I think I could muster.


Following the Trail

When I lived in Utrecht, as a student, the garbage from the city was first taken to a wharf, where the trash was transfered to barges. The wharf has now been turned into a park, because the site is too contaminated to do anything else with it.

Biltsche Grift

The trash was dumped in the Mastwijkse Plas, a pond that may have been dug for sand originally. In the leaden winter light, without a leaf on the trees, the place looks just about as disconsolate as it is possible for a pond to look.

Mastwijkse Plas


Geology of Trash

My brother arranged for a tour of the local dump in Amersfoort, where I lived from 1972 to 1977 or so. I still visit occasionally because my parents are there. The tour is an outside chance, a singular piece of good luck. A regular citizen doesn’t have ready access to garbage once it’s passed into the hands of the people who make away with it. I’ve eyed the mountain from the motorway to Amsterdam, wondering how I could get close enough for a good picture.

The Outward Face

I’ve admired especially the herd of deer that maintains the grass at the appropriate height free of charge, although I’ve also seen a flock of sheep wandering like dirty clouds across the brow of the garbage tumulus. The animals are undoubtedly there to inspire warm fuzzy thoughts in the passing motorists.

Definitely, the mountain puts its best face forward, grassy slopes with cute animals turned out. But there’s no denying that, if all goes according to plan, the mountain will be the highest point in Amersfoort in some 15 to 20 years. And on top, the whole thing looks distinctly menacing, hosting a variety of recycling operations as well as ongoing dumping of materials that are too dangerous to burn.

Compost in the making


Time Capsules

On February 6, KQED broadcast my Perspective on garbage dumps as time capsules. The podcast is posted on the KQED website: Time Capsules.

Here’s the full text:

For all the vast quantities of trash we produce—some 275 million tons of household waste every year, not counting the recyclables—we know very little about what really happens to it. We do the right thing, insofar as we know what that is and as long as it isn’t too painful. We have an idea about biodegradation (good) and plastics (bad), and that’s why we like biodegradable “plastics.” It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that garbage that goes away (eventually) is preferable to garbage that stays with us forever?

Unfortunately, garbage dumps are typically not environments that facilitate biodegradation, as anyone might know who’s tried to make compost. It takes a lot of encouragement before the potato peels, egg shells, coffee grinds, and apple cores lose their specificity and sink back into the kind of mush you would consider reapplying to your backyard tomatoes. In your landfill, nobody is on hand to encourage your garbage to return to Mother Earth, and all our discards persist in more or less pristine condition.

Rather than weep, we should rejoice. Decomposing organics produce methane, a greenhouse gas. Leachate, the liquid byproduct of decaying garbage, is riddled with heavy metals and poisonous chemicals and overlaid with a rich bacterial culture. Obviously, we want as little of that as possible. And so environmental engineers pursue a “dry tomb” approach, trying to stop biodegradation altogether. They hermetically seal off garbage dumps from air and water as soon as dumping stops. An air- and watertight garbage dump is an engineer’s pipedream, but for the most part biodegradation does just grind to a halt.

The result is an odd kind of irony. We pretty much don’t preserve anything, except for our garbage. We are creating vast time capsules, treasure troves of information about our culture—even interleaving newspapers to facilitate dating the strata—which will be available to any future generations who really care to know who we were and how we lived.

Undoubtedly, preserving our garbage is better than letting it poison us, but it’s nevertheless also true that there is something intensely perverse about saving it up for the future. Just how did we let things get this way? And who are we exactly?

February 2008
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