Archive for March, 2008



Some time ago I wrote about the arrival of worms in my life, a moment of unanticipated but therefore not less rueful buyer’s remorse on my part. We were off to a rocky start, those worms and I, with me on the cusp of an intense and unhappy ambivalence and the worms presumably shell-shocked out of their usual complacency by unaccustomed travel. (Check out Dilemma for the original story.)

I can now happily report that we’ve worked out some form of peaceful coexistence. I add some scraps to the bin and watch the lid go down slowly, at which point I add some more scraps. Other than that, nothing happens. Whether the worms are happy or disgusted, they haven’t chosen to let me know. They are very discreet, silently chomping away at the goodies. They accept the edges of the bin as the far reaches of the universe and haven’t given any evidence of a desire to explore the world, light out for the territories, or otherwise emancipate themselves from the family circle. So the whole thing, it seems, works out on both sides.

“Seems” because I confess that I have not performed a census of the population, either by counting or weighing my critters, to see how they stack up now against the original pound. I’m heedful of Annie Dillard, who, in Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek, creeped herself out by looking too closely at the writhing, swirling, pullulating abomination of hatching insect eggs. Not to follow her example, I have avoided too careful an examination and all I know for certain is that my wrigglers are in their bin and that they do in my leftovers, very, very slowly.

My worms are modest eaters, which is a good thing as well as a disappointment. The literature suggested that a pound of worms make short shrift with half a pound of scraps a day. Either this is a sales pitch or the population took a serious hit during the transition into my household. Anyhow, their modest appetite means I can leave them for a fortnight without a minder. It also means they aren’t making much of a dent in the overall volume of my trash. It also means that, until now at least, they aren’t really worth the effort.


Museum of Buyer’s Remorse

Some time ago, I took a tour at the transfer station where San Francisco’s garbage is disgorged from regular garbage trucks into a giant pit and then stuffed into huge trailers that take it all to Livermore. The pit is a thing to behold, nauseating and overpowering. It’s pretty full, said our guide, despite the fact that it’s a Saturday. It’s dark inside, even infernal. Trucks come and go, spewing out trash. More garbage pours out of a chute in a corner. Gulls are quietly biding their time until appetite strikes again.

Inside the dark pit

But the transfer station also offers a much more cheerful perspective on our stuff, a more whimsical and touching commentary on the multfarious burdens of wealth and consumerism. The sculpture garden, paradoxically peaceful and verdant, holds a compelling collection of art patched together out of materials snatched from the abyss by resident artists.

Garbage Art

Even better is art hill, the higgledy-piggledy collection of junk that workers have rescued from perdition. There’s a traffic jam of Tonka trucks, whose vaunted indestructibility sooner or later stops counting as an advantage. There’s a sky-blue David, not quite two feet high, but every bit as languidly elegant as the original incarnation. There’s an outsize tiger, an unraveling bolt of unidentifiable beast, a dragon with a weirdly articulated tail, a menagerie of birds and saints and garden gnomes, arranged around and half-hid between a luxuriant patch of dog-eared cacti.

This gallery of the unwanted is stocked from the shed where private individuals do away with supernumerary household goods from attics and basements, where home remodelers unburden themselves of the debris inevitably attendant upon their projects. When I visited on an earlier occasion,hat he lacked in legs was amply made up for in the pinup behind him, of two young women displaying more leg than a normal human being would know what to do with.

A modern-day Venus de Milo

Other items on art hill come from the little outside area where the city brings trash that has been found abandoned in the street. It’s easy to get censorious and start thinking about the antisocial element that just saddle us, more conscientious citizens, with their messes. But some of these things—desks, strollers, file cabinets, TV stands—could be part of our informal freecycle efforts. We’ve all seen how it works. Somebody puts some poor old thing by the curb with a little sign on it inviting passersby to take mercy. Of course the city may get to the foundling possession and cart it off before a good Samaritan has had a chance to clasp it to his breast.All of this tells an inarticulate story about the embarrassment of riches, the quiet dilemmas involving our stuff, especially the in-between things that have lost their new-bought sheen but aren’t yet garbage. If it’s not utterly hopeless, irreparably broken, contaminated, or otherwise just plain used up, if it’s not recyclable or compostible, then what to do? For most of us, it doesn’t just slide down the slope towards garbage oblivion without internal debate or pang of conscience, especially if it’s a little large for the garbage can.

Even if they are not adopted as a new owner’s prized possession, it’s something of a consolation that some of these things don’t get buried at Altamont but end up in this museum of buyer’s remorse, with blue David and the toucan. All the same, perhaps it’s time to remember caveat emptor.


How Much Space/Time Left?

Martin Melosi’s Garbage in the Cities, a book about the adoption of organized sanitation practices in the US, mentions in passing an estimate of available landfill space of 18 years. He gives no date from which to start counting, but his book was published in 2004 and the studies he referred to were mostly recent. That gives us a date for running out of space before 2022, or thereabouts, assuming for the moment that no space is added in the meantime and the rate at which we use it up stays equal.

The eventuality of simply filling up our landfill might seem unimaginable, but it did just happen in Naples, Italy, first in the summer of 2007 and then again in January of this year. The dumps were full. The city stopped collecting garbage because there was no place for it to go. Of course, everyone had seen the crisis coming, but no action was taken, the government being hollowed out by corruption and crime. Eventually, one dump was reopened and more garbage added until this winter the extra allotment was also filled up and no other solution in place. Again the garbage rose in frightful mountains in the streets.

Could this happen in the U.S.? On a much smaller scale, it already has. Remember the Mobro? In the mid-1980s, a barge with garbage from Islip, Long Island, sailed the length of the East Coast up and down until finally Islip had to take its garbage back. A few months later another garbage barge sailed the seven seas trying to find a place that would accept its cargo. It finally turned up mysteriously empty. Since then, new patterns have been established, as many places have started to export their garbage, sometimes vast distances away. Other places–mostly those that are hurting for another source of income–have created mega-fill, especially Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Virginia. Garbage slides down the economic ladder, helped along by “tipping” fees.

Pretty much every state that imports garbage in significant quantities has a debate over how desirable it is to be a garbage magnet. North Carolina imposed a moratorium on garbage imports in 2007–a somewhat short-sighted move considering that it exports more garbage than it imports. Many people in Michigan are clamoring for legislation that would ban “foreign” imports, finding the idea that Canada disposes of its garbage in the US especially repugnant.

Some of this, of course, is about the environmental concerns trailing in the wake of modern garbage. The stuff is toxic and contributes significantly to global warming, even when methane collection systems are in place. And landfill must be tended, perhaps for 35 years following closure, as sanitary engineers estimate, or perhaps forever, as environmentalists are more prone to posit. Moreover, the economics are unlikely to be sound in the long run. Tipping fees may be pouring in now, but they don’t cover all the future expenses of monitoring and tending the trash, remediating contamination, or converting the landfill to usable space. This is especially troubling in cases where a for-profit waste operation plucks the proceeds now and leaves the community to deal with long-term care of a contaminated site.

But after all the rational arguments against garbage imports have been laid on the table–and they lay more than enough weight in my scale–there’s something else that drives the outrage, something more deeply rooted and more intractable because it is about image and identity. We may be a little bothered by the notion that we dump much of our scrap and e-waste on the developing world, but being on the receiving end is easily much more disturbing. The United States is not supposed to be a third-world country doing such third-world things as importing other people’s trash, is it?

Unequal distribution of wealth undermines the collective good in this case (as I believe it is in pretty much every other respect), creating a lowest common denominator for the trash to slide down to. The more steeply pitched the social ladder, the more short-term economic incentive for someone to bury it wholesale in their own backyard for fees undercutting a better environmental solution. This is not to blame the people who feel they have little choice but to survive by garbage. We all share some responsibility for participating in a collective arrangement that stacks incentives, irrationally, for short-term profit and inequality, without regard to social and environmental sustainability.

Of course, 2022 is unlikely to be the hour of truth for us, as 2007 was for Naples. Efforts are underway, for the most part at the local level, to increase recycling, including individual and collective composting schemes. Bioreactor landfill is being investigated, by which landfilled garbage is washed and washed until it becomes inert and harmless. Plasma-arc technology is being proposed for incinerators, at temperatures so high that no noxious gases escape (in theory) but are converted to inert solids, and perhaps that will make incineration more acceptable to the environmental movement. And, at the very least, we’re likely to eke out the time until Armageddon by adding capacity, at least here and there.

But what I don’t see–not yet, at least–is a change in the economic engine that borrows from the planet for present gain, without regard to future ruin. All these efforts just postpone the hour of reckoning. They don’t change the underlying fact of our predatory lifestyle.


Global Waste

I just found out that I can attend the Global Waste Symposium in Colorado in September. I could learn, for instance, how to install and manage berms in landfill to maximize the garbage volume. I could learn about garbage in developing countries or what to do to treat leachate or landfill gas. I could become familiar with the ins and outs of bioreactor landfill (the kind where the toxins are washed out and treated until the thing is clean as a whistle). And I can go on the golf outing. How could I turn down such an amazing opportunity?

March 2008
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