Archive for April, 2008


Trash Can Lids

Today’s New York Times carries a commemoration of the May revolution in Paris. The general tenor of the article is that the revolution is incomplete, politically if not socially, a phenomenon that is presumed to be most evident in the fact that young people today don’t have much taste for change. The son of one of the leaders of the May ’68 uprising says, “We’re a generation without bearings.”

Photograph by Marc RiboudIndeed, at first glance, it’s dispiriting: such an abyss between the optimism of those days and the weary resignation, the sad cynicism of today. Look at those trash can lids, even. What would we bring if we took to the streets in protest now? Garbage bags?

And that’s when something clicked in my head. These are the old tapes–the program put together by dinosaurs still complaining about that blasted comet, or whatever it was, that put a dark and sooty end to all their brightest hopes of making the world just right for dinosaurs. The world has changed. Whatever is happening in France these days, I don’t really know, but another day has dawned on a dark and sooty planet. A new disquiet is gathering speed, not armed with bricks or decked out with demands–not yet–but spurred on by the notion that something is fundamentally wrong.

If it takes 9.5 planets to sustain the world population at our level of consumption and under current conditions, then what exactly does that tell us about a society that can only sustain itself, more or less, by ever increasing consumption?


A Skulk of Landfills

As if everything that’s filthy must converge, vast quantities of garbage generated in the South Bay seem to have lit out for Alviso, the sleepy hamlet that sank well below the tidelines of economic viability a few generations ago. Its prospects were not always so bleak. Once Alviso fancied itself as a bit of a resort town, the makings of a California boom town even, so magnificently located on the San Francisco Bay! It happily participated in the boosterism of the early 20th century with no apparent inkling of ignominies to come.

Now, the canneries are closed. The marina has silted up. A houseboat sits on stilts, low but dry behind the levee, in the middle of a memory of water. A visit to Alviso feels a little bit like stepping through the looking glass–from the burnished bloat of Bay Area affluence to the mournful, hard-scrabble somnolence of rotten luck in a few easy steps–and the result is both sad and oddly magical, at once weird and all-American. A railroad car has been pressed into service as an office. The yacht club house was physically transported to the levee by the Guadalupe river, which may look like something in the wake of a rainstorm but is nothing but a reed-filled backwater the rest of the time. Every year, the few remaining boats look more hopelessly landlocked as the reeds advance on open water. A few years back, the commercial fishing fleet had dwindled to a single shrimper, more in pursuit of perseverance than profit, it would seem. Now, it wouldn’t even be possible for the smallest shrimper in the world to reach the overgrown dock.

Alviso has fallen through its own soft bottom onto very hard times. Excessive ground water pumping caused the town to end up well below the level of the Bay. A little bench along the Guadalupe notes a subsidence of about 10 feet in 50 years–just the length of two short people laid end to end but a vast distance when measured in hope and ambition.

Such bad fortune paves the way for waste. Landfill must have taken on a completely different glint under circumstances such as these, representing a double boon of income and altitude. How the townspeople will have welcomed Keasby & Mattison, manufacturers of transite pipe in search of a resting place for leftovers. I imagine drinks and maybe even dinner at Vahl’s Italian Restaurant, hearty handshakes all around, bonhomie, cigars and whiskey, feelings of accomplishment on a deal well done, self-congratulation, general rejoicing, and hope rebounding. Perhaps a few individuals benefited more than they were prepared to discuss in public, but there’s no reason to think that the deal wasn’t above-board and business as usual from beginning to end.

St. Claire Landfill, Alviso

There’s the St. Claire landfill, dandled in the elbow of the Guadalupe, home to unseen garbage below ground and plenty of garbage above, in what the EPA kindly refers to as a truck and storage yard. There’s a debate whether Keasby & Mattison pipe ever ended up here at all.

Santos Landfill, AlvisoThere’s the Santos landfill, which has a mobile home park, office buildings, and a restrictive covenant which forbids residential use, hospitals, and school buildings serving persons under the age of 21. I struggle to understand how the covenant and the mobile homes relate to each other, but the EPA doesn’t seem to see the difficulty.

Marshland Landfill, Alviso And then there’s the Marshland landfill, rising out of the flatland at the characteristic incline, the only one of Alviso’s landfills you can recognize on sight.

I believe all the other landfills lie outside the town limits, but not by a great distance. Right there, less shoreline is divvied up by more communities, and the garbage gets a little crowded in the crook of the waterfront. From a good spot on a levee, you can see the two garbage mounds that hold the Santa Clara Golf and Tennis club aloft, just across Highway 237. The three mounds of the Sunnyvale dump lie a short distance to the west, while the mounds of the Zanker Road and Newby Island fills loom in the east.

But however hard Alviso may have worked to fill in the empty space that kept opening above, it was not enough to withstand the winter rains. In 1983, following serious flooding, the landfills were raided and a levee built all around town. And so it was that all of Alviso became a superfund site. Keasby & Mattison’s pipe, it turned out, was improved with asbestos. Unfortunately, the naturally occurring serpentine rock that had been added for good measure also contained asbestos. The EPA standard for permissible levels in soil is 1%, while some of the Alviso samples contained as much as 40% asbestos.

Alviso shows that bad luck lies on a slippery slope, one greased by garbage. The asbestos contamination has been mostly cleaned up or capped and covered, to be monitored in perpetuity. But those bumps on the Alviso skyline are standing sentinel against a fundamental reversal in fortune. NIMBY-ism may not be nice, but it is so very understandable.



Yesterday, the New York Times ran an article about the global food crisis, illustrated with images of Haitians scavenging for food on an open garbage dump.

Girl on the TrashA girl in a pretty pink dress, all ruffles and flowers, stands in a wasteland of trash, trying to keep herself separate. A man sits with his head between his knees, a picture of despair, a study of a million shades of grime. Another man almost disappears in the infernal exhalations of vapor and smoke that rise from the dump.

Over the past few years, since I started paying attention, I have found numerous reports of poor people living on and living off garbage dumps:

– People in Shanghai diving into deliveries of garbage ahead of the Australian operators meaning to bury it, because they can make more money scavenging than with a regular job. (Story)

– A whole community of Coptic Christians in Cairo still taking care informally of all the city’s waste, after efforts to modernize sanitation failed. (Story)

– Palestinian boys in the West Bank haunting the local garbage dumps looking for the discards from Israeli settlers, as shortages in their own communities become more severe. (Story)

– Somalian children searching for food on the garbage dumps of Mogadishu. (Story)

– In Manila, the Philippines, whole villages sprouting on the garbage dumps, one of which was buried in an avalanche of trash in 2000, when a typhoon toppled its unstable garbage mountains. More than 200 people perished in the trash. (Story)

– Whole families living on the garbage dump of Steung Meanchey outside Pnom Penh. Again children are overrepresented. (Story)

– In Baghdad, Iraq, women (many of them widows who can’t find work) taking to combing through other people’s garbage cans to feed their children. (Story)

– In Luanda, Angola, the poor scavenging a livelihood off the city’s dumps.

– Roma children picking through the rubbish on the dumps in Ano Liosia, outside Athens.

– In Paraguachon, Venezuela, a whole community living on the garbage dump.

– in New Delhi people routinely scavenging collected garbage, at least what the dogs have left them.

– In Shkoder, Albania, an army of children swarming over the dump to extract whatever small value it contains as their own way to survive.

What exactly makes all these stories so deeply pathetic, so compelling–and so popular with photographers? Is it the sheer fact of defenseless children living in the middle of garbage, exposed to disease, stench, filth, and smoke? Is it the eloquence of the contrast between their innocence and the filth of the dump, the distance between their experience and anything we’d want for any children we know?

Is it about inequality–the fact that some are so poor that they must survive on what has no perceptible value to others? These stories gain some edge, I suspect, from the perversion of sharing and empathy that they embody. Do those leftovers have to go to the dump first before they can become available to the poorest of the poor?

In that regard, the images mutely ask us who we are. They are so dense with meaning and personal implication, in fact, that they become difficult to look at, at least for me. They make it very hard to continue on, blithely, with my everyday concerns in an everyday American context, in which it is easy to think that nothing is ever quite sufficient. At the same time, it’s not as if they offer an easy answer to the question of how to live instead.

For me, personally, that means living more modestly–with less stuff, a smaller footprint, less busy work. More thought and less running around. More structure and less convenience. I’ve come to think we make ourselves up every minute of the day, and I think I would like to do that a little more on my own terms, going forward.

Postscript June 16, 2008 – NPR has a story about Miroslava Enciso Limon, a young woman from Tijuana who visited the local garbage dump while in high school and saw the people who lived and ate off what they found there. She went on to become an engineer with the idea of building a machine that would mechanize their labor, offer protections from direct contact with putrescing garbage, and give them a regular income. She has succeeded in her plans, and the former scavengers are now city employees operating the machinery and still sorting trash by hand but with increased protection against disease and injury. To listen to the story: Recycling Plan Catches on in Tijuana


Garbage Riddle

Garbage pickup day in Venice is something of a minor tourist entertainment. A friend sent a report to me last year, complete with pictures. The system is ingenious on a small scale: residents set their garbage in the streets, neatly bagged, in expectation of the arrival of the garbage barge. A garbage collector gathers all the bags into a little wire cage on wheels and trundles it under the arm that swings out from the barge. The barge operator grabs the cage, hoists it aloft, and then opens the bottom, so all the bags tumble into the hold. That’s the end of the known fate of Venetian garbage.

Photos by Hans Bertens

Like garbage everywhere, garbage in Venice goes “poof” on collection day. When you search on the Internet, you find plenty of pictures posted by tourists–oh look! how cute!–but nothing about what happens next.

I did find out that Venice doesn’t treat its sewage, flushing everything straight into the lagoon. I have to confess that I didn’t like Venice very much to start with. It’s a fabulous place in theory, but in practice there are too many tourists, both in absolute and relative numbers, turning the whole thing into a kind of Disney confection grafted onto an astounding historical reality. Anyhow, this little fact about the sewage just lifted the experience to a different order of unpleasantness. No wonder the residents are leaving.

Sacca San Mattia, Venice

Sacca San Mattia, Venice

On the ferry to Burano, I did have a minor revelation,  spotting something that looked an awful lot like landfill to my knowing eye. More searching on the Internet shows that I saw the Sacca San Mattia landfill, which is supposed to accept only inert waste (such as demolition debris). “Supposed to” has a special ring in Italy, as witness the situation in Naples, but it nevertheless suggests that household trash goes somewhere else–at least officially.

So the riddle remains unsolved and I commend myself to those privileged few who know what happens to Venice’s garbage.

April 2008
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