Archive for May, 2008


What happens to our garbage?

Out of Sight and Out of Mind
Modern sanitation practices in the US were born in the waning years of the 19th century. Driven by a public health and nuisance abatement agenda and propelled by indescribable filth in the larger cities across the continent, these practices focused primarily on shielding individuals from their own garbage. Trash lay so thickly in the streets of cities like New York that it formed an impediment to effective transportation. The mandate of the municipal collection services and private haulers of the time was primarily to make the garbage go away and secondarily to produce some income with which to defray expenses for such services as street-sweeping. Initially, almost all the garbage was reused—sorted and recycled, fed to pigs, boiled and rendered for fertilizer, burned to generate steam, and even used for fill to “improve” real estate values.

But this general approach of simply making away with residential garbage and not burdening its producers with the details is not relevant to the challenges of our time. The secondary mandate concerning re-use went by the wayside after World War II, as economic abundance in general and cheap chemical fertilizers in particular obviated the need for traditional reuse practices. Now environmental exigences demand its return, even moving it up to the top of the list of our priorities. To do so effectively, we have to take another look at that other mandate, by which our trash is whisked out of sight and out of mind on collection day.

New Realities
The volume of our trash has swelled precipitously, and so has its toxic content. Incineration is expensive and attended by significant political liabilities. Landfilling, still the cheapest and politically least painful option, is associated with significant environmental burdens as well as huge deferred costs. These disadvantages are gradually making landfill less attractive, and so space is becoming a scarce commodity. Older landfills have been determined almost without exception unsafe in the last 20 or 30 years and have been closed at a much faster rate than new landfill is being created. Siting new landfill is extremely difficult, being fraught with environmental regulation and further hampered by popular aversion and NIMBY-ism. The practice of exporting garbage is gaining in popularity, but by the same token fewer and fewer states are comfortable with the idea importing “other people’s garbage.”

State and local governments are hard at work to reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfill, at least within their own state. And this, of course, is where we come in–individual producers of truly astounding quantities of trash. The success of local waste reduction programs depends at least to a certain extent on our willingness to accept and pursue changes in behavior–more effective source separation and, perhaps more fundamentally, reductions in consumption.

Financial incentives and conveniences are universally acknowledged as necessary preconditions for the desired private-sphere behaviors. But the out-of-sight, out-of mind sanitation philosophy has also got to go. What’s needed is a concrete answer to the question of what happens to our trash, since it is ultimately the reason why our behaviors are due for a change.

The Plot Summary
In broad outline, the story of our garbage is this: Americans produce on average about 4.5lbs of household garbage per day, which adds up to an estimated 90,000lbs in one’s lifetime. About 85% or more of that garbage goes to landfill, where biodegradation is prevented as much as sanitary engineers can manage to call a halt to the natural influence of air and water. Intricate (but inadequate) collection systems attempt to capture methane and toxic runoff, while liners and caps insulate our castoffs from the agents of biodegration. One recent positive development is that, given the rise in oil prices, more and more landfills are being hitched to machinery that converts landfill gas to usable fuel. (More on this at Time Capsules)

The remainder of our trash is incinerated, also resulting in energy. Engineers attempt to scrub the harmful toxins out of the gases escaping the smoke stacks, while the environmental movement argues with the waste management lobby over how serious the impact of the matter that gets by them. New incineration technologies are under development, and their relative environmental impact is equally hotly debated.

For the most part, that summary is the best you can do when you ask what happens to our garbage. But just as the Cliff Notes don’t measure up to the masterpiece they describe, that summary isn’t nearly as effective as knowing the particulars of what actually happens with one’s very own trash.

The Real Story
Having attempted to locate my own lifetime production of garbage, I can report that between dusty archives and out-of-print books, you can get a really long way. These pages bear witness to a few of the places that harbor my ancient leftovers, so you might get a general sense of how I have personally (though unintentionally) helped to transform the world with my trash. Check out for instance:
Another Mountain
Following the Trail
The Highest Point in Drenthe
Weber’s Pit

Connecting the Dots

Unfortunately, at this time, there are few shortcuts around the dusty archives. If you live in California, you can skip ahead and consult the Waste Stream Profiles maintained by the California Integrated Waste Management Board to find the destination of your trash for the last 10 years or so. However, be prepared to spend significant time poking around the database before you’ll pry the answer from its cold, stiff grasp. (In case you’re having trouble figuring out how to make the Profiles cough up your answer, you can consult these step-by-step instructions. I use the town of Antioch as an example. If you start counting once you visit the CIWMB’s website, then it takes about 50 steps to figure out what happens to Antioch’s garbage. Don’t be discouraged. It’s worth the effort.)

It would be great if every state offered this kind of information, no matter how shabby the interface, but I haven’t been able to find any other online resources like Calfiornia’s Waste Stream Profiles.

Another Way to Tell the Tale

Imaginary homepage for Waste Stream Profiles Since I make my living as (among other things) an interaction designer, I have naturally also been thinking about the kind of interface that might reveal the information in a more intuitive and engaging way. These preliminary sketches are known as “wireframes” and try to represent how a web page might work without including any look and feel.  They exemplify the general design principles of knowledge, engagement, and identity, which I explain in more detail elsewhere.

Imaginary Search Results for Waste Stream ProfilesIn short, the sketches are based on the notion that people need concrete and vivid information to nurture a motivation for change, that they need a local community in which to develop and elaborate such new behaviors collaboratively, and that they need a forum in which to develop a sense of identity that is grounded in more sustainable hopes and ideals than are offered by mainstream consumerism.

Imaginary Landfill Page for Waste Stream ProfilesOne really important piece would be to enable people to help document the places where their trash ends up–by uploading pictures and telling stories of times they might have gone to those landfills to dump off their outsize leftovers. No matter how low the landfill might rank in the hierarchy of desirable real estate, once it was beautiful wetland or quiet canyon or peaceful meadow, and it’s a part of who we are, all of us collectively.

Imagined tool to find a community in the context of Waste Stream ProfilesSocial networking tools can be helpful in identifying and strengthening the local communities that would participate in the process and embark on the journey to a sustainable identity–by which I mean a sense of identity that doesn’t depend on possessions, but rather on self-enrichment, meaningful relationships with other people, and a role in a community.

Imaginary Community Results for Waste Stream Profiles

When I think of social networking tools in this context, they don’t present themselves primarily as a way for people to communicate regardless of geography, but rather a set of tools that help people navigate their local geography, learn about the place, find other people to interact with (preferably face to face), and think about themselves in such a context. It would be a way not to abstract from geography, but to get closer to it.

The Meta-Narrative
Of course you might ask why I worry about the relatively manageable problem of garbage in the face of impending or perhaps already unfolding catastrophic climate change. It is a question I have asked myself. I believe that two considerations make garbage relevant to the larger challenges that confront us:
– Garbage is the most concrete and visible consequence of an unsustainable consumerist lifestyle. People who have trouble connecting to the issue of climate change tell me that they do feel strongly about finding a way to tackle the issue of garbage.
– The behavior changes–especially a questioning and subversion of the dominant ideology of unbridled consumption–which would make a significant dent in our trash production are the same changes that are necessary to alter the course of our future.

If we were to achieve such changes, we would not only stand a better chance of surviving in the long term, I believe, but of being happy in the here and now.


Garbage All Across the Milky Way

Listening to the radio today I heard another story about the Phoenix, the Mars lander which had just successfully touched down near the north pole of the planet Mars. If all goes well, it will dig through the top layer of dust and scoop out soil from the layer of permafrost, in search of a record of the planet’s climate history and any traces of life. The contraption landed in summer, the NASA scientist on the program noted. That is, it’sn not as nasty as it is going to be. In winter, things get distinctly more unpleasant, as the temperature plummets and dry ice precipitates out of the atmosphere. When that happens, the lander dies.

Phoenix Mars LanderThat’s when it finally hit me: the lander may be a lab right now, but it’s nothing but a heap of junk tomorrow, to join the scrap already there from prior missions. My sense of shock made me realize that I had innocently expected a scientific ethic of pack-it-in and pack-it out much like the frame of mind we’ve learned to adopt for visits to wilderness or even trips to the local state park. Rather than a basic respect for the environment under study, the mission appears to be governed by a sort of colonialist-imperialist disregard for whatever might be there. Nobody owns it, so you can do whatever you want? Or is it just that competitiveness fosters a blind arrogance to anything but “success” as the competition happens to define it? Isn’t there a scientific ethic that applies to situations like this that says you have to clean up after yourself?

The story reminds me of Laurie Anderson’s stories of having been an artist-in-residence at NASA for a brief time made briefer by her sense of having wandered into a culture so foreign it ruled out meaningful conversation. From her account, she might as well have been a Martian.

At the other end, the story also puts me in mind of the abandoned industrial hulks in the rust belt, such as those I ran into at Lake Calumet just two weeks ago. Further evidence of the compartmentalization of our culture, not just between different groups operating side by side to different ends, but between time frames. You can obviously divorce short-term gain, whether it’s profit or scientific knowledge, and long-term consequences with impunity.

I imagine the total impact of a junked Mars lander isn’t that great. Nine hundred pounds of trash with a bunch of toxic metals wrapped up in it somewhere near the north pole isn’t that big a deal on a whole planet, I suppose, especially if no sign of life is found to which the toxins would be toxic. But the spirit to which it testifies makes me wonder where I can go to register my protest and demand an environmental impact statement.

Quick Update: The European space agencies are working on developing a scientific ethics of space. UNESCO has a commision on the topic. The Union of Concerned Scientists is trying to address the issue of sustainability in space exploration and exploitation. All I could find for NASA and space ethics was the Office of the General Counsel, which is, amongst many other things, “responsible for developing the ethics and patent program requirements” of NASA. When ethics come up in the same breath with patents, hope takes a nosedive.

Wired has compiled a list of weird space debris: Lost in Space. And Scientific American devoted an article to space trash in the wake of the satellite collision over Siberia in February 2009.


Connecting the Dots

I lived in Chicago from 1986 to 1995. At that time, four-fifths or more of Chicago’s household waste was being stored in Lake Calumet, on the far southeast side, and the remainder went up in smoke via the ovens of the Northwest Incinerator on the west side. I don’t know how the booty was divided between landfill and incinerator, so I just made a pilgrimage to both places to acknowledge the relics of my earlier days.

Lake Calumet has been referred to as “one of the greatest ecological disasters in the history of North America.” About half the total area of the original wetlands that connected the Calumet River to Lake Michigan has been filled in, much of it under conditions that didn’t even meet the rather lax waste management standards of the 1950s. The list of contaminants is long and frightful, while the list of endangered and threatened species gets shorter as time goes by.

Abandoned industrial hulkBesides my garbage and the household leftovers of fellow Chicagoans, vast amounts of steel slag from the local mills and other industrial and chemical waste contribute to the 87 acres of toxic devastation. The characteristic pipe-studded garbage mounds go on and on, the length of almost 30 long city blocks north to south, from 103rd to 130th street, more or less, here and there relieved by ponds, elbowing right up to various residential neighborhoods. The hulking, rusted-out industrial behemoths of once-flourishing heavy industry sit abandoned along the edges, loose metal pieces creaking in the breeze, a monument to heedless rapacity.

Almost as wide west to east, the trash stretches from the Dan Ryan expressway pretty much to the border with Indiana. In places, the wetlands have been restored to a semblance of their natural state. Most days, men can be seen fishing to supplement their dinner.

Northwest IncineratorThe Northwest Incinerator is also within city limits, on a small industrial island in a residential ocean. I made my way there, at 740 N. Kilbourn, with an idea that it is no longer operational, following serious environmental violations in the 1990s and protracted community organizing to have it shut down. But the first thing I notice upon my approach is an unusually large concentration of blue garbage trucks that gradually coalesces into a single stream disappearing steadily into the gates of hell, in the shadow of the incinerator’s towering chimneys. The sickly smell of ripe garbage hangs over the scene, leaving no doubt about the nature of the business conducted here. The incinerator once supplied steam directly to the neighboring Brach’s candy factory, which does appear to be gone. I try to imagine the mixed aroma of garbage and cheap chocolate that once held sway, wondering whether the air would have caused tooth decay at the same time it damaged the lungs and brains.

Not that I was aware of all this when my garbage wound its stealthy way to these two places. What surprises me now is how extremely close I came to all the bits and pieces, without ever actually grasping the pattern now so plainly apparent. I taught at Chicago State University for a few years and participated in a summer science program, probably in 1993, which included a segment on environmental science and environmental justice. I knew about the environmental justice movement and that it received an important impulse in the late 80s and early 90s from the communities organizing on Chicago’s southeast side that suffered most from the local environmental insults and high cancer rates. I met Hazel Johnson, who’s been called the mother of the local environmental justice movement. I even went along on a field trip to visit the Calumet landfill. But in all of this, I never actually connected the dots between my own garbage and the consequences. Somehow, it struck me then as a problem of what Chicago did with its garbage, rather than a problem of what it did with my garbage.

My garbage was picked up once a week by the local collection agency and then it vanished–from my awareness, if not from the earth. It disappeared into the collective unconscious, so to speak. I thought about trash, of course, especially when the communal dumpster filled up before I came by with my offerings. But it was a separate issue that lived in a different compartment of my brain than the one that contained Lake Calumet, environmental racism, Hazel Johnson chaining herself to a truck in the attempt to put a stop to existing landfilling practices, or waste management practices in general. The difference, captured in a single pronoun, paints the whole world in a different color.


Garbage Island

Garbage Island, a cartoon from Icebox, is a sort of phantasmagorical trip through the infernal pleasures of consumerism, seen through the eyes of a child who doesn’t want to go shopping for shiny new toys because he loves his chewed-up old doll, Mr. Messy. The cartoons take such a sledge-hammer approach to the sacred cows of a consumerist economy that they race right past heavy-handed, into the realm of gleeful fun.

I love the way each episode grabs hold of a convention of Hollywood story telling, and then just refuses to follow through at the end–a very clever way to implicate mainstream cinema in the consumerist exploitation these cartoons spoof and attack all at once.

Under cover of darkness, all the children\'s favorite toys are disappeared.

The first episode starts us off with evil doings under cover of night to set the scene–all the children’s favorite toys go in the trash, just so they have to be replaced. Even the trash can goes in the garbage. Meanwhile, the young hero is whisked off by his horrid parents to Toy City, where a pumped-up Santa shackles each child in an all-you-can-buy bracelet. He’s to go shopping so his parents can be relieved of his presence and enjoy themselves in the Skyhigh Lounge over some skyhigh cocktails. But in the midst of these proceedings, the Kid–our young hero, that is–is discovered to harbor a filthy old doll in his shirt, Mr. Messy. Santa rips his beloved dolly from his chubby fingers and tosses it onto a conveyor that runs straight into the maw of the garbage machine, the mouth of Hell, the entrance to the horrible cave–yet another instance of this endlessly recycled motif in the stories that surround us in the mainstream media.

You know the rest. The Kid, in mounting horror, squirms in the clutches of the horrid parents, desperately trying to reach dolly before it is too late. Santa laughs a Satanic laugh. The dolly slowly approaches perdition. The music reaches a furious crescendo. We are awaiting the moment when the Kid wrenches himself free, hurls himself onto the line to rescue dolly, and saves the day.

But no, the doll simply tips over the far end of the line, into hell and damnation. End of story. Goodbye. Every episode ends, not with a cliffhanger, but with a complete anticlimax.

An average day of shopping, with a rather unconventional end.In episode 2, the Kid wanders around in Toy City for a while, beleaguered by toys that scream BUY ME! BUY ME! and by kids in the Kombat Korral, who train the heavy toy artillery on him, before he is deserted by the horrid parents. When he hears the mournful cries of dolly, he crawls into the maw of garbage hell himself. You know the rest. He spies his little dolly, his heart flooded with joy, the music keeping pace. But then the Gremlins come and tip him into the abyss. Heave-ho. End of story. Goodbye.

It’s thoroughly inspired, and I highly recommend it.

May 2008
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