Archive for July, 2008

28
Jul
08

Apocalypse

“The most concrete emblem of every economic cycle is the dump. Accumulating everything that ever was, dumps are the true aftermath of consumption, something more than the mark every product leaves on the surface of the earth. The south of Italy is the end of the line for the dregs of production, useless leftovers, and toxic waste. If all the trash that, according to the Italian environmental group Legambiente, escapes official inspection were collected in one place, it would form a mountain weighing 14 million tons and rising 47,900 feet from a base of three hectares. Mont Blanc rises 15,780 feet, Everest 29015. “

This is Roberto Saviano, in Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System. Organized crime, it quickly becomes apparent from Saviano’s account of the havoc the Camorra wreaks on Campania, is a misnomer. “Organized” is really not the word for anarchy piled on top of blood thirst, outsize machismo married to insane greed, blinding pride, temper tantrums, and an endless supply of artillery.

But what is perhaps most instructive (and chilling) about Saviano’s story is how difficult it is to distinguish the various criminal endeavors of the Camorra from their business enterprises. Clearly, the crime bosses don’t make a distinction between business and crime–they just have a slightly more inventive way to get business done, a few more options when it comes to making themselves competitive. And that’s one reason why the trash business has been so attractive to them.

According to Saviano, the Camorra, which dominates the construction industry, routinely mixes toxic waste into cement and then builds apartments, offices, houses, schools with it.

The Camorra takes loads of toxic waste from the north (in return for payment), dumping it into the pits meant for the subsidized destruction of agricultural surpluses (and collecting the subsidies), and then selling the agricultural surpluses that didn’t actually end up in the pits.

Graves are turned every 40 years in Italy, apparently, and the Camorra accepts payment to dispose of the bodies and then dumps them into the fields around Caserta. Teenagers dig through the charnels in search of skulls to sell on flea markets.

And all of this in their own back yards. Any land not already used for some other purpose in the countryside around Naples is liable to be used to dump waste, without licenses or any kind of environmental provisions against leaching or outgassing. To reduce volume and allow for additional dumping, kids are paid to burn the accumulating mounds. When all the combustible matter is gone, houses are built on top and sold to low-income families below market.

In the meantime, all of the household waste from Naples and Campania now gets on the train to Germany.

It’s a frightening tale and hope in very short supply.

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25
Jul
08

Love Letters and Cabbage Leaves

Fresh Kills landfill was used in 2001 as the site where debris from the World Trade Center was separated into evidence on the one hand and waste on the other. Some victims, not having been recovered from the debris among the evidence, must have ended up in the waste. That is to say, their ashes now rest somewhere high on the gigantic piles of trash built by New York City out of all the waste it didn’t need for parks, parkways, and real estate improvement of a private sort. Until 2001, people in the know used to say you could see the World Trade Center from the unnatural mountains of Fresh Kills.

Now Fresh Kills is in the process of being redeveloped into a recreational area, and the planners envision a monument to the fallen of September 11 at the highest point.

A view of the Arthur Kill

A view of the Arthur Kill

I feel for everyone who has to let go of the people they love under circumstances such as these, their remains sifting right through the fingers of the investigators and drifting away, indistinguishable from the other ashes coming out of the conflagration. Nevetheless, I was relieved to read that a judge decided against the families suing to have Fresh Kills reopened for another effort to remove any human remains from the waste.

Fresh Kills is maybe a weird but not the worst place to end up. The mounds offer magnificent views, abundant wildlife, and endless peace and quiet. Below a report from a visit I made in 2005.

————————

November 5 and December 31, 2005

Fresh Kills is peaceful and deserted. Grass and weeds have sprung up on the garbage mounds, while a few scraggly trees are struggling in the wetter hollows and around the monitoring stations. The hillsides bristle with equipment—vents and pumps, drains and wells poke up out of the slopes everywhere. There’s a smattering of birds—a heron, an egret, an osprey. Fluids seep out of the sides of East Mound, making filmy puddles in suspicious colors on the road below. Here and there, a whiff of methane underscores the point. The largest and most famous garbage dump in the United States is officially in hiatus. Fill activity has stopped, the World Trade Center debris has long been processed, and the dump lies quiet. If you don’t look too closely, you might think it is a nature park.

Fresh Kills tour

Fresh Kills tour

I’m on the bus with perhaps 30 other visitors, taking a tour of the future. The New York City planners for the borough of Staten Island who have organized the tour are so full of hope, it’s infectious. They look out of the windows of the bus and see a pastoral idyll, a green haven in an urban jungle, an island oasis in the midst of a desert of urban sprawl. One of them proudly notes that this is the most engineered landfill in the world.

Through their eyes, how beautiful it is, how promising. They point out that 55% of Fresh Kills was never used for dumping to begin with. The water in Main and Richmond Creeks is as clean as the water in the Hudson River. (Whether that’s good or bad news I don’t know, but apparently it could be worse. The Arthur Kill, a major shipping lane that separates Fresh Kills from New Jersey, is reportedly more polluted.) And the views! On a clear day, you can see Manhattan from the garbage pinnacles, which form the highest point on Staten Island.

In its various planning documents, the City of New York relies on a profusion of images of what the dump will look like in the future—icons of wholesomeness and gleaming grass, nature groomed into polite submission and peopled with model citizens (not a single one of whom is fat). They are meant to prove its point that Fresh Kills is not a badge of shame, not a showcase of environmental insult and collective wastefulness, but rather a great natural resource that argues the versatility and tenacity of nature.

It came as a shock to me to realize, a few years ago, how hospitable and appealing a garbage dump is to a broad range of species. The raw garbage, of course, is an irresistible food source to birds. Besides the wheeling, screaming flocks of inevitable gulls, I have seen a heron virtually under the treads of a dozer while a pheasant went about its tranquil business less than 100 feet away. Virtually ineradicable, weeds colonize the mounds at the speed of the wind, and trees follow suit shortly after. The hares and rabbits, squirrels and other vegetarians move in probably only months after the weeds arrive. It’s hardly surprising that one of the visitors on our tour discovers deer droppings on South Mound.

Fresh Kills forest

Fresh Kills forest

This swift recuperation notwithstanding, for me it is a little more difficult to ignore what’s underfoot: a seething leachate stew bubbling up new chemical compounds, made up of manual typewriters, half-eaten hot dogs, cabbage leaves, love letters, safety pins, office chairs, paint thinner, tampons, lawn mowers, cigarette butts and yoghurt cups. All sorts of things once loved and then discarded. Barbie dolls and baseball gloves. Things no one ever cared for overmuch that were pitched in a trash can without a thought. Candy wrappers, potato peels, and nail clippings. It’s not so much that it’s wrong to ignore the garbage, it’s just a lot more interesting to think about. Hospital waste. Communion dresses and baptismal gowns. Dead rabbits. Incinerator ash.

The CLUI people describe Fresh Kills as “an undulating, dripping, vented bio-reactor of artificial organic decay, covered by a thin lid of soil.” Which is not to say it doesn’t have a great future as a recreational park.

Fresh Kills served New York City for a little over 50 years, from 1948 to 2001. The garbage, originally meant just to fill up the tidal marsh to pave the way for residential development, reaches some 20 to 40 feet down into the water without benefit of a liner. While the city planners paint a rosy picture of its environmental impact, the authors of Rubbish claim that the dump “pours a million gallons of leachate into New York Harbor every day.” Indeed, of all garbage dumps investigated by the University of Arizona Garbage Project, Fresh Kills was the only one that offered up evidence of advanced biodegradation, presumably because the tides continually wash the garbage, stimulating bacterial action—which in turn creates leachate. And the leachate flows into open water on the outgoing tides.

View of New Jersey

View of New Jersey

At its peak, the dump received 29,000 tons of garbage daily, which amounts to about 10 million tons a year. The barges arrived from the five boroughs around the clock. Just imagine the scene at dead of night in the middle of a winter storm: barges looming up out of the inky blackness, wind howling, cranes straining to transfer fresh garbage out of floodlit holds and into waiting trucks, which would disappear into the blackness themselves, only their headlights showing their progress up the face of the garbage mountains.

The four giant mounds are named for the compass points. North and South Mounds are the oldest and the smallest, at 250 and 345 acres respectively. At its highest point, North Mound is 146 feet above sea level. East Mound and West Mound, both larger and higher, are more recent and still in the process of being capped. West Mound, the tallest of the piles, will rise about 225 feet from the plain and spreads out over 500 acres. A September 11 memorial is planned for West Mound, to commemorate not only the tragedy but the fact that Fresh Kills was temporarily reopened after the attack to process debris and sort through the evidence. Some or all of the ash is buried there, making West Mound the final resting place for some of the victims.

In a photo I took from the summit of South Mound, I see some little ant-like scribbles on top of West Mound and realize with a shock that it must be the earth-moving equipment being used to place the cap. They are like a ruler in a picture of an archaeological find. If the dozers are so tiny that I never even noticed them with the naked eye, then the garbage mountain is 10 times bigger than I already thought it was. In fact, Fresh Kills takes up just about as much space as the lower third of Manhattan.

At the foot of North Mound

At the foot of North Mound

No matter what its spic-and-span future, Fresh Kills will always be a garbage dump. There are plenty of recreational parks in the U.S.—some of them quite large—where a despoiled nature is squeezed and groomed for the maximum convenience of an alienated people. But very few will have the same potential as Fresh Kills to invite us to reflect on who we are.

24
Jul
08

Highway Debris

A Mile of Litter

A Mile of Litter

Of course garbage is everywhere, including the highways, and we all know it. I’ve seen all sorts of things reposing by the side of the road. I’ve swerved to avoid it: packing crates, boxes, tires and less identifiable debris. I’ve been in traffic jams caused by mattresses and appliances. I hear about even more debris on the local highways on the radio, as a fair number of the traffic updates mention such things as garbage cans rolling in the freeways, parts of the loads carried by trucks lolling on the roads, and vehicle parts with attachment disorders, sadly separated, probably forever, from their proper places in life. 

But it never occurred to me that there are people who study and quantify all this garbage for a living–it and nothing else. It took an article in the New York Times to open up my eyes to the truth. 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.

Check out the New York Times graphic, showing a typical mile of litter.

07
Jul
08

invasion

In Refuge, Terry Tempest Williams describes a visit to the local dump, to count birds, at face value not the most thrilling ornithological assignment. A dump is a dump, after all, and an active one has unmistakable olfactory drawbacks. Besides, there are few birds to be counted besides the wheeling, swirling flocks of gulls and starlings. They do offer entertainment: “[t]he starlings gorge themselves, bumping into each other like drunks. They are not discretionary. They’ll eat anything just like us. Three starlings picked a turkey carcass clean. Afterward, they crawled inside and wore it as a helmet.”

The entertainment value of this sesquipedalian carcass beast notwithstanding, the starlings make an uncomfortable little morality play, an demonstration of ecological ill manners from which there is a lot to learn. Starlings are textbook invasives, interlopers from Europe, pushing out other species wherever they go because of their aggression and adaptability. That is, they are the winged equivalent to squirrels, rats, and roaches. Pests. Not quite a part of nature because somehow out of balance with it and clearly out of place. Wild, but not. Too willing to adapt to us and colonize the urban environments we set aside for ourselves.

Williams shines a wry light on the contradictions in our thoughts about these bold and brash adventurers, who are riding our own coattails, succeeding so spectacularly only where we handicap the more discriminating and pickier natives: “Perhaps we project onto starlings that which we deplore in ourselves: our numbers, our aggression, our greed, and our cruelty. Like starlings, we are taking over the world.”

It’s an uncomfortable realization to think of Europeans as the first truly invasive species in North America, now succeeded by vast numbers from other continents..

Recognizing ourselves in the physiognomy of a pest is probably a salutary exercise, a potential (and much-needed) check on our own aggression and adaptability. All the same, I’m afraid that Williams is incorrect in her supposition that we hate starlings because we despise our own starling inner self. By default, we look at the world through the eyes of our clan. That is to say, what we loathe in others, we might well admire in ourselves. By default, our thinking is partial, partisan, self-centered, and self-justifying.

In a recent column, John Tierney reports on research that shows exactly how our perspective changes according to whether we look at an action as performed by ourselves (or our associates) or by someone not associated with ourselves.

I don’t want to come off as despairing about human nature. I’m not. Our adaptability, resourcefulness, resilience, and inventiveness, just like the starlings’, is an admirable default setting. Moreover, I am convinced that on top of those traits, we have the ability to step back and rise above, to reconsider and decide differently. To put a check on our starling impulses and act rationally, overcoming the perspective of short-term gain and immediate gratification.




July 2008
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