Archive for April, 2009

28
Apr
09

the piles behind me

I’ve got myself into a dilemma much like Tristram Shandy’s, whose life went by much faster than he was able to record it. Only my problem is that every time I get myself up to look for my ancient garbage, I create more of it in additional places. All of which will require more research, more getting myself up to look, more creating of garbage in hitherto unsuspected places, more research, more getting up, etc., etc. Infinite regress has already reared its monstrous head even though to date I have gone to look only for the largest quantities of my own historical trash. If I tried to locate the trash I’ve left all over the world while traveling, I would be dead before I properly documented my first 10 years.

Barneveld Landfill

Barneveld Landfill

My current sojourn in the Netherlands is associated with a heap of trash that,  as of this writing, has no known destination. All I know is where it does not go—the dump operated by the enterprise that collects the garbage at my temporary address. I’m not sure the locals agree about many things, but they do agree that the country is too small to fill it up with rubbish.

I had expected to be able to participate in food and green waste composting, but no such luck. I live in a place with a special dispensation and a solid refusal to deal with separate collections. All the trash I currently create, including those perfectly innocent scraps and peels, is going into purgatory somewhere unidentified, to burn for my sins.

I don’t even want to begin to think about what might happen to discards produced when I visit my folks.

verboden1

Dumping Garbage Prohibited - Gevudo, Dordrecht

On the other hand, the considerable quantity of tissues I unwillingly used up in consequence of a cold while traveling to Heerjansdam to look for my childhood trash (see Buitenland’s Garbage, Zwijndrecht, Preserve, Times Two, Transmigration of Matter, and Pretty Picture) does have a known destination: the Dordrecht incinerator, where the visitor is summarily forbidden to dump his “dirt,” the standard term for garbage in local parlance.  The country’s only hospital waste incinerator is located here as well.

Next to the incinerator is a working landfill, where I presume the fly ash goes. It rises like Table Mountain above the surrounding flat lands, ominous and foreboding.

A little further east, there is bound to be more garbage because I found a ski slope, a cycle track, and a golf course—sure signs of waste underfoot. The ski slope is in disrepair, as Dutch people have generally evinced a preference for the Alps over tricked-out, spiffed-up garbage dumps. The ski lift is nothing but a downed clothesline in the grass, and the squares of corrugated plastic snow are sliding off the hillside as if to make up for the lack of human visitors.

In back of the golf course is a huge park, only half tended and almost completely deserted, of breath-taking beauty. Half wetland, half terra firma, hushed in the near fog, slowly awakening from long winter sleep. Despite the immediate proximity of ovens, upland waste, electricity pylons, and railway bridge, the area seems entirely removed from time except the cycles of the seasons.  This is hands down the prettiest garbage dump I have ever visited. I don’t recommend it as a tourist attraction only because too many visitors would spoil the prospect.

Merwelanden, northern end of the Biesbosch

Merwelanden, northern end of the Biesbosch

Yet again further east lies a gigantic garbage dike, following the banks of the river Beneden Merwede for what I guess is a length of approximately 2 kilometers. It runs right into the upper end of one of the national parks, the Biesbosch. Also gorgeous. Also completely unreal.

24
Apr
09

Fighting over Waste

Usually, when people fight about waste it’s a game of hot potato, where everybody tries their damndest not to be the one stuck with it when the music stops. Or perhaps it’s more like pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, in which one player holds both tail and pin and all the others do what they can to avoid being the donkey’s rear end. In the U.S., where vast amounts of trash cross state lines, it’s not uncommon to see people work themselves up into scandalized outrage over the notion that their state would have to bury someone else’s garbage. The feeling is no less genuinely felt in states which are net exporters in this passing game.

The Dutch waste pile

The Dutch waste pile

But in these dark days of economic contraction, all the rules are a little different. There’s not enough trash to go around. In the Netherlands, consumers are still contributing generously to the health of the garbage industry. Commercial waste, however, is way down. This on top of successful government efforts to prevent waste, which have eaten into the waste stream in recent years.  The result is a significant overcapacity in disposal, specifically incineration. There’s a whole new game afoot, which, if anything, resembles a mad scramble over the insufficient spoils, so to speak.

The scramblers include not just the incineration giants, but the often smaller recycling companies. They are crying foul, complaining that waste that could be recycled is feeding the incinerators’ hungry maws instead. Interestingly, this is the story that U.S. environmentalists have always told about incineration: that it will tend to undermine recycling, despite the fact that it is environmentally much more responsible than incineration, though often less economically competitive. In other words, it’s real, not just a bugaboo story.

Now there are furious debates about how to adjust incentives so that salvageable materials will end up back in service and incinerator capacity will end up adjusted appropriately to the non-salvageable waste stream. It’s interesting to note that nobody suggests it would be smart to bury the trash instead.

21
Apr
09

studying stink

I recently ran into some of the scientific literature about stink studies. These are conducted in the Netherlands near garbage dumps, incinerators, and other business enterprises likely to cause environmental nuisances, especially of the olfactory kind.

I don’t know if this is the case in the U.S., but stench is considered pollution in Europe. There’s a hedonic value scale that says that “very slightly unpleasant” (H=-1) is acceptable, but “slightly unpleasant” hedonic values (H=-2)  in residential areas amount to actionable environmental degradation. That is to say, if people live in a “slightly unpleasant” stink plume, something must be done to contain the nuisance.

Obviously, no enterprise is going to spend good money remediating its general stinkiness unless there are reliable, quantitative measurements that show incontrovertibly that H=-2 has been achieved. Measurements are made in stink units and in sniff units. If I understand the literature, the organization undertaking the stink study sends something much like a focus group into the field, at the same time that project leads analyze and measure ambient air and track activities at the (potentially) offending location. The members of the focus group, known as the sniff team, sniff the air. I’m not sure if they use expert sniffers or if they are recruited on Craigslist as representatives of the general population, as is standard operating procedure for focus groups these days.

Sniffing

Sniffing

Whatever their credentials, I can’t resist picturing them, standing in the weeds like partridge hounds, chin raised, nostrils flared, brow furrowed. They inhale slowly and deeply, experiencing the air, savoring its aroma as if it were wine being judged in a contest, and then spitting it out. Bluuch. Very slightly unpleasant, full-bodied and complex, methane-forward, with suggestions of trichloroethylene, halogenated hydrocarbons, considerable complexity in the biphenyls, and a sexy note of barnyard. Units are noted on the PDA.

I imagine the sniffers are posted all around the area, and they probably raise their olfactory equipment into the air at prescribed intervals for repeated readings. Their various savorings of the air are eventually compiled. Obscure calculations are performed to transmogrify qualitative experiences into quantitative results and to correlate awarded sniff and stink units with business activities and weather conditions. The idea is to produce not just readings of the moment, but to pinpoint the source of the bluuch and to extrapolate how often bluuch might obtain during the year.If the units exceed legal limits, remedial actions must be undertaken, and then the focus group/sniff team goes to work again, to make sure hedonic values are up into approved regions. It may also occur that plans to build new housing in the plume will be scotched based on findings.

Like many things in life, the law is a two-edged sword. I quickly ran into some studies commissioned by the stinkers to prove that they produced too much stink to allow housing to be built in their vicinity. Clearly, they didn’t feel like cleaning up.

A person who was at one time employed by the province of Zuid-Holland appears to have been in the course of compiling a stink atlas of the Netherlands, gathering together an array of stink findings for various locations and branches of industry. For the most part, incinerators are found to remain within permissible hedonic limits. Landfills are a different matter. The active face is, predictably, the source of most of the offending odors, but fugitive methane from older sections is also fingered as problematic. It doesn’t just cause global warming, then; it induces anhedonic states in the bystanders.

Now I don’t believe that the  Zuid-Holland stink expert was at all concerned with agricultural stink, which I can testify, as a focus group of one, is considerably more than slightly unpleasant in the general environs where I currently reside. (Agricultural stink might be too gargantuan a project to map, but I suspect that the real reason is that farmers are too well organized to permit any government to put stink limits on their activities.) A short bikeride from my cottage to the nearby village for groceries is an obstacle course through multiple chicken dung, sheep doo, and hog manure plumes. It smells rural, Dutch people say.

Local farmers are apparently resolarizing agriculture, refusing petroleum-derived fertilizers in favor of the traditional thing. Good for them, of course. But the hedonic values are way south of the worst landfill I’ve ever smelled.

17
Apr
09

pretty picture

April 15, 2009 – Brielselaan, Rotterdam, the Netherlands

Brielselaan Incinerator, Rotterdam

Brielselaan Incinerator, Rotterdam

Rotterdam, reportedly, is the only major city with an incinerator dead smack in the urban center. Of course, this being Rotterdam, there are other industries equally dead smack, since the city is built around a vast port that attracts all sorts of industrial activity. Still, there’s housing a long stone’s throw away from the ovens.

If you look at the plant on a nice day and from the right angle, across a swath of municipal daffodils and a little stand of poplars flaunting their brand-spanking-new leaves, it looks like a Potemkin village, a put-on job, an elaborate hoax. For all I know, it wasn’t actually operational when I was there. All the same, I am assured that some 385,000 tons of garbage are disappeared here annually. And the trash that I produced from 1968 to 1972 was done in here also, subsequently used for city heating as well as being converted to electricity.

Today the oven probably would not be sited here, but it’s got squatting rights. The first oven was built on this wharf along the Maas in 1910. A new oven was built in 1963. In 1990, the later ovens were updated and adjusted so they could handle the exhaust gases from the Maas Tunnel nearby. How cool. To be absolved not only of our plastic but of our driving!

This week, there was not a whiff of garbage to be noticed anywhere. No smoke and vapors belching out of the chimneys. No convoys of trucks driving in and out. A burnished metal facade hides the flue gas cleaning plant, which in turn hides the somewhat more utilitarian ovens. A screen at street level, endlessly and incongruously repeating photographic deep scarlet roses, is wrapped around the front like the bow on a birthday gift.  It is for sure a far cry from the Northwest incinerator in Chicago, which, if you have a nose, you cannot possibly mistake for anything else but what it is.

Brielselaan incinirator docks on the Maas

Brielselaan incinirator docks on the Maas

Even from the back, where most of the garbage arrives, by barge, it doesn’t look too bad. Perhaps they have a dedicated clean-up crew whose job it is to keep the plant spic and span at all times.

All the same, in the last review to determine whether the incinerator’s operating license should be renewed, environmental activists managed to persuade the government against the proposition. Interestingly, the argument was that energy returns  from the old ovens, which date to 1963, capture too little of the potential energy released in the incineration process to be considered environmentally responsible. So the flue gas treatment unit will stay, but a new oven will replace the current one in the near future. The cognitive dissonance, for the American visitor at least, remains.

Such an apparently pleasant, useful, and seemingly unexceptionable  incinerator raises a question: does a right-thinking garbage amateur prefer the spiffy harmlessness of the Brielselaan to the moldering, hulking, stinking menace of the Northwest incinerator in Chicago, which is in violation of emission regulation on a regular basis. On the one hand, a socially beneficial technology that minimizes the self-destructive tendencies of a comfortable lifestyle. On the other hand, a public health threat, most immediately to the poor people living nearby.

The choice is inevitable. One cannot in good conscience come down against the poor people who have to breathe in the mistakes and carelessness of a poorly operated, technologically backward monster.

All the same, a good memento mori speaks a truth so wide and deep, there’s no carpe diem will come close.

13
Apr
09

Transmigration of Matter

April 8, 2009 — AVR Rijnmond, Rozenburg, the Netherlands

Snail Mountain

Snail Mountain

A road spirals up the mountain, around back and to the top, where the big trucks back up to the very edge to release a load of ash, making a lovely dust cloud as the stuff rolls down the hill. It seems a little precarious to me. Here’s another job I’m glad I do not have.

In Dutch, bottom ash is referred to as “slakken,” which I suspect is just a close relative of “slag,” the waste material produced in coal mining. But “slakken” also means “snails” in everyday Dutch, which makes for a very lively image.

The mountain, currently growing on the grounds of the AVR Rijnmond, is a little higher than usual, I’m informed, because of the economy. Less trash comes into the front door, it’s true, but the snails don’t get carried out the rear as they usually are either. Demand for bottom ash—which is used in roads, dikes and other infrastructure that requires massive amounts of more or less inert matter—is down even further than the supply of trash.

Gifts Delivered

Gifts Delivered

Despite the troublesome shortage of garbage of the moment, there’s plenty of activity at the front door. My guide refers to it as the “bordes.” It reminds me of the “bordes” that the Dutch queen stands on at Soestdijk Palace, on her birthday, to receive her loyal subjects bringing birthday presents. I doubt, however, that anything as useful as ash and energy results from that annual patriotic operation.

Unlike the loyal subjects, the trucks back up to the doors and spit out their treasures without ceremony. A cloud of dust and exhaust blows back out into the open. A thick smell of rot hangs in the air. Gigantic grabbers hanging off the ceiling inside pick up the waste and deposit it on the dissassembly line. Then it trundles into the tops of the seven ovens that perform the first step in its transmigration from useless trash to useful infrastructural filler. Another stream, almost as voluminous, comes in at the Laurenshaven docks in back, barges delivering containers of garbage from cities like Utrecht and the Hague.

The trash literally disappears into the maw of the incinerator, never to be seen again. It passes through the bowels of this gigantic beast like grass through the multiple stomachs of a cow. The process is entirely self-contained. A little peephole at the bottom shows a line of disintegrating trash bags on a long down escalator engulfed in flames. But there’s not a whiff of garbage anywhere, not the slightest inkling of heat. Only the little peephole confirms the conflagration within.

The plop, carried off on a conveyor to a steaming pile of slag outside, still contains some undigested matter–bits of broken glass, odds and ends of metal. The metals are removed for re-use, and what’s left is heaped onto the mountain top. Meanwhile, heat is transformed into electricity. Various kinds of nastiness are scrubbed out of the flue gas and eventually buried in landfill.

Maasvlakte

Maasvlakte (Garbage at Left)

My own historical trash has made this digestive trip as well, including a small portion in 1972 and then again a bigger batch from 1978 to 1983. Especially that earlier contribution may have helped to “fill” some of the construction at the mouth of the Maas. It’s not a very exact way of pinpointing the ultimate resting place of my garbage, but it’s as close as I’m going to get.

The whole question of whether the transmigration of trash to ash might be good or bad for the environment is obviated by the neighbors. AVR Rijnmond stands in the middle of miles and miles of chemical and petrochemical industry, which is responsible for a significant stream of hazardous waste (some of which arrives at the AVR for cleanup) as well as fugitive emissions. The whole question takes on a distinct air of futility in this environment. Nonetheless, some activists worry about ultra-small particles and traces of toxic substances sneaking out the chimney. I’m not in a position to judge if such worries have merit. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is room for improvement.

But what makes incineration unbeatable in my mind is that it makes plastic go away at the end of its useful life, yielding up a little burst of energy, a puff of usable ash, and a smidge—but just a smidge—of something impossible to reuse. It’s like absolution. Like getting a hall pass.

10
Apr
09

Preserve, Times Two

April 6, 2009, De Bovenmolen, Kijfhoek, the Netherlands

Garbage under the Grass at the Bovenmolen

Garbage under the Grass at the Bovenmolen

When I was a kid, there was a house in the copse of poplars to the right. The people who lived there, a family of vegetable growers, were so withdrawn from the usual affairs of the village that a weird aura hung over the farm. Kids made up stories to explain their otherworldliness. They hid a raving madman in the attic or something like that.

It might not have been quite so extreme, but for sure this family was unusual. On a tour of the village dumpsites, the former alderman of public works told me that he visited these people in the early 1960s with an offer to connect them to water, sewer, and electric services for a reduced price. They declined. They collected rain water, threw their own waste on the dung heap, and lit their house with oil lamps. That was good enough for them. They did without electrical appliances, power tools, radio. Perhaps they used coal for heating and cooking or perhaps—to free themselves from the prying eyes of the coal delivery man—they occasionally chopped down a tree to feed a potbellied stove. Such simplicity may be fine for a monk, but for a tomato grower it is definitely unexpected.

When the people still lived there, simplicity and all, a little bridge spanned the river Devel where there is now an unbroken collar of reeds. And this side of the reeds, under the spring green grass, was another local garbage dump site, active from 1965 or so. The lion’s share of the village garbage went to Zwijndrecht and later to an incinerator in Rotterdam, but anything that was not picked up in regular rounds (because it didn’t fit in the garbage can, for instance) was dumped here.

The dump is a little higher than the surrounding land. A metal plate in the grass gives access, according to my alderman, to sampling equipment in the ground that makes it possible to monitor the latter-day activities of my leftovers. But this dump  is not on any of the registers of monitored sites that I can find. Neither the national nor the provincial authorities have the Bovenmolen on any of their lists.

Despite the fact that it has been enriched with garbage, the area is being returned to Mother Nature, more or less. The house has been removed. You can’t cross the river to get into that copse unless you have a boat. If you look in the right direction, you don’t see the high-speed rail line which starts its descent into the underworld here to cross under the river Oude Maas nearby. The preserve is being reforested, after having been bare of trees except for windbreaks around farms for 600 or 700 years. It’s a modest effort and apparently progress has been halted, for now, by action groups who don’t agree with protocols.

On the whole, however, the entire scene speaks to a very different spirit from the way of things some 40 or 50 years ago. I’m almost inclined to grow cautiously optimistic.

09
Apr
09

Zwijndrecht

April 7, 2009, Lindtsedijk, Zwijndrecht, the Netherlands

Zwijndrecht's Garbage Plateau

Zwijndrecht's Garbage Plateau

In the background, just behind this peaceful meadow, lies a gigantic garbage plateau, containing my garbage from the years 1965 through 1967. My village got tired of managing its own garbage dump, so it paid the nearby community of Zwijndrecht to take care of it instead. Zwijndrecht was bigger, and it took a more professional approach to its leftovers. After a while, the town started a composting operation, so some portion of my trash ended up on the fields instead of under them.

When I looked at the map, I marveled how I could have grown up here and never noticed the dump. I used to come by here on Sunday bikerides, on the way to the pedestrian ferry across the Oude Maas to Puttershoek. The road down to the ferry landing runs right along the foot of the dump. You’d think it would be impossible to miss. But no, I never saw it. Nobody else in my family ever saw it either. It’s like it wasn’t there.

Zwijndrecht dump, along the Oude Maas

Zwijndrecht dump, along the Oude Maas

Now that I’ve walked around the entire thing as far as I could, it’s a little easier to understand how we managed to overlook it. On the side of the river, you walk right along the edge of the dump, which sticks up a few meters above the dike. It’s weedy and unkempt. A few pheasants scuttle about in the tall grass. A sign says that tresspassers endanger their lives in the quicksand. I’m not about to test that assertion, but I’m not entirely convinced. Quicksand? Sounds like the boogeyman to me.

Anyhow, as a feature in the landscape, it’s a complete bore—the kind of thing you just don’t look at. Which makes for a very clever disguise, like hiding something in plain sight.

How deep down the garbage goes, I have no idea. The horses are some 7 or 8 meters below the surface of the plateau, I would guess. Dumps were often started to fill up a hole, so the trash likely reaches below the level of their hooves. It’s a pretty impressive pile, and still it doesn’t look like anything.




April 2009
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