Archive for the 'climate change' Category


Preparing for the Climate Bomb

Suzanne Huskey's hedgehog sleeper cell

One of Suzanne Huskey’s “sleeper cells” looks like a petrified hedgehog on runners, but in fact it is a refuge for the environmental apocalypse or perhaps a dream house for the back-to-nature set. It has a door and two windows, and it proclaims a moderate right to privacy by means of those woody spines.

The other one has a loftier mien, looking like the bastard child of the Apollo 14 space capsule and a Jetson’s spaceship. Though it has a general air of waiting to lift off, the capsule has only got a few undersize casters by way of a power train.

And her Apollo Jetson capsule

Though they allude to the dreary cold war bomb shelters of an earlier age, the sleeper cells really are the funny, sunny alter egos to those earlier monuments to a crazed humanity. Every bit of these two shelters was salvaged from the discards streaming into the San Francisco transfer station, housewares included, during Huskey’s stint as artist in residence. Super bona fides, and perhaps also doubly useful in an age of endless foreclosures.

More about Huskey’s architectural ventures on her own website.


We Need More Alienation

“We need more alienation from our spontaneous nature,” says Slavoj Zizek. “We should become more artificial.”

Words that are subject to interpretation, I’m sure, but definitely worth thinking about:

  • “We should develop a much more terrifying abstract materialism of a mathematical universe…. The difficult thing is to find poetry, spirituality in this dimension. To recreate, if not beauty, then aesthetic dimension in … trash itself.”
  • “To find perfection in imperfection itself. That’s how we should love the world.”

Hangover Saturday

If Thanksgiving is the appointed time for rampant overeating and Black Friday our annual date with discount frenzy, then today could perhaps become enshrined as Hangover Saturday, a good time to reflect on consumption rather than engage in it.

Here a selection of Hangover Saturday thoughts gathered in the course of a restful day:

When people talk about what they are grateful for (on Thursday), they never say, “I’m grateful that I have so much stuff” or “My cup runs over because of those Manolo Blahniks I bought last spring” or “The best thing that ever happened to me is my Lamborghini.” It’s possible they’re just trying not to tip their hand, but I suspect we don’t hear those things because, actually, we all do know better.

Our current economic woes have had one advantage: to clarify the point that consumption is not a selfish indulgence but a patriotic duty, philanthropy flowing ceaselessly towards the wealthy, so that our expenditures can come back to us in the form of jobs, which may be defined as a palliative for massive debt or as a subsidy for patriotic duty, sadly insufficient.

Can't touch that 42% of greenhouse gas tied up in goods and food!

Whoever thought of the slogan “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” was not really clued in to the realities of our economic system. We do our bit to help with recycling at least in some parts of the country, but when we make an (unwilling and modest) start on the “Reduce” component, the whole country goes off the rails. That must be why the EPA report “Opportunities to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions through Materials and Land Management Practices”—which is to say “How to Save the World by Tackling Consumption and its After-Effect, Garbage”—declines to estimate the impact on greenhouse gas production if we ate less and bought fewer things. Instead, it tries to figure out what difference it makes if, for example, we were to capture ALL the landfill gas that percolates up from our trash and convert it to electricity or if we recycle ALL the construction and demolition debris coughed up by the never-ending pursuit of bigger and better (as opposed to affordable) homes and gardens.

The opposite of consumption that most easily comes to mind on Hangover Saturday would be abstention. But consumption also has an opposite in creation, which is or can be blameless and much more fun than just saying no. The best place I know to get a feel for the truth of that proposition is S.C.R.A.P. (, an inspired program in San Francisco that diverts virgin merchandise from the landfill, makes it available for dirt cheap to all those with an urge to create rather than consume, and provides a bunch of jobs into the bargain.

What one might do with scrap

The San Francisco warehouse (on Newcomb between Toland and Selby) is huddled rather inauspiciously under Highway 280, but step inside and be greeted by a carnival of color and texture—papers, fabrics, buttons, doodads, figures, threads and yarn, birds, notions, glass, wood, boxes and containers, table legs and carpet squares,  stickers, ribbons, cards, and vinyl discs. On and on. Not everything leapt out at me as obvious fodder for art, including the industrial-sized potato mashers. For many things, it is immediately obvious why they are not in a store somewhere. In their original identity, the scraps that S.C.R.A.P. offers are not saleable, but as art materials they’re irresistible, guiltless, and very inexpensive.

Over it all hangs an exhibit of unpretentious art: scrap boxes emulating the best of Joseph Cornell, mobiles, a digestive tract laid out in flopping beakers and retorts, quilts, and many other works that demonstrate the virtues and joys of clean salvage.


making a stand, calling a halt

Play a little movie for your mind’s eye: A retreating glacier gradually uncovers a long low valley. Pooling meltwater makes a chain of mirrors for the sky. Slowly the waters rise and a continuous lake forms, dammed up behind the former glacier’s terminal moraine. Eventually, the water breaches the moraine and leaves behind a green world of low-lying meadows dotted with stands of larch and spruce. Humans thread their way through the landscape occasionally, on foot or by canoe, hunting or fishing, building small settlements and giving them up again as their needs and local environmental conditions change.

frozen wetlands

wetlands in winter

The climate warms; the waters rise again. Gradually, salt marsh begins to form at the edges of the meadows as the sea pushes up into the valley, creating an estuary. Cedars move in where the stands of older trees give up their hold. Eventually a vast system of tidal wetlands forms, fed by two separate rivers. Then things stabilize. The seasons come and go for a few thousand years, but each day dawns on a landscape that remains essentially the same, wild and peaceful, quiet though crowded with a rich array of plant and animal species. Reeds rustle in the wind. A bird calls. A rabbit screams as it is carried off by a raptor. The water gurgles in and out of creeks on the tides. Every spring and fall, the squawking, honking, and screeching of migrating birds adds depth to the silence and the wind resonates with the whooshing of a million wings.

European farmers arrive, with their cattle and their agricultural traditions, which tell them that salvation lies in improving the landscape.  They do their best, but for the most part their efforts are modest, the forces of nature too vast, and their tools too simple to permit extensive change. Imagine primitive farm houses, inhabited by ragged families clinging to survival by their fingernails. The cows roam on higher ground in summer. Their owners mow the salt grass meadows for winter feed. Scraggly fences go up here and there, writing the notion of ownership across the valley slopes. A few ditches are dug, painstakingly, in an effort to drain the soggy low-lying meadows. Somehow, they must be made to support more cows, more people, more dreams of wealth and power.

The native hunters and fishermen are pushed back, and hostilities ensue. Dikes are thrown up, but time and weather bring them down again. One farm might fail. Another. A dike might breach, a ditch silt up. A whole family might die of fever. It hardly matters, because others take their place.

Bit by bit, the newcomers begin to sculpt the mud. Land is bought in large swathes. Roads appear. Straggling communities of farms become villages, then burgeon into towns. Brick kilns, tanneries, copper mines, and lumber mills show up in between the meadows. More roads are built. Those made from cedar planks swallow up the last of the valley’s trees.

Large-scale reclamations are attempted, to wring more profit out of the land. It begins to look more and more like something we are familiar with. Ferries and railroads help bring produce and manufactured goods from the hinterland to the coastal cities. Eventually all the upland areas are taken in hand, increasing the pressure to reclaim the marshes. The whole endeavor survives only by growth, like a malignant tumor. The towns grow together, making a single continuous urban wasteland, cross-hatched with roads and bridges, turnpikes, railroads. More and more, the valley is a place to get through, rather than a place to be in.

garbage mountain

garbage mountain

Ports grow larger. The machinery becomes more powerful, and the people more organized. Farms are pushed out by industries. Sounds of engines drown out the sounds of life. The last meadows are done over into suburbs. An airport is built. And all the remaining lowlands are filled up with garbage. Eventually, 51 separate and unregulated garbage dumps sprout in an area no larger than 32 square miles.

As time goes on, it must become increasingly apparent that what was begun as an experiment in improving the landscape is ending up an industrial desert, a slough of suburban despair. The Hackensack Meadowlands are now nothing but a misnomer, a historical name by which to measure the cost of improvement. To wring more profit from this poor place in an orderly manner, the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission is created in 1969. Its task is to help speed the development process for the last remaining virgin land and to regulate garbage disposal, which, it can no longer be ignored, is not just unsightly but outright poisonous.

Then, finally, the movie takes a slightly different turn. Just in time too, I have to say, because the plot is awfully depressing, and besides it seems I’ve seen this movie many times before. Do we have to watch it again?

Hold on. Not long after its inception, the development commission decides that a far better mission would be conservation. Indeed. It throws itself up as the protector of the few unspoilt stretches of wetland, it attempts to restore the natural marshes at the foot of the garbage mountains, it opens an educational park and research facility on the waterfront, as a memorial to the decision never again to allow uncontrolled dumping.

There’s no turning back the clock, of course, no digging up of garbage, no pulling out of roads to make room for the natural salt grass, no removal of housing or factories,  even when they appear to be falling down of their own accord. Upon first arrival, the impression is still overwhelmingly of utter degradation. Finding the park is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Nevertheless, there’s ample reason to be grateful for the tag end of history, because it gives us at least a choice of morals. It’s undoubtedly possible to see the story as yet another illustration of the rapacious predatious nature of humanity or any subgroup thereof (see, for example, my own meadow lands). We’d have reason on our side to figure it’s too little too late. But we might also think about the meadowlands as evidence of our extreme adaptability and resilience. Time to get serious.


subtlety and sweetness: bioreactor landfill

Andries Vierlingh, a 16th-century Dutch dike master, specialized in small interventions—subtle alterations in the natural environment that would bend the forces of nature to his purpose. He studied tides and currents to understand how to encourage the waters to deposit silt where he needed a dike, how to set the tides to scour a channel where he was looking for better drainage. “With subtlety and sweetness,” he wrote, “you may do much at low cost.”   He recommended patience, gentleness, and cleverness. His minimalist approach was mostly inspired by necessity. He had dirt, and he had labor in ample supply, as well as spades to bring the two in fruitful alliance. He had primitive, wind-driven pumps but often unobliging weather. Very little wood, except profusions of willow shoots with which to weave mats. No stone, except prohibitively expensive imports. Small wonder that he looked to subtlety.

In the U.S. today, true want of resources is an unaccustomed circumstance. Vierlingh’s spirit of patient minimalism is rarely practiced, I suspect in part because greater glory lies in bigger budgets and more fantastic equipment. So it is something of a surprise to find an experiment in such minimalism at Yolo County Central Landfill, in the middle of the grasslands just west of Sacramento, California.

The experiment in question is an effort to render our trash into a geologic formation, cheaply and expeditiously. That is the description of the project offered by Don Augenstein of the Institute of Environmental Management in Palo Alto. Don is a somewhat other-worldly presence, a fount of information on garbage, renewable energy, and climate change, and one of the movers behind the Yolo County outdoor garbage lab. He invited me along on a tour of the dump on the dreary Wednesday before Thanksgiving, together with a gaggle of junior college students who didn’t look wildly enthusiastic about their field trip.

yolo, trash arriving

yolo, trash arriving

Since this was a regular working day, the landfill was as busy above ground as below.  Trucks drove in large loads and small, coming in thick and fast enough to cause a backup at the gate.  Heavy equipment trundled over the mounds, compacting and molding and pushing around the fresh leavings. Piles of stuff that can be snatched from the abyss were being moved from one place to another. Concrete was being mauled into its constituent parts. A sorry pile of bathroom porcelain, sat pale and forlorn in the middle of this bustle, the still center in a vortex of industrial activity. Flocks of gulls, inevitably, wheeled above the scene, screaming as they always do.

bioreactor cell

bioreactor cell

Much of what is to be seen at Yolo is just conventional landfill and its attendant recycling activities. The proceedings remind me of a landfill in Amersfoort, in the Netherlands. But several “cells”—the lined landfill compartments in which our trash is stored until we can think of a better thing to do with it—have been rigged at Yolo as bioreactors. Leachate is judiciously circulated through these cells, which have been constructed very much like the usual layer cake of trash and daily cover, but with a subtle difference.  The daily cover itself is permeable so as to facilitate the even movement of moisture. The whole thing is topped with a layer of shred tire and then wrapped in plastic, which in turn is held in place by whole tires and wheelhubs and other  paper weights that sanitary engineers typically have ready to hand. The shred tire layer on top is to encourage the desired flow of methane gas through the dump, for more efficient extraction. The plastic wrapper prevents its escape into the atmosphere. The whole sandwich is built and monitored under the watchful eye of Ramin Yazdani, whose business card lists him as senior civil engineer at the Yolo Planning and Public Works Department.

methane to electricity

methane to electricity

The purpose of the bioreactor is to more effectively collar methane, a significant part of which goes on the lam at conventional “dry tomb” landfill despite methane capture systems. Methane doesn’t directly harm humans (as many of the other landfill effluents have the potential to do), but it is a potent greenhouse gas. “Fugitive” landfill emissions contribute significantly to global warming. However, when captured, methane is an effective fuel, and the idea behind the bioreactor is to get the trash to give up all the gas in a short, sharp burst. In this way, the trash becomes less of an environmental menace and at the same time a more economical source of fuel—a double whammy in favor of the planet.

Experiments to do the same thing are being conducted in Spain, France, Belgium and elsewhere, but in vessels specially built for the purpose. These “digesters” are expensive and require significant energy inputs. They can’t handle all the waste in the waste stream, even after recyclables are removed. And they extract far less methane from the “feed stock” than the landfill bioreactor at Yolo—which has an extraction rate of more than 95% over the course of a year.

This excellent result is achieved at low cost, both in terms of funding and energy inputs. The most remarkable “energy in” lies in the dedication and inexhaustible inventiveness of the human motors behind the experiment—Augenstein’s genius with numbers and Yazdani’s wizardry in building things that work almost out of nothing. Vierlingh would be very pleased to find out that throwing more resources at the problem delivers a less effective solution than an attentive eye and subtle adjustments in the way a landfill is put together.

ramin yazdani, monitoring underground activity

ramin yazdani, with monitoring equipment

In the meantime, the garbage at Yolo is monitored as carefully as a patient in the ICU. Continuous measurements of moisture, temperature, and pressure inside the stewing trash heap are taken, while the composition of gases that arise from it is analyzed. Workers collect leachate samples that go off to a different lab for analysis.

Regulators have yet to be persuaded that simple and subtle solutions may be more sound than big-muscle engineering, and so the collection and analysis of data proceeds patiently as does the effort to present results. I hope they succeed, because their solution seems important in a world where landfill still is the most common trash management approach. What’s more, their spirit of inspired minimalism seems to be the right recipe for a hot and nearly exhausted planet.


to burn or to bury

Incineration process at Roeselare, Belgium

Incineration process at Roeselare, Belgium

Some time ago, I wrote about the vehement opposition of the U.S. environmental movement to garbage incineration (a brief primer on plumes), a position not shared by environmentalists anywhere else except the UK. I asked Milieudefensie, the Dutch Friends of the Earth, to offer me some thoughts on the subject, to try to determine if I had somehow missed the secret garbage underground in continental Europe. Here’s what they had to say:

“Waste management is not a subject Milieudefensie concerns itself with at the moment, because things are properly arranged in the Netherlands. Other environmental topics, such as climate change, make a more urgent claim on our attention.”

The way things are arranged in the Netherlands at the moment is to rely primarily on re-use and recycling and secondarily on incineration. Thirteen incinerators operate across the country, some in the most densely populated areas, a few others in the rural outback. Landfilling takes place only insofar as there is insufficient incinerator capacity and requires a special waiver. Hazardous wastes which are unsafe to burn are also landfilled. Germany has an even stronger emphasis on incineration, with plants all over the country, and no movement opposing them. An official noted that people oppose incinerators during the planning phases. Resistance dies down after the plants become operational.

There are concerns.  Fine particulates are released in exhaust gases and their health impacts are not very well understood. Fly ash is highly toxic and must be buried or incinerated in special rotating kiln incinerators. Toxic chemicals may escape when a plant is powered up or down. That they are so much more visible than lowly landfill, I’m sure, doesn’t increase their popularity either. It is so much easier not to think about the deleterious but invisible effects of an invisible landfill than it is to ignore a very high smokestack belching clouds, with heaven knows what in them.

Cross-cut incinerator

Cross-cut incinerator

The EPA meanwhile appears to be solidly in line with Milieudefensie in its evaluation of various disposal methods when considered in terms of their net effect on global warming. Its report Solid Waste Management and Green House Gases rank orders the different methods from least to most harmful:

> source reduction (i.e., reduced consumption or reduced use of materials in consumption)

> recycling

> composting

> incineration

> landfilling

Obviously there are more attractive options than burning trash, but conventional landfilling isn’t one of them. (Experiments with landfill are under way to make them less environmentally wasteful, so to speak.)

Rotating kiln incinerator, used to burn toxins

Rotating kiln incinerator, used to burn toxins

I also ran into a different evaluation of waste disposal methods, by a Dr. Jeffrey Morris, which tries to attach a monetary cost to each method, calculating operating and environmental costs and subtracting environmental benefits. Constituent prices vary by location and over time, so this model is more difficult to generalize from. However, a few specific examples from that calculation, showed incineration finishing dead last. This is not terribly surprising, since operating costs for incineration are generally high while landfilling is still cheap in many places. A landfill, no matter how carefully engineered, doesn’t come close to an incinerator in terms of capital costs.

Incineration, unfortunately, may be too expensive outside the industrialized west. While waste prevention is more attractive than any other option, the total elimination of waste is an unlikely  prospect. It follows that landfill will just have to be organized to do better–capturing methane more effectively and delivering more usable fuel. And in the meantime, the economy is in process of imposing a new frugality, which will eventually lead to less waste, if it isn’t doing so already.


a brief primer on plumes

The United States may have as many as 100,00 landfills, large and small. A significant proportion of them doesn’t have a liner.

A plume visualized by cross-cut

A plume visualized by cross-cut

Contaminants from landfill leach into groundwater in unsavory plumes containing heavy metals, chlorinated compounds, and hospital germs, to mention just a few of the ingredients. Take Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, which is built in a tidal swamp. The tides wash into its bed unhampered and wash out leachate, an estimated 3 million liters of it every day (which is almost 800,000 gallons). Under certain conditions, some of the contaminants from landfill may be cleaned up by naturally occurring processes, as a study at the Norman, Oklahoma, landfill has shown. but not nearly all of them. Moreover, it takes time.

In addition to leachate, landfills release methane, which is created when organics decompose when there is no oxygen and which contributes heavily to global warming. In fact, landfill methane is thought to account for about 5% of the total annual increase in “radiative force” that lies behind the greenhouse effect.  In other words, the adverse effects of landfill are both local and global. Back to Fresh Kills for a moment: according to a 1998 estimate, it releases 2,650 tons of methane a day. Perhaps that number is reduced somewhat since dumping stopped (in 2001), but it can’t be by much. After all, the garbage is still there quietly percolating under the skin of dirt that covers it up.

How long it takes for a dump to stop being a source of pollution is not yet known. Under normal conditions, most organic materials will decompose to clays and other natural substances in about 30 years. But in landfills, conditions are not normal. The stuff is packed in so tight that not enough air and water gets to it for the decomposition to proceed apace, in part because these huge piles we build cocoon much of the trash inside them, in part because sanitary engineers try to halt the decomposition process to prevent leaks.

On the whole, then,  there’s not enough air and water to speed along biodegration, too much air and water to prevent contamination and outgassing.

Guadalupe landfill, San Jose, CA

Guadalupe landfill, San Jose, CA

The serious environmental impact of landfilling our waste was not fully recognized until the 1970s, when the EPA began to insist on an engineering standard to contain leachate and methane, at least to some extent. All the same, the EPA recognizes that no liner is equal to the environmental stresses to which it will likely be subjected over its lifetime. Sooner or later, that leachate plume will emerge. And no methane collection system comes close to capturing all the gas generated in our trash heaps.

In the decades after the EPA established regulations, many of the older unlined, unengineered dumps were closed. In some cases, remediation systems were subsequently put in place. Most dumps, however, were simply taken out of operation and covered up. I’m sure it’s a good thing to stop adding to the problem, but closing a landfill to new arrivals doesn’t in any way mean that current occupants are no longer leaving. “Closed” really isn’t quite the word for a landfill at which the garbage trucks have stopped coming. Neither is “inactive.”

A few of the very worst landfills have been cleaned up, such as the infamous Love Canal dump in Niagara Falls. Much depends, it seems, on local activists. In other cases, cleanup is really unimaginable. Think of Fresh Kills again, which contains 67,000,000 cubic meters of compacted trash in four mountains spreading over 12 hectares of land (or 2,366,082,670 cubic feet spread out over 2200 acres). Perhaps we can expect improved containment systems in the future, but cleanup is hardly in the cards for a country that has squandered much of its wealth in the pursuit of ever greater riches.

Why exactly do we have landfills if they are so bad? Why are new landfills still being made?

It’s not that there is no alternative. In Germany and the Netherlands, for example, all non-recyclable, non-hazardous waste is burned. In 40 years of heavy reliance on incineration, there have been no environmental disasters. From what I can understand, incinerators don’t scrub every last pollutant out of the exhaust gases, but their overall environmental impact is considerably less severe than the cumulative effect of landfill when considered over the entire life of the garbage.

From all my reading on the subject, I can distill only two reasons why landfilling is still standard practice in this country, despite severe environmental consequences:

> Space is still cheap, and landfills are relatively simple to build, requiring modest upfront capital investment, even now that more engineering is required.

> The environmental movement has organized very aggressively against incineration. In Fat of the Land, Ben Miller explains that environmental organizations feared that incineration would stand in the way of recycling. They scared people half to death with the notion of toxic ashes left over after combustion, and all over the country they turned out crowds to protest very effectively. Too bad if it was under false pretenses. Incinerator ash doesn’t contain any toxins that aren’t to be found in the dump. Burning doesn’t create toxins, although of course it does get rid of biohazards. Ash is significantly more stable than household garbage.

Northwest Incinerator

Northwest Incinerator

Of course this is not to say that every incinerator necessarily runs as it’s meant to. The Northwest incinerator in Chicago, which has devoured some of my own trash, seems to have been in violation of safety standards much of the time.

If Miller’s supposition is true, it’s a sad chapter in the history of the environmental movement. Here we are, 30 years later, with a handfull of incinerators, 100,000 leaky landfills, and 100,000 plumes, large and small. , a mere handfull of incinerators (a few of them them–I will say this–perpetually in violation of safety standards, such as the Northwest incinerator in Chicago), and no recycling yet in lots of places.

Fortunately, new developments are underfoot. With the rising price of oil, the larger landfills have started turning captured methane into usable fuel. There are experiments with bioreactor landfill, in which the trash is treated to decompose faster and release more methane (for fuel) under more controlled circumstances. A new generation of incinerators is being built, which would burn garbage at higher temperatures, posing even less environmental risk. I’ve heard they can mine old landfills for fuel, which would mean that some of those 100,000 could perhaps finally disappear.

More on Fresh Kills:

love letters and  cabbage leaves

landscape inspirations

More about trash in Chicago:

connecting the dots

June 2017
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