Archive for the 'garbage trucks' Category


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 (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.


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.


Filing Cabinet

I have tried to explain (to myself and to others) what I find so compelling about garbage and garbage dumps. But I’m not the only one who’s asked the question. My daughter, Lauren, has had plenty of opportunity to wonder what is the matter with me as well. Below, I post her account of what it’s like to have a mother with an unusual passion:

It started with the pictures, thousands of them. Sunrises blazing bright across the sky. A little enchanted world shown day after day in vibrant orange and red. My mother put them in a book with fine black paper. They were beautiful. And they were all pictures of a garbage dump.

Sunrise over SF Bay

I guess if we’re being honest it really started with a commute to San Francisco. My mother had taken a job as an interface designer for Blue Shield. She’d had to get up every morning before the sun rose to make the forty-five minute commute (turned rush-hour nightmare) up 101 to the city center. One day, when her camera happened to be in the car, she stopped at the exit for Candlestick Park and took a photo. I wonder if she has that first picture marked in her book with the black paper, the sunset that started it all. Maybe she simply knows with a look which one it is.

That first photo turned into countless landfill visits, and seemingly thousands of rolls of film. By the time I entered high school, my mother knew where every landfill was in the Bay Area. She’d been to most. Shoreline. Brisbane. Oyster and Sierra Points. Bayfront Park. Byxbee Park. Fort Bragg. Coolee Landing. Hayward.

Her interest in landfills mutated, grew. She wondered about what went into dumps, what they said about our lives as Americans. She hoarded trash so that she’d have a reason to visit. We didn’t really need a new table, but my mother carted the old one off because she’d run out of things to throw away. She wrote stories about the paths that garbage took through our lives and made garbage her free time.

Glass Beach, Fort BraggSometimes I found myself in the car, weighted with a little dread, watching as she snapped photos of the stark and sterile coast line nudging shoulders with the batteries, old furniture parts, and the crappy romance novels you felt dirty for reading. I didn’t like how I felt on those trips, desperate for humanity, and horribly, horribly ugly. How could we let this happen? My mother recently went back home to the Netherlands and decided while she was there that she’d search out their landfills, and surprise surprise, there were none. They burned their garbage in Europe. They got rid of it.

The reason we have dumps, landfills, places that might eventually be covered up with a layer of clay and turned into an idyllic lakeside getaway like Shoreline, is because we don’t want to think about our waste, what we lose and leave behind. The only time the landfill was convenient was when the Stones came in 1999 and Mick Jagger collapsed on the stage. Clearly it was the methane emissions they were venting out from the earth and not all of drugs he’d probably ingested.

Mostly we cringe at the photos we see in environmental documentaries, vow to recycle better next time, and then forget about it altogether. That’s what landfills are designed to do, allow us to brush packaging and toxic paint and plastic twisty-ties off, like so much dirt on our shoulders. They’re the filing cabinet of problems too big to consider at this moment. Sometimes they’re easy enough to hide. Once they become too saturated with debris they simply get sealed away—recycled into a park. But Shoreline and Byxbee, no matter how pretty you paint them, how much grass and trees you lay over the clay covering, are never going away. They’re trapped, lying in stasis, never decomposing or breaking down, a constant memento mori for those of us who think to look.

I spent years being exasperated and annoyed at my mother and her penchant for weekend daytrips to the local waste way stations. I don’t know what I wanted from her. An obsession with classic films or antiques—something I could connect with on some level. Instead I had a mom who thought subscribing to the trash collector’s union magazine was interesting, who asked for Soylent Green on DVD for Christmas, and who got excited by road signs pointing to local dumps.

Somewhere along her expeditions, as she refers to them, these dumps and way stations became a story that needed to be told.

She decided to write a book about it, The Landfill Diaries, and she joined a writing group that met Mondays. I stuck to my bedroom on those occasions, furiously doing math assignments and procrastinating on the internet. I didn’t want to hear about the layers of garbage, the dead girl who showed up on the waste conveyor belt, and certainly not the number of tons of crap Americans let anonymous men cart off and dump into barren stretches of land kept well hidden from the average citizen. A job, as it turns out, that is more dangerous than being a soldier in Iraq, or a police man in Camden, New Jersey, or a fire fighter in desert country. The homework and the computer and the snacks I munched on all represented more trash, more waste, more detritus.

One Monday, I walked out of my room to get a glass of water, and I overheard my mother reading the tail-end of her latest chapter. She was probably talking about those long ago sunrises. I don’t know. I was tired of hearing it. I did notice when a woman, severe glasses and clothing and expression, and the writer of the worst sort of romance schlock, spoke up.

“It’s so beautiful, the way you phrase it. I wish it…weren’t about garbage.”

I stopped still in the kitchen and though I didn’t realize it at the time, I had an epiphany. That woman had so incredibly missed the point. That’s why my mother did it. That’s why she took a trip to New York City in the middle of my senior year, to visit Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island. Garbage is not beautiful in each individual piece, or even when we bag it up and stuff it into blue bins. With a shock of sky as a background to mountains of Styrofoam and discarded clothing and food strewn over dead gray earth it is transformed. It is not pleasant, and perhaps only my mother would put such an image up on her wall. The devastation I see in those pictures is frightening. The things we are capable of doing in our carelessness should give anybody pause. And yet it’s still magnificent.

Sunrise over SF Bay, AgainThe sky blazes in polluted pink or deep, deep blue, plants still fight there way up to the sun, and even so it smells horrible. It should. It takes a diaper nearly 10,000 years to degrade. There’s history in that landfill. When we’re all gone, have covered every last landfill with fake parks and strip malls like in Fresh Kills, archeologists will be digging that garbage up and positing about how we live. Everything will be perfectly preserved. Do we want our forgotten bicycles, chip bags, and worn-down shoes to be how history remembers us? Do we want them to see our filing cabinet of problems we couldn’t deal with or simply forgot about? Just like the pictures, they are frozen snapshots.

Postscript: Lauren is still in school. She’s a writer and an artist. I am very proud of her.


Field Trip

Garbage Field TripEvery day, 500 tons of trash from the Campania region in southern Italy get to go on a European vacation, destination Hamburg, in northern Germany. That’s 55 train cars worth of trash crossing the Alps every day, making the almost 1200-mile trip in just about 44 hours. The arrangement is meant to continue for 11 weeks. A lot of the traveling trash is compostible waste–kitchen scraps, restaurant leftovers, and so forth. A lot of the rest is recyclable, including plastics. The incinerator in Hamburg separates out the stuff that doesn’t burn, but the rest of it goes up in smoke.

Maybe that sounds crazy, but it’s commonplace at home. The situation in the U.S. is equally bizzarre, except that it goes on by design rather than misadventure, day after day, indefinitely. And the trash doesn’t hop the train but rides first class in 18-wheelers, guzzling gas. Of all the states in the union, 47 export garbage and 45 import it. Some of it comes from Canada even. which has decided that landfilling the stuff is too unhealthy while incinerating it at home is a lot more expensive than paying American landfill operators to bury it in Michigan. In the northeast especially, garbage is “exported” almost without exception as local landfills have closed, and nobody is ready to give permission for a new one in their own backyard.

Garbage TruckNot only does the stuff get carried all over the country, but pretty much every community is on its own looking for a place to stash their castoffs. As a result, the network of routes described by all this trash looks like a vast spider web woven by a drunken spider with no sense of geometry and no talent or inclination for housekeeping. The garbage trucks routinely pass by many active landfills on their way to distant destinations. (The scholar Benjamin Miller, who wrote Fat of the Land, a fabulous study of the sorry history of New York landfill, is working on the transportation angle. He was kind enough to show me a picture of that crazy web, which is to come out in a new book soon. )

The whole thing made economic sense under two conditions:

1. low transportation costs, by which it can be cheaper to truck trash vast distances to a cut-rate dump.

2. artificially depressed “tipping fees,” as the dump charges are called. Lifetime costs of operating and monitoring landfills and eventually converting them to usable space are generally not calculated into the price.

A study done before the price of gas took off estimated that banning interstate trade in garbage would lead to a total loss of $3.8 billion, as some waste haulers and landfill operators would see their revenues decline while others would make hay and some proportion of citizens would see their garbage collection fees go up, while the rest might catch a break. (See the abstract or a writeup of the study)

However the math was done, it would be different now of course, with gas prices out of all proportion to where they used to be. But more importantly, there’s a logical impossibility in the notion that we’d be worse off if we didn’t carry garbage all over the country. By this kind of analysis, if we made less garbage, there’d be losses in the system. However, I have to think we’d come out way ahead on the whole. And coming up with local garbage disposal methods would also have to be an overall gain, especially if we factor environmental damage from trucking into the equation and sift out the special interest rhetoric.

But of course that might just require an end to just burying it all whosale.


Museum of Buyer’s Remorse

Some time ago, I took a tour at the transfer station where San Francisco’s garbage is disgorged from regular garbage trucks into a giant pit and then stuffed into huge trailers that take it all to Livermore. The pit is a thing to behold, nauseating and overpowering. It’s pretty full, said our guide, despite the fact that it’s a Saturday. It’s dark inside, even infernal. Trucks come and go, spewing out trash. More garbage pours out of a chute in a corner. Gulls are quietly biding their time until appetite strikes again.

Inside the dark pit

But the transfer station also offers a much more cheerful perspective on our stuff, a more whimsical and touching commentary on the multfarious burdens of wealth and consumerism. The sculpture garden, paradoxically peaceful and verdant, holds a compelling collection of art patched together out of materials snatched from the abyss by resident artists.

Garbage Art

Even better is art hill, the higgledy-piggledy collection of junk that workers have rescued from perdition. There’s a traffic jam of Tonka trucks, whose vaunted indestructibility sooner or later stops counting as an advantage. There’s a sky-blue David, not quite two feet high, but every bit as languidly elegant as the original incarnation. There’s an outsize tiger, an unraveling bolt of unidentifiable beast, a dragon with a weirdly articulated tail, a menagerie of birds and saints and garden gnomes, arranged around and half-hid between a luxuriant patch of dog-eared cacti.

This gallery of the unwanted is stocked from the shed where private individuals do away with supernumerary household goods from attics and basements, where home remodelers unburden themselves of the debris inevitably attendant upon their projects. When I visited on an earlier occasion,hat he lacked in legs was amply made up for in the pinup behind him, of two young women displaying more leg than a normal human being would know what to do with.

A modern-day Venus de Milo

Other items on art hill come from the little outside area where the city brings trash that has been found abandoned in the street. It’s easy to get censorious and start thinking about the antisocial element that just saddle us, more conscientious citizens, with their messes. But some of these things—desks, strollers, file cabinets, TV stands—could be part of our informal freecycle efforts. We’ve all seen how it works. Somebody puts some poor old thing by the curb with a little sign on it inviting passersby to take mercy. Of course the city may get to the foundling possession and cart it off before a good Samaritan has had a chance to clasp it to his breast.All of this tells an inarticulate story about the embarrassment of riches, the quiet dilemmas involving our stuff, especially the in-between things that have lost their new-bought sheen but aren’t yet garbage. If it’s not utterly hopeless, irreparably broken, contaminated, or otherwise just plain used up, if it’s not recyclable or compostible, then what to do? For most of us, it doesn’t just slide down the slope towards garbage oblivion without internal debate or pang of conscience, especially if it’s a little large for the garbage can.

Even if they are not adopted as a new owner’s prized possession, it’s something of a consolation that some of these things don’t get buried at Altamont but end up in this museum of buyer’s remorse, with blue David and the toucan. All the same, perhaps it’s time to remember caveat emptor.


Rubble in Lebanon

On September 1, the New York Times carried an AP picture of a logjam of trucks moving rubble from destroyed buildings in Lebanon. The photo, by Dimitri Messinis, shows a divided highway running along a beach and curving off to the left. Two lanes of trucks lead to a landfill project in the background, a monster jetty sticking out into the sea. A giant heap of rubble is already in place with a number of machines perched on top moving stuff around. A billboard in the sand, immediately to the right of the highway advertises what looks like a vacation destination.

Disasters, whether manmade or natural, often produce a lot of trash. San Francisco’s waterfront consists for a large part of the rubble created by the 1906 earthquake, for instance. If you happen to have a need of fill, it’s not such a bad thing. But that doesn’t appear to be the case in New Orleans, though, where Hurricane Katrina has produced a staggering amount of refuse and people are fighting over what to do with it. On August 16, Ray Nagin closed the Chef Menteur landfill that had been used for the Katrina debris. There is no other place for the stuff to go and Waste Management pointed out that “As rebuilding is delayed and this trash stacks up, the people of New Orleans will need to deal with this again.” Garbage is garbage until you figure out how to use it for something constructive.

July 2018
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