Archive for the 'methane' Category


Garbage Hymns

Randy Ludacer, Singing about Packaging on Fresh Kills

Randy Ludacer, Singing about Packaging on Fresh Kills

Randy Ludacer is a package designer. He is responsible for the public face of such essential items as lemon-scented insoles, table cloths and pillow covers, furry rocker chairs and retro stools, composters, video game controllers, bath salts for jet lag relief, and Bling-it-on peel-and-stick crystals, best described as spangles for underage females. Also Randy is a singer-songwriter. Naturally, some of his songs are also about packaging, including “The Prettiest Package,” “Expiration Date,” “Pop Top Ring,” “Can Of Worms” and the immortal “This Landfill Is Your Landfill.”

Last Saturday, Randy performed his packaging songs to a select audience on top of the 150 million tons of trash contained in the Fresh Kills landfill, which is, naturally, the very best place to do so. Unfortunately, procedures kept the fans down to a modest number. The audience had to be bused in, in accordance with San protocol—after we signed release forms holding the Department of Sanitation harmless for whatever horrors might befall us during or in the wake of the concert. There were. like, 20 seats on the bus.

But there we were, in the great outdoors, with a view of the Arthur Kill and the ruins of New Jersey to the west, the Manhattan skyline to the north, and a wildlife refuge to the east. Randy sang and accompanied himself on his Tropicana box guitar, keeping an admirable balance on the garbage tightrope. It’s not easy being serious about garbage without getting heavy-handed.

Us, the Audience (and a Methane Well in the Background)

Us, the Audience (and a Methane Well in the Background)

The wind was brisk and rustled steadily in the late-season grass. The baby in the audience complained now and again. We clapped very nicely after every song, while the garbage kept very quiet underfoot.

Meanwhile, as Randy pointed out in one of his songs,  “Through the layers of the landfill, through/the garbage and the rubble, every tire slowly/rises to the surface like a bubble. This landfill/is our landfill. It was made for you and me.”

Just in case you want to know more about Fresh Kills? Try love letters and cabbage leaves About the old dump and the new park forming? More interested in the cheap thrills of Fresh Kills? Then you’ll want to take a look at landscape inspirations.


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.



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.


magic mountain

Where the New Jersey Meadowlands inspire a sense of doom, the Ivy landfill near Charlottesville, Virginia, is its very opposite, with its 350 acres of wholesomeness, optimism, and can-do spirit, seasoned with a herd of deer and a mountain lion stalking their steps in fauning season. Even if 87 of those acres are covered in garbage buboes.

Ivy Landfill, Covered with Snow

Ivy Landfill, Covered with Snow

It doesn’t hurt that it’s so pretty out here, garbage and all. Overwhelmed by mountains, a vast temperate rain forest quietly biding its time, virgin snow and deep-blue sky, a measly little PVC pipe sticking up out of the earth here and there seems a minor thing. Even if it’s going to take 30 to 50 years for that pipe to become unnecessary—at the current best guess of sanitary engineers—it just doesn’t look like the end of the world. Outlook, it seems, has a good deal to do with the view.

Ivy’s operations manager, Mark Brownlee, a mild man in his late fifties or early sixties with a very red nose, kind eyes, and a musical southern twang, took me around. After an awkward start and the usual suspicious/incredulous questions (“What program is this for? Who are you with?”), he became pretty straightforward.

Ivy got its start in life in the 70s, as Charlottesville’s city dump, before the introduction of current landfill regulations. Later the landfill also accepted waste from other communities in Albemarle county. When I lived in Charlottesville, in the spring of 1990, I did my best to help it grow–albeit in blissfull ignorance of what happened to my stuff after I gave it up for adoption, once a week. It seems I’m partially responsible for the bubo to the left of the road in the picture above, since Mark told me the bubo to the right contains only construction and demolition debris. I remember arguing with my husband over who should take out the trash, but I have absolutely no recollection of thinking about my garbage, ever once, beyond its short trip to the curb. Of course, I don’t. I had better things to do, back then, than worry about what happens to my garbage.

Garbage Transfer, Front Row Seating Provided

Garbage Transfer, Front Row Seating Provided

In 2001, the landfill closed. A layer of clay icing has been added on top. Pipes stick up everywhere like birthday candles. Mark allows as how the Rivanna Waste Authority, which he embodies, has to be vigilant and inventive, to make sure the landfill doesn’t come to haunt its upscale neighbors, like Freud’s return of the repressed. So methane is monitored, captured, and flared off.  Leachate is collected and trucked to a treatment plant. Bacteria are injected into the landfill, in the hope that they will neutralize harmful substances. Volatile organic compounds are extracted by the shiny new soil vapor extraction machine, one of the very first to be installed, according to Mark.

Residents can deliver recyclables, including cell phones and paint, newspaper and cardboard, as well as reusable items, among which, remarkably, is a huge contingent of exercise equipment, good intentions gone to waste.

The Edge of the Magic Mountain

The Edge of the Magic Mountain

All the while, the upscale neighbors are kept informed of all developments with an unusual spirit of openness. That’s what impresses me most: this simple willingness to lift the veil. It compares exceedingly well with the more usual response, which is to come running with loud protests and write down my license plate number if I take a picture of the outside area of a landfill.

And in the meantime,  the garbage still arrives, in its never-ending way. It goes from the garbage truck onto the conveyer into another truck, and then off to a Waste Management landfill just outside of Jetersville, Virginia, a mere bump on the map which doesn’t seem to have a whole lot going for it besides space for everybody’s else trash.


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.


not what it seems

Regional Sports Complex, Fresno

Regional Sports Complex, Fresno

The Fresno Sanitary Landfill is a national historic landmark. It is also a superfund site. Yet, if you were to drive by unarmed with inside information, you would come away with the notion that it actually is a regional sports complex, as proclaimed by the large sign in front of the dump. Not all elements of reality, obviously, are equally attractive. And not everybody is equally eager to point them all out.

In 2001, Martin Melosi, the country’s foremost environmental historian, working with the NPS, sought to redress the sad lack of attention to sanitation—undoubtedly a very important part of our society—in the register of national historic landmarks. They proposed the Fresno municipal dump as the first “true” sanitary landfill in the US. That is, it was the first dump in which organic garbage was buried in compartments, first introduced in 1937. A trench was dug for the trash, which was then covered up with the dirt dug up out of the next trench.

I love words in general, but garbage has produced some special gems. My favorite is “clean dirt,” for the layer that goes on top of the garbage that closes the trench. “Sanitary landfill” isn’t bad either, but more on that later.

The FSL nomination was successful. The secretary of the interior, Gale Norton, put the landfill on the register, but without paying attention to the fact that it was just then in the final stages of a superfund cleanup. The press got a hold of this tidbit and had a field day of fun and sneers with it. I think some people objected to the mere notion of commemorating a garbage dump. Other people felt that the superfund status automatically disqualified the dump as a landmark. Secretary Norton promptly did an about-face and tried to take FSL off the register again. It turns out, however, that the procedure for removing a landmark from the register is as cumbersome as the procedure for adding one. Thank heaven for bureaucracy.

I personally think that FSL’s landmark status is perfect. I’d be very happy to put a few more garbage dumps on the register. I’m with Melosi all the way. Garbage matters. However, I also believe that superfund status obviates the use of “sanitary” in front of “landfill.” The trenching method was a nice idea, cutting down on odors and pests. But history has shown that it made burial of garbage no less dangerous, only more superficially acceptable. Arguably, trenching has been harmful, in facilitating an almost exclusive reliance on landfilling without any real environmental safeguards for almost 40 years, from the 1930s to the 1970s. And the safeguards that have been put in place since then are by no means foolproof. (See a brief primer on plumes for more detail.)

Fresno dump, with plume

In the case of FSL, the trash was poisoning air and groundwater.  People living nearby complained. The City of Fresno became alarmed at its own measurements of methane and volatile organic compounds, including vinyl chloride and trans-1,2-dichloroethene, in groundwater. It tried, unsuccessfully, to put some containment systems in place in the 1990s. The dump became a superfund site, and the EPA did a “cleanup” project in 2001.

There’s another word. When I hear “cleanup,” I think of a process with a defined end result, of clean-ness, spic-and-span-ness, unpolluted, dirt-free, pure wholesome-ness. That is not how the EPA cleans up.

An EPA cleanup is more typically an effort at containment, a way to encapsulate pollutants and prevent their further spread. It might consist of a system to capture methane and flare it off, and another system to capture leachate and divert it to the water purification system, and finally some layers to minimize the penetration of rainwater. I understand that such an approach may be financially more appealing than the kind of operation one envisions at the word “cleanup,” but it’s not exactly a permanent solution. And it doesn’t always work.

The 2005 inspection of the FSL revealed a host of issues, including methane above acceptable levels and further migration of toxins, both wider and deeper, as they appeared to be moving from shallow aquifers into deeper ones. Some remedial actions were recommended, but no further reports have been published.

Jensen Avenue, running north of Fresno dump

Jensen Avenue, running north of Fresno dump

In the meantime, above-ground, FSL is a really boring hill, bristling with little pipes like birthday candles. It takes up some 145 acres in the middle of what looks, to me, like really scraggly farmland only a short step away from outright desert. Dusty vineyards and tired-looking orange groves groves are holding on for dear life, in between falling-down houses and farm implements laid out for sale near the road. Trash festoons all the high fences. Rottweilers pace the naked yards.

In its 2005 inspection report, the EPA recommends a survey to ascertain whether any endangered species are dependent on the neighborhood for habitat. I’m thinking t might be time to worry about the humans too.

P.S.: I hear from the city of Fresno that methane levels are acceptable these days and that a new pumping system helps prevent the spread of contaminants in the deeper aquifers. It seems the athletes will be quite safe.

June 2017
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