Archive for the 'rubble' Category



Every disaster—manmade or natural—is likely as unique as Tolstoy’s unhappy family, set apart by the incommensurable that lurks in pain and privation, the transforming and deforming nature of grief.

Photo by Dimitri Messinis

Photo by Dimitri Messinis

Nevertheless, over the last few years I have begun to notice a common theme that binds them all together: every calamity creates inordinate amounts of trash. I first really noticed this in 2006, after Israel attacked Beirut and laid large parts of the city in ruins.  A familiar story, unfortunately. But then the New York Times ran a report in the aftermath of the attacks that contained an amazing image: a traffic jam of  trucks carrying rubble curve off into the distance, on their way to a landfill stuck out into an otherwise picture-perfect Mediterranean sea, on a perfectly brilliant day. A billboard on the beach advertises some kind of tourist attraction—picturesque rocks rearing up out of a deep-blue sea—a tourguide’s version of the Mediterranean incongruously stuck into an a much more painful and intractable reality. Then again, that little point being pounded into terra firma by shovels and grabbers in the far distance may just be the foundation for an upscale hotel meant to deliver on the promise contained in the billboard. The French call this kind of thing mise en abime, or “putting into the abyss.” It’s never been clear to me what the abyss has to do with such a playful device, but in this particular context I think I am staring straight into it.

Chef Menteur by satellite

Chef Menteur by satellite

Hurricane Katrina created an estimated 22 million tons of garbage, which comes to 3.5 million truckloads. It sat around for weeks and weeks on people’s front lawns before local collection services figured out how to separate it—more or less, I am sure—into construction and demolition debris, household waste, and hazardous waste, all of which have different destinations. Construction and demolition debris, normally inert, went into Chef Menteur landfill, right next-door to an immigrant community, as well as into Bayou Sauvage and Chantilly.  Eventually the community managed to persuade local authorities that they deserved better than to live virtually on top of the disgusting stew people all over New Orleans wanted out of their yards as soon as possible. I wouldn’t have believed it was inert either.

Photo by Barbara Wood

Photo, Barbara Wood

Most recently, Hurricane Ike created another mountain range of debris. My friend Barbara, who went to help in Red Cross shelters in the aftermath of the storm, spent time on Galveston. Her pictures of the trash created by the storm are mind-boggling.

Airplanes have broken through the walls of their hangars, noses hanging by a thread. Oddly crumpled monsters sit in the street, giving no hint of what they once might have been. Yards are carpeted with broken possessions. A pickup truck has straw sticking out of the cab, which must have started, pre-wind, in the pickup’s bed.

Photo, Barbara Wood

Photo, Barbara Wood

What were once gardens now are strangely reminiscent of graveyards. Brick walls lie in piles outside the wood frames of houses still standing, while other houses have just buckled to earth, neatly depositing an intact roof at a graceful angle in the driveway. One desperate homeowner tried to sell his wreck without benefit of realtor, leaning a handpainted sign against the debris pile that was once a house with the plea, “Make Offer.”

All the devastation—$11 billion worth of trash—is going to go into local landfill in the next couple of weeks and will be covered up and over by Waste Management, the nation’s largest garbage collector headquartered just up the road in Houston and undoubtedly ready to receive the windfall.

Photo, Barbara Wood

Photo, Barbara Wood

As the British say, it’s an ill wind that blows no one any good. Nevertheless, someone is bound to live within reach of the leachate plume that will eventually form downstream of wherever it goes.


Garbage All Across the Milky Way

Listening to the radio today I heard another story about the Phoenix, the Mars lander which had just successfully touched down near the north pole of the planet Mars. If all goes well, it will dig through the top layer of dust and scoop out soil from the layer of permafrost, in search of a record of the planet’s climate history and any traces of life. The contraption landed in summer, the NASA scientist on the program noted. That is, it’sn not as nasty as it is going to be. In winter, things get distinctly more unpleasant, as the temperature plummets and dry ice precipitates out of the atmosphere. When that happens, the lander dies.

Phoenix Mars LanderThat’s when it finally hit me: the lander may be a lab right now, but it’s nothing but a heap of junk tomorrow, to join the scrap already there from prior missions. My sense of shock made me realize that I had innocently expected a scientific ethic of pack-it-in and pack-it out much like the frame of mind we’ve learned to adopt for visits to wilderness or even trips to the local state park. Rather than a basic respect for the environment under study, the mission appears to be governed by a sort of colonialist-imperialist disregard for whatever might be there. Nobody owns it, so you can do whatever you want? Or is it just that competitiveness fosters a blind arrogance to anything but “success” as the competition happens to define it? Isn’t there a scientific ethic that applies to situations like this that says you have to clean up after yourself?

The story reminds me of Laurie Anderson’s stories of having been an artist-in-residence at NASA for a brief time made briefer by her sense of having wandered into a culture so foreign it ruled out meaningful conversation. From her account, she might as well have been a Martian.

At the other end, the story also puts me in mind of the abandoned industrial hulks in the rust belt, such as those I ran into at Lake Calumet just two weeks ago. Further evidence of the compartmentalization of our culture, not just between different groups operating side by side to different ends, but between time frames. You can obviously divorce short-term gain, whether it’s profit or scientific knowledge, and long-term consequences with impunity.

I imagine the total impact of a junked Mars lander isn’t that great. Nine hundred pounds of trash with a bunch of toxic metals wrapped up in it somewhere near the north pole isn’t that big a deal on a whole planet, I suppose, especially if no sign of life is found to which the toxins would be toxic. But the spirit to which it testifies makes me wonder where I can go to register my protest and demand an environmental impact statement.

Quick Update: The European space agencies are working on developing a scientific ethics of space. UNESCO has a commision on the topic. The Union of Concerned Scientists is trying to address the issue of sustainability in space exploration and exploitation. All I could find for NASA and space ethics was the Office of the General Counsel, which is, amongst many other things, “responsible for developing the ethics and patent program requirements” of NASA. When ethics come up in the same breath with patents, hope takes a nosedive.

Wired has compiled a list of weird space debris: Lost in Space. And Scientific American devoted an article to space trash in the wake of the satellite collision over Siberia in February 2009.


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.


Geology of Trash

My brother arranged for a tour of the local dump in Amersfoort, where I lived from 1972 to 1977 or so. I still visit occasionally because my parents are there. The tour is an outside chance, a singular piece of good luck. A regular citizen doesn’t have ready access to garbage once it’s passed into the hands of the people who make away with it. I’ve eyed the mountain from the motorway to Amsterdam, wondering how I could get close enough for a good picture.

The Outward Face

I’ve admired especially the herd of deer that maintains the grass at the appropriate height free of charge, although I’ve also seen a flock of sheep wandering like dirty clouds across the brow of the garbage tumulus. The animals are undoubtedly there to inspire warm fuzzy thoughts in the passing motorists.

Definitely, the mountain puts its best face forward, grassy slopes with cute animals turned out. But there’s no denying that, if all goes according to plan, the mountain will be the highest point in Amersfoort in some 15 to 20 years. And on top, the whole thing looks distinctly menacing, hosting a variety of recycling operations as well as ongoing dumping of materials that are too dangerous to burn.

Compost in the making


Analyzing Highway Trash

I knew of course that there’s garbage all over the California highways. I see it lying in sweet repose by the side of the road every day, wondering how things like shoes make their way to the median across four lanes of traffic. I’ve swerved around boxes. I’ve waited in traffic jams caused by mattresses and appliances and other objects too large to swerve around. And I’ve seen the crews of convicts clearing the shoulders.

But until the New York Times pointed it out yesterday, I never suspected that there are people who devote their professional lives to the study of it. There are litter anthropologists (employed in universities) and litter analysts (employed in the waste industry). I can already envision the hilarity at cocktail parties when someone asks the inevitable question, “And what do YOU do?”

It turns out that California tops the nation in debris-related traffic deaths as well as in volume and oddity of items lost or tossed (including a live ostrich spilled on the Golden Gate Bridge in 2005). The annual volume is estimated at 130,000 cubic yards, equivalent to a jam of garbage trucks 45 miles long. Pickup trucks are blamed as well as our general slovenliness.

This is not to suggest that highways in other parts of the country are spotless. Georgia highways on average yielded 2289 items of flotsam and jetsam per mile in a recent survey. The unintentional yield contains the mysterious category of “packages from food usually eaten at home,” easily my favorite. Unfortunately, the article doesn’t say how long it had taken for this treasure to collect.


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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