Archive for the 'scavenging' Category


The Garbage Times: Bordo Poniente Closes

Bordo Poniente Landfill

Bordo Poniente, on the Penon-Texcoco Highway, Mexico city

The New York Times reported that Mexico City’s landfill Bordo Poniente has recently closed. City trash would now be trucked out to more distant dumps, it was planned. And the 1500 “pepenadores” (rag pickers) who made a living off the open face have negotiated a deal with the city that they would man the transfer station.

Want to know what it was like to work on the dump? Check out the video.

The Huffington Post was able to add that the plan didn’t quite work out: the distant dumps didn’t have the slightest desire to cooperate. Garbage has been piling up in the city in the meantime.


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.



Rocks drift to the surface of a field, endlessly. Murder will out. Tires break through the skin of a good old-fashioned garbage dump. Bizarre tidbits of history float up from oblivion in the obituaries.

Bill McCabe

Bill McCabe

By this mechanism, we recently learned that in more exacting times, before we removed unfeeling harshness and unreasonable standards from the landscape of everyday life, it was possible to get your 15 minutes of fame by exceptional performance qualifying as a garbage collector. In June 1940, Bill McCabe,

lifted an 80-pound dumbbell in each hand and hoisted a 120-pound trash can to a 4-foot-6-inch ledge. He lay on his back and lifted a 60-pound barbell placed behind his head. He broad-jumped 8 feet 6 inches after a 7-yard run, dashed an added 10 yards and jumped a 3-foot hurdle.

Continuing a 10-yard run over and around obstacles, he ran another 10 yards on a straightaway and climbed an 8-foot fence. Beyond the fence, he vaulted 4 feet 6 inches and then ran 5 yards to the finish line. The time for the entire run was 10.8 seconds. After a 15-minute rest, he ran 120 yards with a 50-pound dumbbell in each hand in 25 seconds.

And thus he achieved a perfect score on the qualifying test to become a New York city garbage collector—locally known as a san man—as well as gaining the enviable status of “perfect specimen,” at least according to his New York times obituary.

Of all the details of the test, I particularly like the 8-foot fence. Did the Sanitation Department envision its troops stealing into fortified backyards to liberate the garbage that wayward householders meant to reserve for their pigs and chickens? Were the sanitation stalwarts meant for feats of great athleticism or was this just an effort to boost the cachet of an unappealing profession? Maybe, but quite possibly the Sanitation Department got overzealous in the face of 68000 applicants for 2000 positions.

Bill McCabe anyhow was on to bigger and better things before his first year was out, first becoming a policeman and eventually stepping up to be a firefighter. He may have been the world’s one garbage man to wring fame out of his profession, but clearly it was not his dream job.


Absolute Garbage

When you lift the lid off your trash can on a warm summer day, you won’t be much inclined to think of garbage as a relative value. Some things have a fleeting, indefinable essence that shifts with the context. Not garbage. There’s nothing “je ne sais quoi” about putrescence.

I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that our aversion to garbage is hardwired—a biological absolute. Your chances of survival probably improve if you can’t bring yourself to eat food that’s gone off. Given such a strong proclivity against the overripe, it came as a surprise to me to discover that as late as the 1950s a Dutch farmer could explain to his village government that he didn’t participate in the garbage collection program because he didn’t have any garbage to give away. He lists out the leftovers:

  • Newspapers go to the Christian mission.
  • Empty tins are donated to Stegeman, the ragman.
  • Dirty paper and floor sweepings end up in the stove.
  • Wood and coal ash from the hearth help to firm up the edges of his own farmyard.

That’s it. The list is vaguely reminiscent of our own recyclables sorting litanies, but there’s one stunning difference: once farmer den Boer was done recycling, he had nothing left over. In any event, nothing worth giving to the trash man, he says. What he did with his actual garbage—the putrescibles, that is—we have no way of knowing because he doesn’t include it on the list. To him, I conclude, it wasn’t garbage at all, but pig slop or perhaps fertilizer, to be chucked on the dung heap and plowed under in the springtime.

In other words, garbage is contextual. The anthropologist Mary Douglas famously said that dirt is “matter out of place.” Just so, garbage is food scraps out of place, organics withdrawn from the cycle of life. Which is why it started out as an urban concept.

Garbage in New York

Garbage in New York

Cities are places where leftovers cannot be put to use where they are produced. It took a long time for cities to develop effective waste removal systems, and while leftovers lingered on city streets they transmogrified from fertilizer into filth. An embarrassment in context, a source of disease, an impediment to traffic. Garbage. Once swept up and carried outside the city gates, the garbage transformed right back into its constituent character as agricultural nutrient and farmers stood waiting to scoop it up, paying money for the privilege.

Another transformation took place in the 2oth century, when garbage morphed from an urban concept into a petroleum-based concept. Garbage is no longer fertilizer if you can derive it more cheaply from petroleum. In this country, garbage became just irredeemably garbage. We started sweeping it under the rug, storing it up for the future, hiding it in places euphemistically known as landfill.

Even if garbage is not economically repurposable as fertilizer, it can still be turned into energy—by incineration (which creates more leftovers useful for road building) or by methane recovery (which leaves some temporarily useless dross in place). Just how economical that is still depends on the price of oil. It was quite remarkable how many permits for landfill- gas-to-energy plants were issues when gasoline sold for more than $4.00 a gallon at the pump. There are almost 500 of those landfills in the U.S. already.

What’s more, it’s useful to start thinking of landfill as landmine. The closer we get to the bottom of the natural resource barrel, the more attractive it is going to be to dig all the trash back up and recycle it after all. If the need arises, and most likely it will in the not-too-distant future, trash will transmogrify to ore. In other words, what is true for putrescibles, is also true for durable goods—even if “durable” is a misnomer in times of built-in obsolescence and compulsive consumption.

Durable trash

Durable trash

In times of economic expansion, many of the durable components of our trash are valuable, especially metals. Just last year, there was such a market for scrap metal that scrappy entrepreneurs were declining to wait with their scavenging activities until someone officially discarded their stuff. Manhole covers kept disappearing from the streets. Telephone wires were dismantled. I heard about people pulling up stretches of tram- and rail-line to convert the materials to ready cash at the scrapyard.California even made some legislation to penalize scrap dealers for accepting metals that were obviously stolen (such as those manhole covers and other infrastructure belonging to the people). A month or so later, the economy took a decisive turn south, prices for raw materials fell as demand declined, inventory started piling up, and so did the recyclables in the storage yards of the collectors. The New York Times even recommended that we, concerned consumers, better hang on to those recyclables for a bit if we didn’t want to see them end up in the dump.

I’ve never been much inclined to think we’re in the midst of a rational economic system—and I daresay it’s easier to find people to agree with me in recent times—but it is a significant consolation to realize that garbage is not a terminal condition. To all of you out there who occasionally write to me in despair: yes, it’s embarrassing that we’re creating so much garbage, and, no, it’s not easy to live in the midst of endless wealth and not create so much trash. But garbage is reversible. And though we may not be thoroughly rational creatures, the times are offering a little more incentive going forward to not be quite as dumb as we have been.



People live on dumps in many places in the world, and I’m sure they would do so in the United States if it weren’t for a couple of simple facts:

> Our landfills bury the treasure as soon as it arrives, so it’s hard to make a living on the dump. You would have to dig surreptitiously, after nightfall, as a kind of latterday Penelope slyly undoing at night the progress made by day by the bulldozers covering up our gluttonies.

> Landfills in this country have gates and fences. Whether to keep out the homeless, keep out donations for which no fee is paid, or keep out witnesses to unlawful practices, I do not know. There are easier ways to get to the gold besides storming the dump.

> The most easily recycled materials are, in various places, obediently sorted by householders and presented for removal on the eve of collections every week. Some people travel the collection route before the official truck comes by and stay a lot cleaner than the folks who pull out the goodies on a dump. (Note: New York City has made this a crime,  punishable by a stiff fine and forfeiture of vehicle if committed by motorized transport. If committed by shopping cart, you lose your gleanings, I think, but you get to keep your wheels. I’m of course not suggesting anyone should do this.)

Photo by Olga Saly

Photo by Olga Saly

Such deterrents from scavenging on the dump apparently don’t exist in Russia, as witness this blog entry: Castles in the Country: Refuge from Everyday Life. Actually, I made that title up, because Google Translate delivers something that only vaguely resembles English. Perhaps the original title speaks of refugees from everyday life, which would be a little more charitable.

My friend Nina, who can actually read the original, sums up the piece as follows: “The author’s intent is not to describe the garbage/recycling problem in Russia, but to share her shocking discovery that some (Russian) people actually live at dumps. In the end she concludes that these people chose to live at this dump and this is their own choice and nobody else’s fault.”

Nina speculates that the dump is in Novosibirsk, Siberia. I looked it up on the map, and I’m thinking it must get very cold there in the winter. Some gleaners come to work every day, looking for recyclables, which they sell to the “master,” a middleman who presumably resells the booty to recycling outfits. One of those workers is a 29-year-old woman, who has a husband with a regular job and a little boy whom she has started leaving at home ever since he got buried under a pile of trash. A few others live at the dump, a circumstance that works in their favor, because they don’t have to commute. They can get down to work first thing in the morning and get first dibs. They don’t seem to leave the dump at all, finding food enough to eat at work. The vodka delivery service brings the more important staple of their diet right to their door,  if they have one, much as my grandfather used to deliver milk.

I’ve written about scavenging before (see scavenging, how the other half used to live, and saucepans, bonnets and umbrellas). I started out thinking this was a simple issue. Gleaning, recycling and scavenging, formally or informally—it’s all good in principle, a fact that is daily becoming more obvious. At the same time, nobody should have to live or work under conditions that are likely to cause illness or injury. I believe there are sufficient resources in the world to go around, even for the vast numbers of people who currently inhabit the earth. I’m convinced it is unnecessary for anyone to live on the dump. I would like to be able to vote for people who actually have some idea of working towards a more just sharing of resources. Instead of going to Vegas and giving my extra earnings to the filthy rich, I try to give money to organizations already embarked on the effort. In small ways, I look out for opportunities to share, and I try to refrain from judgments of people whose story I don’t know.  Straightforward enough, I thought.

But I got some interesting comments on earlier posts–about the manipulative nature of pictures appearing with some regularity in the newspapers–about the question of what you are to do in the face of the misery pictured and described–about the invitation to just feel superior or perhaps even to blame the victims. Food for thought.

I think we are probably programmed to want to do something to fix what is obviously not right. If you see a baby drowning in a pond, you jump in to pull it out. If you see people looking for food on the dump, you know just as intuitively that you are supposed to do something. But what? Pulling something out of a dump isn’t as straightforward as dragging a baby ashore and returning it to its rightful owner. It’s not like you can give these people back to their mother. Besides when you see a picture in the newspaper, doing something is pretty much ruled out altogether. Instead, it’s easy to feel guilty. Either that or you have to tell yourself a story about why you don’t have to care.

Face to face, I suspect, people who live on the dump are likely not very clean and otherwise very scary. I base this estimate on my exposure to the homeless in San Francisco, who are not very clean and for the most part very scary. I must confess I have racked my brain many times for a route from my parking lot to my client’s offices that doesn’t lead straight through the “dorms” under the bus terminal overpasses downtown. It really is hard to see them and feel powerless to change their predicament. It’s a signficant tax, much more onerous frankly than an extra few % would be.

And that brings me back to the beginning. I’m convinced such extremes of poverty as life on the dump is a systemic problem, for which I’m not personally responsible, and which I cannot personally solve, but with which I am complicit to some extent just because I have been lucky. I have fared well. In the uneven division of resources that rules our world, I came up roses. Compared to the wealthiest, I’m a poor slob. Compared to the mass of humanity, I’m exceedingly well-off. The least I can do, it strikes me, is be happy. And the next logical step is to scale back, to cut out any consumptive bloat from my own lifestyle, to work against the competitive consumption that says resources must be unevenly divided for happiness to ensue.

One closing thought: I’d like to live in a society that has a social contract–some sense that we are all in it together, some sense of mutual responsibility, some idea that everybody needs to be taken care of, long before anyone ends up on the street, unemployable, angry, deranged, hungry, and addicted. Or on the dump, with a special liquor delivery to accommodate the agoraphobic.


Berdsk, near Novosibirsk, in Siberia

Berdsk, near Novosibirsk, in Siberia

Postscript: A friend enlightened me regarding the location of this landfill. It is not in Novosibirsk but in nearby Berdsk—across a little tendril of water sticking out from Novosibirskoye Lake like a raggedy tail.


saucepans, bonnets, and umbrellas

In Dickens’ David Copperfield, trash is a marker of class. When David goes in search of his irrepressible old school friend Tommy Traddles, for instance, he finds a street strewn with scraps of food and broken belongings, an index of Tommy’s straightened circumstances:

I found that the street was not as desirable a one as I could have wished it to be, for the sake of Traddles. The inhabitants appeared to have a propensity to throw any little trifles they were not in want of, into the road: which not only made it rank and sloppy, but untidy too, on account of the cabbage-leaves. The refuse was not wholly vegetable either, for I myself saw a shoe, a doubled-up saucepan, a black bonnet, and an umbrella, in various stages of decomposition, as I was looking out for the number I wanted.

Dickens ascribes a certain carelessness to the inhabitants, but the real difference between this street and a more upscale one would have been a lack of servants or other resources to have the trash cleaned up and carted away.

William Rathje, who analyzed and quantified residential garbage in Tucson and elsewhere in the US, showed that, in our own time, the wealthy create more garbage than the poor. Before we can throw something out, we have to buy it, after all. And the more money we have, the more we buy, the more we throw out. The effect may be magnified by consumerism, but there’s no reason to assume the state of affairs was essentially different in Victorian England.

The association of trash and poverty is by no means unique to Dickens, although its exact inflection varies from place to place and time to time. Phrases like “trailer trash” and “a trashy neighborhood” ring just a few of the many changes on this theme.

Calcutta Apartment Building

Calcutta Apartment Building

By and large, people distance themselves from garbage if they can afford to, but they do it in different ways, developing elaborate rituals for making it invisible or, on the contrary, refusing to handle it at all. In his Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins tells the story of how, in the 1970s, there was a lot of evident garbage in Saudi Arabia, only diminished by roving goats. A local source explained that Arabs considered themselves above handling garbage, so it was just thrown out of doors. I think perhaps in India a similar way of thinking produces such large amounts of putrescibles in the streets, in conjuction with and in immediate proximity to an intense devotion to personal cleanliness. I’d venture to guess that more per capita washing goes on in India than in any other place in the world.

In many places, the poorest of the poor live on and off garbage dumps. I assembled a brief list in a post about scavenging. Scavenging is for many practitioners an economic imperative, and the activity tends to brand them, functioning as a social shorthand for marginal status. One of Andreas Gursky’s large-scale photographs shows that it is nevertheless possible to make a life on the dump in terms clearly reminiscent of prevailing norms. The photo shows an endless stretch of open dump in Mexico City with a little dark clump near the horizon, which, upon closer inspection, turns out to be a village. An arrangement of makeshift houses is made complete by a parked VW Beetle, apparently in working order.

Advertising Poster for The Gleaners and I

Agnes Varda’s gentle documentary The Gleaners and I, about scavengers in France, points to other motivations besides economic necessity. Some gleaners don’t like the general wastefulness inherent in commercial farming, by which a good part of the harvest is dumped or simply never reaped. These gleaners follow a moral impulse diametrically opposed to the dominant econonmic mores of capitalist society, but perhaps there is also a certain waywardness in their behavior. Although there’s a general preference for orchards and fields over dumpsters among Varda’s heroes, there’s a general recognition that when the harvest is truly over in the fields, there’s another treasure waiting in the trash.

Varda also finds some who are simply fascinated by garbage, including the artists who scavenge their materials and build new things out of old in a way that exploits all the meanings adhering to the new and the old identities at the same time, the pathos and the courage both at once. Varda herself is one of these, and she shows up in the movie as a subject as well as the maker. What drives Varda, specifically, is a connection between trash and the tragic irreversibility of time, the entropic imperative by which all things progress to disorder. Her hands and her hair. Her ceiling with its leak, blossoming in frightful cabbage roses. Her carefully selected heart-shaped potatoes, from the poster, which show up several months later in an extremely disordered state.

Death and the end of time are foretold in garbage, and some prefer to make war on it, not by denial, but by careful inspection and, wherever possible, delight.



In Refuge, Terry Tempest Williams describes a visit to the local dump, to count birds, at face value not the most thrilling ornithological assignment. A dump is a dump, after all, and an active one has unmistakable olfactory drawbacks. Besides, there are few birds to be counted besides the wheeling, swirling flocks of gulls and starlings. They do offer entertainment: “[t]he starlings gorge themselves, bumping into each other like drunks. They are not discretionary. They’ll eat anything just like us. Three starlings picked a turkey carcass clean. Afterward, they crawled inside and wore it as a helmet.”

The entertainment value of this sesquipedalian carcass beast notwithstanding, the starlings make an uncomfortable little morality play, an demonstration of ecological ill manners from which there is a lot to learn. Starlings are textbook invasives, interlopers from Europe, pushing out other species wherever they go because of their aggression and adaptability. That is, they are the winged equivalent to squirrels, rats, and roaches. Pests. Not quite a part of nature because somehow out of balance with it and clearly out of place. Wild, but not. Too willing to adapt to us and colonize the urban environments we set aside for ourselves.

Williams shines a wry light on the contradictions in our thoughts about these bold and brash adventurers, who are riding our own coattails, succeeding so spectacularly only where we handicap the more discriminating and pickier natives: “Perhaps we project onto starlings that which we deplore in ourselves: our numbers, our aggression, our greed, and our cruelty. Like starlings, we are taking over the world.”

It’s an uncomfortable realization to think of Europeans as the first truly invasive species in North America, now succeeded by vast numbers from other continents..

Recognizing ourselves in the physiognomy of a pest is probably a salutary exercise, a potential (and much-needed) check on our own aggression and adaptability. All the same, I’m afraid that Williams is incorrect in her supposition that we hate starlings because we despise our own starling inner self. By default, we look at the world through the eyes of our clan. That is to say, what we loathe in others, we might well admire in ourselves. By default, our thinking is partial, partisan, self-centered, and self-justifying.

In a recent column, John Tierney reports on research that shows exactly how our perspective changes according to whether we look at an action as performed by ourselves (or our associates) or by someone not associated with ourselves.

I don’t want to come off as despairing about human nature. I’m not. Our adaptability, resourcefulness, resilience, and inventiveness, just like the starlings’, is an admirable default setting. Moreover, I am convinced that on top of those traits, we have the ability to step back and rise above, to reconsider and decide differently. To put a check on our starling impulses and act rationally, overcoming the perspective of short-term gain and immediate gratification.

July 2018
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