Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

07
Dec
15

One Advancing Glacier

I visited Corinda los Trancos, the Half Moon Bay landfill, in 2009 and received a nice tour of the dump, which is wedged high up on the hillsides above Half Moon Bay. But I was not allowed to take pictures. (See The Glacier of Corinda los Trancos for the earlier blog entry.)

So I had to grab my chance when I spied it from a plane flying into San Francisco airport. Excuse the poor quality of the image.

corindaThe dump is the “scar” on between two hillside, pretty much in the center of the image. A declivity between two ridges is being filled with waste, much like a glacier would fill a valley. Only this one doesn’t retreat as the climate heats up.

For locals .. in the foreground you see Crystal Springs reservoir, with the 92 cutting across it. Sticking out into the Pacific you can just make out Pillar Point.

27
Nov
15

Tower of Garbage

I snapped another landfill from a plane a few days ago, this one immediately west of the Denver airport.

tower landfillThis dump is active, and so the only information I could dig up on it is that it is operated by Republic Services. Opening hours are from 8:00 – 5:00 daily (except for Black Friday). Perhaps one of these days I can find time to visit and make an offering of trash. (If you visit a garbage dump without bringing garbage, you are instantly suspect, in my experience, and likely to be denied entry.)

It looks to be about 5000 feet East to West and about 2500 feet North to South. And it appears to be quite tall. A hundred feet?  It’s tempting to think it is called Tower landfill because it is a towering heap, but common sense tells me it takes its name from Tower Road, which is its official address.

The garbage engineers appear to be building a nearly perfect pyramid. Perhaps a future civilization will dig up the mummy within and put it in a museum.

07
Feb
12

In the Foothills

In Chicagoland, the major garbage range is formed by the Calumet Mountains. Very impressive, and I’ve written about them before in Connecting the Dots. But today I had reason to be in Dolton, Illinois, which doesn’t happen every day. Dolton lies in the foothills of the Calumets, south-south-west more or less.

View from Needles Park

Dolton is not exactly a metropolis. It has a 70s-style diner, a discount store, a Western Union, liquor stores and launderettes, miles of chain-link fence, smothered chicken at the Samichez take-out, lots of blowing trash, more than a fair share of resignation, and a highly unnatural stench in the raw air. And of course a very large pile of trash butting up to Cottage Grove Lake and the baseball diamond at Needles Park.

In his essay Disneyland with the Death Penalty, William Gibson says, “Ordinarily, confronted with a strange city, I look for the parts that have broken down and fallen apart, revealing the underlying social mechanisms; how the place is really wired beneath the lay of the land as presented by the Chamber of Commerce.” I get that. It feels as if far more is revealed in the rubble and dust than in the buff and polish of the showcase avenues. There’s the wear and tear of history, the stresses that spring from lived reality, the cracks that open under the weight of grief.

But what to make of a place where there is nothing but fracture? Where the Chamber of Commerce has lit out of town long ago and there is no lay of the land to look beneath? Where the wiring is kaput and the chemicals that make everywhere else so prosperous, shiny bright, and bug free are all on the surface–and in the air and the ground and the water?

What to do when understanding is not sufficient to the challenge on the ground?

15
Jan
11

Murder Mystery

Cherry Island Landfill, Wilmington

Cherry Island Landfill, Wilmington

On New Year’s Eve, the body of John P. Wheeler III was seen falling out of a garbage truck dumping a load at the Cherry Island landfill near Wilmington, DE.

Sabrina Tavernise remarked in her New York Times article that that “Mr. Wheeler seemed an unlikely person to meet such a gruesome end.” Well, yes. He was a super-educated somebody in the Bush administration who had been instrumental in getting the Vietnam war memorial wall built. Surely nobody would have thought he was likely to be picked up during regular trash collections. But is that a likely destiny for any one of us, no matter how organized or disheveled we might be?

The response was highly instructive though. When a few years ago a homeless person ended up on the trashpickers’ line in the Sunnyvale transfer station, the general tut-tutting that followed was for the most part about how callous we are, how little some lives are worth in our society. This time, though, the media sniffed an intrigue behind the tragedy, and the lamentations quickly gave way to speculation. A homeless person in the garbage truck might be a tragic misadventure, but a murder mystery is entertainment.

20
Oct
09

bad things happen to good garbage

When they started digging for the landfill I said to Sherm, “Ain’t that where we used to went skating?” “Still do,” said Sherm. “You ever seen them dig a landfill except where there’s groundwater?” Sure enough by July the Jack Wells Brook looked like swill. Sure enough by August there wasn’t a minnow left in Eagle Pond. Where was the state water folks when the brains was handed out? Sherm says they was out behind the Grange getting paid off.”

Donald Hall reports this story in his book Eagle Pond as a representative example of New Hampshire country conversation. It has a lovely local twang, but the events it describes have taken place a million times, all over the country and probably just about everywhere else. There is an intimate connection between garbage and corruption. Not so much the corruption of the garbage itself, unfortunately. The process of biodegradation, no matter how ardently hoped-for by all of us ordinary householders who put our wishful faith in it, is significantly retarded by current landfill disposal practices. Organic corruption is curbed significantly. To make up for it, there’s a lot of human resources corruption, involving the people paid to ensure proper handling of the waste and then paid again to grease the skids for a little extra profit to the people getting paid to do the proper handling.

improper garbage handling

improper garbage handling

The most high-profile stories of garbage-related corruption that have come to light include these lurid tales:

—  A mafia cartel with its origin in Yonkers controlled commercial garbage collection in New York City and outlying areas in the latter half of the twentieth century (see Rick Cowan and Doug Century, Take-Down: The Fall of the Last Mafia Empire);

— A recent garbage showdown in Naples involved the accumulation of household waste in the streets because the landfills were full (again) as well as the dumping of toxic waste all over the surrounding region of Campania (see Roberto Saviano, Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System);

— The passage of the RCRA in 1976, which controlled the dumping of toxics, sparked a wave of organized illegal disposal and stockpiling in eastern New Jersey and New York (see Alan Block and Frank Scarpitti, Poisoning for Profit: The Mafia and Toxic Waste in America).

And then there’s the story of Browning-Ferris, which gave away waste oil mixed with various toxics to southern counties, also in the 1970s, so that it could be used to lay dust on unpaved country roads. This is a minor story, comparatively speaking, but there’s something so brazen about it, so light-of-day, it deserves a spot in the pantheon.

Lest we think that this is a thing of the past, there’s James Galante, who got one conviction for tax evasion in 1999 and another one in 2008 for racketeering, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and additional tax shenanigans. Up until that last conviction, he had the controlling interest in 25 garbage-related businesses that held most of the disposal contracts for western Connecticut as well as Westchester and Putnam counties in New York.

And then there are all the international scandals—ocean tankers dumping toxic sludge of uncertain origin in poor neighborhoods in Ivory Coast and other African nations, 90 shipping containers with contaminated recyclables from Britain delivered to Latin American ports—which don’t actually look all that different from the legal movement of toxics.

Garbage is not unique as a temptation to augment one’s income by cutting corners, it appears. Neither is it unique in attracting organized crime. Robert Kelly explains in his book The Upperworld and the Underworld: Case Studies in Racketeering and Business Infiltrations in the United States that there is a range of commercial enterprises that have historically been beset by those inclined to bribery and violence in the furtherance of their material longings. This includes construction, pizza parlors, and waterfront businesses, as well as the full range of garbage-related enterprises. Industries in which many small businesses offer low-margin services are especially susceptible to racketeering, Kelly points out. It helps if there’s a labor union to bend to one’s criminal purposes.

But the most interesting contributing factor is the existence of regulation.  The consequence of regulation goes a step beyond the well-known fact that crime is created by the law that makes it so. Before the early 1970s, it was lawful to dump industrial wastes freely into air and water, although it certainly wasn’t sanitary and the dumpers would have been pretty well situated to know that. As soon as the RCRA was passed into law, dumping industrial wastes became a crime, which exposed the guilty to (relatively small) fines. Similarly, Europe has stringent regulations that say toxic wastes cannot exported out of the country in which the waste is created and they can certainly not be exported to places that don’t have the same regulations. By definition, sending a shipment of used European refrigerators to Africa is a crime. Sending a shipment of used American refrigerators to Africa is just business as usual, because the US doesn’t have the same export restrictions.

But something else happens, besides the mere change in status of the activity. Regulations make it more attractive to cheat, because they typically make it more expensive to properly treat or dispose of waste. And that means that the profit margin associated with the improper treatment or disposal of waste increases, often sufficiently to catch the attention of organized crime. In the first place, it becomes attractive to charge the going rates for proper disposal of a vast range of poisons and then just dump it in the landfill  or stockpile it in an abandoned warehouse or let it run into the nearest stream when nobody is looking or set it on fire or lay it under an overpass under cover of darkness or wait for rain and open up the spigot of your tanker truck as you drive along the interstate. And then secondly, if you lower your prices just a tiny bit under the going rate, you can undercut your honest competitor and still make a handsome profit. Block and Scarpitti’s Poisoning for Profit may be read as an indictment of widespread corruption but it’s also a tips-and-tricks sort of “Poisoning for Dummies”. The most brazen scam I have heard of was perpetrated in Italy: the Camorra would take loads of toxic waste from the north (in return for payment), dump it into the pits meant for the subsidized destruction of agricultural surpluses (and collect the subsidies), and then sell the agricultural surpluses that didn’t actually end up in the pits to grocery stores (at decent prices).

However, all of the experts on organized crime say that it exists only where there is widespread collusion by authorities and other bystanders. And I suspect that, in addition, garbage is especially attractive as merchandise because the rest of us find it so difficult to pay attention.

22
Sep
09

The Glacier of Corinda los Trancos

Corinda los Trancos is a very romantic spot, entirely in keeping with its name. From the ridge top, you get a gorgeous view of the mountains nearby and the ocean beyond. Early on a September morning, the vista is shrouded in a few late-rising rags of fog fighting a losing battle with the sun. The haze in the eastern sky gives the light a twinklyquality and turns the range farther out into a ghostly shoal of breaching whales. In the late afternoons, when the fog rolls in again, it feels like the ocean rises up around you leaving you stranded on an archipelago of tiny tropical islands while the valleys below are lost in gloom.

The glacier hugging a cleft down the side of Ox Mountain is much less romantic, seeing as how it’s made of trash. Corinda los Trancos is the only active landfill in San Mateo County, California. Not that you can see the trash itself. What you see—if you’re lucky enough to wangle admission, that is—is a vast earthwork filling up one end of a secluded canyon and draped up against the mountain side. The trash is exposed in one little spot, where the big possum-belly trailers are tipped up high in the air to shake loose the garbage they’ve brought from the transfer processing station in San Carlos. A herd of goats roams the surface higher up. At the very top sits a generator that turns the methane produced by decomposing organics into energy.

Corinda los Trancos Range (with landfill glacier tucked out of sight)

Corinda los Trancos Range (with landfill glacier tucked out of sight)

The thing is huge, by the way, containing some 35 years worth of trash already. And it’s going to accumulate many more layers on top, since it’s permitted to keep filling until about 1932 or so. It’s awesome. I wish I could show you what it looks like, but when I got the tour I didn’t have permission to take pictures.

For now, a forlorn little hilltop rises above the scene, the remains of the real Ox Mountain. Not for much longer. It’s being dug down for material to cover our trash—my very own garbage included, I might note—to supplement the concrete and green waste that is also used for cover. So eventually, Ox Mountain the former will be gone and right next to its absence will rise Ox Mountain the latter, a layer cake of trash that at the present moment has a better life expectancy than our civilization as a whole.

13
Apr
09

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

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.




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