Archive for the 'worldwide' Category

18
Feb
12

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.

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25
Jul
10

Superman

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.

19
May
09

picking it up

On Saturday morning I sat at the bus stop peacefully practicing individual sustainability when my meditations were  interrupted by a man picking up what in Dutch is called vagrant trash from all over the sidewalk and stuffing it into the bin no more than 2 feet away from me. He set a full soft drink cup on top of the bin at one point and carefully stuffed some sandwich wrappers in.

Vagrant Trash (not picked up by me)

Vagrant Trash (not picked up by me)

I don’t really mind this kind of behavior, but, for those of you who wonder, I definitely don’t do it myself. I just watch the picker-uppers and notice that they’re almost always “older” (i.e., older than me) and that they have a slightly contrarian air. “I don’t understand these people just throwing their trash on the ground,” they will tell you, or otherwise it’s evident from the formation of their brows that they’re thinking just that.

I on the other hand am always thinking that it’s a miracle that so minute a fraction of the vast mountains of trash we create in the West end up outside of designated receptacles. And that there are people properly employed and fitted out to enroll the vagrant trash into the official garbage program. So why me? And that if I have no clean facilities to wash my hands, I really, really wouldn’t want to touch the stuff myself. In fact, by my reckoning, picking up all the trash with your bare hands and then handing your Euros to the bus driver without intervening ablutions is not exactly the pinnacle of human kindness.

Anyhow, soft drink cup safely on top of the bin. And  then splat. Bad enough to get on the bus with those filthy hands, but when the trash becomes projectile I’m really not enjoying myself. I like trash in the abstract and from a safe distance much more than I like it in person.

So this morning the New York Times posted a story that takes all of that and turns it completely upside down. A young man in Lahore, Pakistan, has started a group to personally pick up vagrant trash once a week as a statement of political will and empowerment. Good for him. I hope it’s the start of a movement. And I hope he gets to wash his hands before he gets on the bus.

13
May
09

Can Therapy

Feel good trash can

Feel good trash can

Found in Amsterdam, on Museumplein.

Try trash can therapy:
Throw your trash
in the can.
You feel better

14
Feb
09

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.

13
Oct
08

refugees

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.

10
Oct
08

debris

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.




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