Posts Tagged ‘waste management


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.


the business of garbage

The raging torrent of capitalism has dipped into a recession that looks like it’ll be broad and wide and deep for the vast majority of this planet’s six billion inhabitants. Even the companies that usually ride the waves (rather than being buffeted by them like ordinary mortals) are struggling, missing their earnings forecasts, seeing their stock tank in a bear market, and being turned away empty-handed by banks that are no longer in a lending mood. Not so the giants of garbage. At least not yet.

Waste Management, which is based in Houston and has reaped a disproportionately large share of the trash Hurricane Ike left in its wake, reported a 12% spike in profits for the third quarter of 2008. WM revenues totaled $3.5 billion for the third quarter, and almost 10% of that total is profit. (For more on disasters, see debris. Various WM operations in the path of the hurricane expected increases in garbage ranging from 20% to 100% during the cleanup as people try to get rid of things spoiled and destroyed.)

The garbage industry, in numbers

The garbage industry, in numbers

Republic, with headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, is smaller than WM. Its revenues totaled only $834 million, and more than 10% of that was profit. Its reported earnings increase for the quarter was 32%. The company is looking to get bigger, having put in a takeover bid for Allied Waste, the second-largest garbage company in the country, presumably to take on Waste Management more effectively.

Allied, based in Phoenix, has been doing all right too. Their third-quarter earnings increased by 17%. Allied reports that total volume dipped by 4% because the economy tanked, but this loss was more than offset by the price hikes associated with fuel recovery costs. In other words, the price increase in collections that was meant to offset rising oil prices in fact outpaced the rise in prices and netted them additional profit. The same might well be true for WM and Republic.

So here a couple of conclusions:

  • Consumers pay many, many times over for the rising price of gas, once at the pump and then again, disproportionately, on their collection bill. (And at the cash register, of course.)
  • From a national perspective, the struggle between the garbage superpowers might look like competition, but considered locally it is not. And consumers pay for that too.

The last decades have seen the disappearance of small local garbage carters into the maws of gigantic conglomerates. If they’re small enough, the large companies underprice them until they go out of business. If they’re a little larger, they get taken over. Either way, local markets end up being subject to monopoly pricing.

The story of New York City illustrates the point. For decades, commercial garbage collection was mobbed up in the five boroughs, which resulted in artificially high prices. The operation is usually described as a cartel. In practice it was a network of small family-based operations that were either “made” (that is, a part of the mafia proper) or operated under the auspices of the business rules enforced by the mob. Then, in the late 1990s, the police ran an undercover operation that effectively broke the back of the mafia’s garbage empire. (See Rick Cowan and Douglas Century, Takedown, for a rousing tale of high intrigue.)

With the mafia monopoly out of the game, many of the small players continued to operate, now competing lustily with each other. Prices dropped precipitously. However, as is usually the case, paradise was a fleeting condition. Another giant, Browning-Ferris or BFI, which subsequently got sucked up by Allied Waste, moved into the market, underpriced the small haulers until they went belly-up, and then drove prices up again until they were close to the level they had been under mafia rule.

In the meantime, if you want to be in the stock market, you could do worse than invest in garbage. The market will contract, because people produce less trash in lean times. But garbage is not discretionary. The garbage giants can expect to do quite well, especially since climate change is likely to continue to produce cataclysmic garbage harvests for a long time to come.


Time Capsules

On February 6, KQED broadcast my Perspective on garbage dumps as time capsules. The podcast is posted on the KQED website: Time Capsules.

Here’s the full text:

For all the vast quantities of trash we produce—some 275 million tons of household waste every year, not counting the recyclables—we know very little about what really happens to it. We do the right thing, insofar as we know what that is and as long as it isn’t too painful. We have an idea about biodegradation (good) and plastics (bad), and that’s why we like biodegradable “plastics.” It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that garbage that goes away (eventually) is preferable to garbage that stays with us forever?

Unfortunately, garbage dumps are typically not environments that facilitate biodegradation, as anyone might know who’s tried to make compost. It takes a lot of encouragement before the potato peels, egg shells, coffee grinds, and apple cores lose their specificity and sink back into the kind of mush you would consider reapplying to your backyard tomatoes. In your landfill, nobody is on hand to encourage your garbage to return to Mother Earth, and all our discards persist in more or less pristine condition.

Rather than weep, we should rejoice. Decomposing organics produce methane, a greenhouse gas. Leachate, the liquid byproduct of decaying garbage, is riddled with heavy metals and poisonous chemicals and overlaid with a rich bacterial culture. Obviously, we want as little of that as possible. And so environmental engineers pursue a “dry tomb” approach, trying to stop biodegradation altogether. They hermetically seal off garbage dumps from air and water as soon as dumping stops. An air- and watertight garbage dump is an engineer’s pipedream, but for the most part biodegradation does just grind to a halt.

The result is an odd kind of irony. We pretty much don’t preserve anything, except for our garbage. We are creating vast time capsules, treasure troves of information about our culture—even interleaving newspapers to facilitate dating the strata—which will be available to any future generations who really care to know who we were and how we lived.

Undoubtedly, preserving our garbage is better than letting it poison us, but it’s nevertheless also true that there is something intensely perverse about saving it up for the future. Just how did we let things get this way? And who are we exactly?

July 2018
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