Posts Tagged ‘waste

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?

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14
Mar
10

Recyclable Me

We might not like to think about it, but we ourselves are highly recyclable. Under the right circumstances, even teeth and bones will eventually resolve into new forms. Left to our own devices, we will at long last be carried away by critters or become absorbed into the mysterious, inexorable life of slowly heaving rock. Except for fillings and crowns, pacemakers, artificial knees, and other late-arriving hardware, nothing much remains.

To me, that sounds like absolution. Composting may not be a pretty process, but it’s the closest thing to the magic of “poof” that nature delivers. I bow to the light within that.

Skylawn Cemetery, San Mateo, CA

Nevertheless, a whole industry in the US takes the opposite view. A quiet army of morticians routinely embalm the broken bodies that arrive on their doorstep, pumping them full of chemicals that divert the dead from the cycle of life, transforming the remains into an environmental hazard. The only benefit achieved by the process is to sanitize the open-casket obsequies that appear to be nearly obligatory in the United States.

Of course there are alternatives. Cremation is better, though it too is associated with environmental burdens.  (The ovens contribute greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, and our non-organic hardware may be transformed into toxic fumes.) A green burial is the low-tech best, if you’re lucky enough to have a green cemetery nearby, easily determined with reference to the Natural End map. It turns out I can avail myself of a funeral home in Colma and repair to Mill Valley, California, where I can receive a natural chemical-free burial, involving a biodegradable casket or shroud and GPS coordinates to mark the spot. As Fernwood points out, I get “to be part of a land restoration project” in a whole new way.

But there’s a third high-tech recycling option, for those who lack the patience to do it the old-fashioned way: alkaline hydrolysis, a process by which the body is broken down to constituents in just about three hours. The Wikipedia article on resomation—the name by which the process is being marketed—specifies that what’s left at the end is “a small quantity of green-brown tinted liquid (containing amino acids, peptides, sugars and salts) and soft, porous white bone remains (calcium phosphate) easily crushed in the hand (although a cremulator is more commonly used) to form a white-coloured dust.” The liquid can be used to water the lawn, the dust is returned to the survivors.

And the New York Times pointed out that the industrial hardware—replacement parts, augmentations, and other devices—is delivered up clean and pristine and ready for another go-round. Perhaps Goodwill can handle the trade.

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.

24
Apr
09

Fighting over Waste

Usually, when people fight about waste it’s a game of hot potato, where everybody tries their damndest not to be the one stuck with it when the music stops. Or perhaps it’s more like pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, in which one player holds both tail and pin and all the others do what they can to avoid being the donkey’s rear end. In the U.S., where vast amounts of trash cross state lines, it’s not uncommon to see people work themselves up into scandalized outrage over the notion that their state would have to bury someone else’s garbage. The feeling is no less genuinely felt in states which are net exporters in this passing game.

The Dutch waste pile

The Dutch waste pile

But in these dark days of economic contraction, all the rules are a little different. There’s not enough trash to go around. In the Netherlands, consumers are still contributing generously to the health of the garbage industry. Commercial waste, however, is way down. This on top of successful government efforts to prevent waste, which have eaten into the waste stream in recent years.  The result is a significant overcapacity in disposal, specifically incineration. There’s a whole new game afoot, which, if anything, resembles a mad scramble over the insufficient spoils, so to speak.

The scramblers include not just the incineration giants, but the often smaller recycling companies. They are crying foul, complaining that waste that could be recycled is feeding the incinerators’ hungry maws instead. Interestingly, this is the story that U.S. environmentalists have always told about incineration: that it will tend to undermine recycling, despite the fact that it is environmentally much more responsible than incineration, though often less economically competitive. In other words, it’s real, not just a bugaboo story.

Now there are furious debates about how to adjust incentives so that salvageable materials will end up back in service and incinerator capacity will end up adjusted appropriately to the non-salvageable waste stream. It’s interesting to note that nobody suggests it would be smart to bury the trash instead.

17
Apr
09

pretty picture

April 15, 2009 – Brielselaan, Rotterdam, the Netherlands

Brielselaan Incinerator, Rotterdam

Brielselaan Incinerator, Rotterdam

Rotterdam, reportedly, is the only major city with an incinerator dead smack in the urban center. Of course, this being Rotterdam, there are other industries equally dead smack, since the city is built around a vast port that attracts all sorts of industrial activity. Still, there’s housing a long stone’s throw away from the ovens.

If you look at the plant on a nice day and from the right angle, across a swath of municipal daffodils and a little stand of poplars flaunting their brand-spanking-new leaves, it looks like a Potemkin village, a put-on job, an elaborate hoax. For all I know, it wasn’t actually operational when I was there. All the same, I am assured that some 385,000 tons of garbage are disappeared here annually. And the trash that I produced from 1968 to 1972 was done in here also, subsequently used for city heating as well as being converted to electricity.

Today the oven probably would not be sited here, but it’s got squatting rights. The first oven was built on this wharf along the Maas in 1910. A new oven was built in 1963. In 1990, the later ovens were updated and adjusted so they could handle the exhaust gases from the Maas Tunnel nearby. How cool. To be absolved not only of our plastic but of our driving!

This week, there was not a whiff of garbage to be noticed anywhere. No smoke and vapors belching out of the chimneys. No convoys of trucks driving in and out. A burnished metal facade hides the flue gas cleaning plant, which in turn hides the somewhat more utilitarian ovens. A screen at street level, endlessly and incongruously repeating photographic deep scarlet roses, is wrapped around the front like the bow on a birthday gift.  It is for sure a far cry from the Northwest incinerator in Chicago, which, if you have a nose, you cannot possibly mistake for anything else but what it is.

Brielselaan incinirator docks on the Maas

Brielselaan incinirator docks on the Maas

Even from the back, where most of the garbage arrives, by barge, it doesn’t look too bad. Perhaps they have a dedicated clean-up crew whose job it is to keep the plant spic and span at all times.

All the same, in the last review to determine whether the incinerator’s operating license should be renewed, environmental activists managed to persuade the government against the proposition. Interestingly, the argument was that energy returns  from the old ovens, which date to 1963, capture too little of the potential energy released in the incineration process to be considered environmentally responsible. So the flue gas treatment unit will stay, but a new oven will replace the current one in the near future. The cognitive dissonance, for the American visitor at least, remains.

Such an apparently pleasant, useful, and seemingly unexceptionable  incinerator raises a question: does a right-thinking garbage amateur prefer the spiffy harmlessness of the Brielselaan to the moldering, hulking, stinking menace of the Northwest incinerator in Chicago, which is in violation of emission regulation on a regular basis. On the one hand, a socially beneficial technology that minimizes the self-destructive tendencies of a comfortable lifestyle. On the other hand, a public health threat, most immediately to the poor people living nearby.

The choice is inevitable. One cannot in good conscience come down against the poor people who have to breathe in the mistakes and carelessness of a poorly operated, technologically backward monster.

All the same, a good memento mori speaks a truth so wide and deep, there’s no carpe diem will come close.

17
Oct
08

a brief primer on plumes

The United States may have as many as 100,00 landfills, large and small. A significant proportion of them doesn’t have a liner.

A plume visualized by cross-cut

A plume visualized by cross-cut

Contaminants from landfill leach into groundwater in unsavory plumes containing heavy metals, chlorinated compounds, and hospital germs, to mention just a few of the ingredients. Take Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, which is built in a tidal swamp. The tides wash into its bed unhampered and wash out leachate, an estimated 3 million liters of it every day (which is almost 800,000 gallons). Under certain conditions, some of the contaminants from landfill may be cleaned up by naturally occurring processes, as a study at the Norman, Oklahoma, landfill has shown. but not nearly all of them. Moreover, it takes time.

In addition to leachate, landfills release methane, which is created when organics decompose when there is no oxygen and which contributes heavily to global warming. In fact, landfill methane is thought to account for about 5% of the total annual increase in “radiative force” that lies behind the greenhouse effect.  In other words, the adverse effects of landfill are both local and global. Back to Fresh Kills for a moment: according to a 1998 estimate, it releases 2,650 tons of methane a day. Perhaps that number is reduced somewhat since dumping stopped (in 2001), but it can’t be by much. After all, the garbage is still there quietly percolating under the skin of dirt that covers it up.

How long it takes for a dump to stop being a source of pollution is not yet known. Under normal conditions, most organic materials will decompose to clays and other natural substances in about 30 years. But in landfills, conditions are not normal. The stuff is packed in so tight that not enough air and water gets to it for the decomposition to proceed apace, in part because these huge piles we build cocoon much of the trash inside them, in part because sanitary engineers try to halt the decomposition process to prevent leaks.

On the whole, then,  there’s not enough air and water to speed along biodegration, too much air and water to prevent contamination and outgassing.

Guadalupe landfill, San Jose, CA

Guadalupe landfill, San Jose, CA

The serious environmental impact of landfilling our waste was not fully recognized until the 1970s, when the EPA began to insist on an engineering standard to contain leachate and methane, at least to some extent. All the same, the EPA recognizes that no liner is equal to the environmental stresses to which it will likely be subjected over its lifetime. Sooner or later, that leachate plume will emerge. And no methane collection system comes close to capturing all the gas generated in our trash heaps.

In the decades after the EPA established regulations, many of the older unlined, unengineered dumps were closed. In some cases, remediation systems were subsequently put in place. Most dumps, however, were simply taken out of operation and covered up. I’m sure it’s a good thing to stop adding to the problem, but closing a landfill to new arrivals doesn’t in any way mean that current occupants are no longer leaving. “Closed” really isn’t quite the word for a landfill at which the garbage trucks have stopped coming. Neither is “inactive.”

A few of the very worst landfills have been cleaned up, such as the infamous Love Canal dump in Niagara Falls. Much depends, it seems, on local activists. In other cases, cleanup is really unimaginable. Think of Fresh Kills again, which contains 67,000,000 cubic meters of compacted trash in four mountains spreading over 12 hectares of land (or 2,366,082,670 cubic feet spread out over 2200 acres). Perhaps we can expect improved containment systems in the future, but cleanup is hardly in the cards for a country that has squandered much of its wealth in the pursuit of ever greater riches.

Why exactly do we have landfills if they are so bad? Why are new landfills still being made?

It’s not that there is no alternative. In Germany and the Netherlands, for example, all non-recyclable, non-hazardous waste is burned. In 40 years of heavy reliance on incineration, there have been no environmental disasters. From what I can understand, incinerators don’t scrub every last pollutant out of the exhaust gases, but their overall environmental impact is considerably less severe than the cumulative effect of landfill when considered over the entire life of the garbage.

From all my reading on the subject, I can distill only two reasons why landfilling is still standard practice in this country, despite severe environmental consequences:

> Space is still cheap, and landfills are relatively simple to build, requiring modest upfront capital investment, even now that more engineering is required.

> The environmental movement has organized very aggressively against incineration. In Fat of the Land, Ben Miller explains that environmental organizations feared that incineration would stand in the way of recycling. They scared people half to death with the notion of toxic ashes left over after combustion, and all over the country they turned out crowds to protest very effectively. Too bad if it was under false pretenses. Incinerator ash doesn’t contain any toxins that aren’t to be found in the dump. Burning doesn’t create toxins, although of course it does get rid of biohazards. Ash is significantly more stable than household garbage.

Northwest Incinerator

Northwest Incinerator

Of course this is not to say that every incinerator necessarily runs as it’s meant to. The Northwest incinerator in Chicago, which has devoured some of my own trash, seems to have been in violation of safety standards much of the time.

If Miller’s supposition is true, it’s a sad chapter in the history of the environmental movement. Here we are, 30 years later, with a handfull of incinerators, 100,000 leaky landfills, and 100,000 plumes, large and small. , a mere handfull of incinerators (a few of them them–I will say this–perpetually in violation of safety standards, such as the Northwest incinerator in Chicago), and no recycling yet in lots of places.

Fortunately, new developments are underfoot. With the rising price of oil, the larger landfills have started turning captured methane into usable fuel. There are experiments with bioreactor landfill, in which the trash is treated to decompose faster and release more methane (for fuel) under more controlled circumstances. A new generation of incinerators is being built, which would burn garbage at higher temperatures, posing even less environmental risk. I’ve heard they can mine old landfills for fuel, which would mean that some of those 100,000 could perhaps finally disappear.

More on Fresh Kills:

love letters and  cabbage leaves

landscape inspirations

More about trash in Chicago:

connecting the dots




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