The Rolls-Royce
Of Landfills
Unlike most of the haulers who come here --- the guys who drive for the conglomerates like Waste Management with their continuous fleet of shiny green packers --- Herman works for the Sanitation Districts itself, moving trash from a central dumping station in the nearby town of Southgate. Thus, his priority status. He will make five trips in a day, stopping only once to eat Oodles of Noodles and cheese crackers and a cookie. On the ride home, he eats a green apple. "I've got my routine," he says. "Every day I do it all exactly the same." He talks to me about his philosophy of slowing down, not making mistakes, same way every day, the power of ritual. Peaceful. Using this method, he worked his way up from paper picker, day laborer, traffic director, water truck diver, on and on until he found his niche. There is honor, he says, in being first each day, all those other trucks parking at the gate so Herman can get through. He is careful to note that he is the only one of his entire eighth-grade graduating class of 1954 who has nor yet retired. "Why would anyone retire from a place like this?" he asks. "Why would you?"

Having spent more than a week at the landfill, by now I am getting used to hearing workers here, from the highest to the lowest ranks, speak like this. Concerning the landfill, they are all pride and admiration and even thanks. It seemed, at first, like crazy talk.

A landfill, after all, is a disgusting place. It is not a place anyone should have to work in, or see, or smell. This is a 100-million-ton solid soup of diapers, Doritos bags, phone books, shoes, carrots, watermelon rinds, boats, shredded tires, coats, stoves, couches, Biggie fries, piled up right here off the I-605 freeway. It's a place that smells like every dumpster you ever walked by --- times a few hundred thousand. It's a place that brings to mind the hell of civilization, a heap of waste and ugliness and everything denial is designed for. We throw stuff out. The stuff is supposed to ... go away. Disappear. We tend not to think about the fact that every time we throw a moist towelette or an empty Splenda packet or a Little Debbie snack cake wrapper into the trash can, there are people involved, a whole chain of people charged with the preposterously complicated task of making that thing vanish --- which it never really does. A landfill is not something we want to bother thinking about, and if we do, we tend to blame the landfill itself for sitting there stinking like that, for marring the landscape, for offending a sanitized aesthetic. We are human, highly evolved creatures impatient with all things stinky and gooey and gross --- remarkably adept at forgetting that a landfill would be nothing, literally nothing, without us.

In America, we produce more garbage than any other country in the world: four pounds per person each day, for a total of 250 million tons a year. In urban areas, we are running out of places to put all that trash. Right now, the cost of getting rid of it is dirt cheap --- maybe $15 a month on a bill most people never even see, all of it wrapped into some mysterious business about municipal tax revenue. So why think about it?

Electricity used to be cheap too. We went for a long time not thinking about the true cost of that. Same with gas for our cars.

The problem of trash (and sewage, its even more offensive cousin) is the upside-down version of the problem of fossil fuel: too much of one thing, not enough of the other. Either way, it's a matter of managing resources. Either way, a few centuries of gorging and not thinking ahead has the people of the twenty-first century standing here scratching our heads. Now what?

The problem of trash, fortunately, is a wondrously provocative puzzle to scientists and engineers, some of whom lean, because of the inexorability of trash, toward the philosophical. The intrinsic conundrum --- the disconnect between human waste and the human himself --- becomes grand, even glorious, to the people at the dump. "I brought my wife up here once to show her," Herman tells me. "I said, 'Look, that's trash.' She couldn't believe it. Then she couldn't understand it. I told her, I said, 'This is the Rolls-Royce of landfills.'"

--- From Hidden America
Jeanne Marie Laskas
©2012 Putnam Books
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