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May 1996
Where Has All the Garbage Gone?

By Susan Kalev

It’s the highest point on the Eastern seaboard, its 2,400 acres so huge that it can be seen from space. But this is no snow-crested peak. It’s the Fresh Kills Landfill, the largest waste disposal facility. Susan Kalev went and checked it out.

How many times have you been awakened from sleep by the early morning whining of a garbage truck choking on the contents of a huge black plastic bag? Or heard the shouts of the garbage men as the truck made its way down your street?

The 6,400 Department of Sanitation (DOS) employees use over 1000 trucks to cover the five boroughs and are likely to stop by your house two or three times a week. No wonder — the U.S. creates 19% of the world’s garbage with each of us responsible for four pounds a day. All of which adds up to 14,000 tons of solid waste at the Fresh Kills Landfill. From my house in upper Manhattan, an area covered by 96 sanitation workers, the garbage travels to a marine transfer station at 135th Street on the Hudson Pier, is loaded onto barges pulled by tugboats which quietly deliver their cargo to the landfill on Staten Island. A typical residential building of 65 households will produce about 400 pounds of solid waste a day, all but 15% destined for burial. We are burying not only our bodies, but our products, the cultural creations of our lifestyles.

So, What’s Fresh Kills Like?
To uncover this submerged story, I joined an educational guided tour of the Fresh Kills Landfill via a written request to the DOS. They helpfully matched me up with Professor Maria Mavroudi who teaches an environmental elective to NYU undergraduates and includes on-site field trips as part of the program. On a sunny morning in march Prof. Mavroudi, her 15 students and myself were driven by a chartered bus to the landfill entrance where we were joined by David Hendrickson, a 15 year veteran of the sanitation department. He was to be our tour guide for the next two hours. Though billed as a car trip, several times we were allowed to disembark and sniff carefully or walk gingerly near a site to get a closer view and to take pictures. Mr. Hendrickson had a sunny and friendly disposition that invited questions and encouraged dialogue. He valiantly steered the patient bus driver near key points of activity that were hitherto restricted. "This is really a monument," he proudly proclaimed about the landfill.

Once upon a time, the earth we stand on was a landfill, and eventually Fresh Kills itself will become public space with a park on top of it. The facility now operates five and a half days a week for 24 hours each, a cutback from the seven day workweek due to increased recycling.

The landscape looked much like the midwest horizon with small grassy hills and yellow and green mounds gently sloping in the distance. The scene also had an eerie surreal quality because, except for hundreds or perhaps thousands of gulls, the area was quiet and deserted. Hendrickson told us that the Audubon Society visits each December to count the 50 species of birds that eke out a living here. Right now he could identify three different species of seagulls. We were able to witness the cranes unloading the barges of their cargo and noted the netting (not unlike what women used to wear over their nightly curlers) covering the barges to keep the contents from spilling.

The facility is community-friendly — twice a year recomposted X-mas trees are given away to the public, and a pleasant pine scent is added to the waters circling the plant to make life more tolerable for the nearby residents. Skimmer boats patrol the streams and pick up stray garbage while booms or floating barriers and marine fences catch any escaping litter. Lines of trees separate the landfill from the neighborhood and provide attractive landscaping.

We saw huge front-end loaders scoop up the mounds of trash which are then trucked to the actual disposal site termed the "active face." As compactors zoom over the surface to smooth out the fresh garbage, hundreds and hundreds of gulls descend over the earth and shoot up just in time to avoid becoming part of the refuse. With the gulls’ flapping wings and their calls, their bodies filling the horizon, and the compactors speeding back and forth — the scene has a strange kind of beauty and excitement about it. You forget where you are and marvel at this wild phenomenon. Many of us crowded by the front window between the guide and the busdriver to capture it with our cameras.

What Happens Once It’s In the Ground?
Mr. Hendrickson gave us a rare opportunity to descend right next to a mound of rubbish which was covered over with earth and grass dotted with plastic bags waving in the breeze. The entire area was remarkably clean and the operation well organized.

Once the waste is deposited, it is blanketed with soil to reduce odor and to discourage scavenging wildlife. Areas that have been filled to capacity are given a final cover of four feet of soil, plastic liners, followed by three more feet of soil. A huge on-site composting facility provides compost as part of the final spread which is then seeded with grass.

Garbage disposal is a complex science involving hi-tech knowledge and engineering. For example, leachate is produced when rainwater mixes with pollutants in the refuse. A local leachate treatment plant removes these pollutants and also provides a cover system that reduces the amount of rainwater that filters through. The treated leachate is released back into the rivers. Gas venting pipes and trenches abound in the area to prevent buildup and migration of landfill gas that is a natural by-product of organic decomposition. The primary elements of methane and carbon dioxide are both odorless gases.

As a special bonus on our tour we were allowed to peek into the Air Products & Chemicals Inc., a company that leases space from Fresh Kills in order to change methane into a high energy gas that then can be sold to Brooklyn Union Gas for energy to customers. How is that for recycling!? To actually view this operation we donned hard hats, protective plastic glasses and ear plugs at the control room. We were told not to take any photos as these gases are highly flammable. We were treated to a sight resembling the backdrop of a sci-fi movie — huge shiny silver cylinders rotating, pulsing, and circling amid the clamor of space machinery.

Throughout the tour Mr. Hendrickson was able to convey a respect for this huge operation and to view its future with optimism. Experts from other countries come to study the mechanics and techniques of the NYC landfill. He emphasized to this group of college sophomores that perhaps they will someday find solutions to the landfill problems now facing us. This trip also afforded me the opportunity to converse with Professor Mavroudi (a Ph.D. in Chemistry) who offers a very enlightened environmental course teaching the connection between the earth, our lifestyles, food and health. Her students are indeed lucky to come away with a heightened sense of the interconnectedness of all living beings.

Uncovering what goes on beneath the earth and our part in it makes those connections all the more unforgettable.

Susan Kalev
is a health worker, educator, and activist. She lives in Manhattan. The Department of Sanitation holds annual public meetings on all questions of sanitation. It also publishes report and fact sheets, and offers education programs on recycling campaigns, composting demos and bilingual landlord seminars. Tel.: 212-219-8090 for more information.


The History of Garbage is the History of a City

How to dispose of garbage can generate social conflict and spur political debate leading to class struggle. Powerful social issues of class, ethnicity, and environmental policy are reflected in attitudes toward health, cleanliness and morality. Garbage affects an era’s values regarding order and disorder and a society’s beliefs about diet and disease.

Nineteenth century New York was unimaginably filthy with streets piled high with rubbish. Poisonous vapors rising from rotting food and wastes were thought to cause epidemics. Some blamed the poor due to their presumed immoral behavior. Not until 1897 did reformers realize that the poor were dirty for lack of water and bathrooms. Whether seen as a public or private issue garbage was here to stay. From 1895 to 1897, Colonel George E. Waring revolutionized solid waste management by injecting respect and order into garbage collection. Ocean dumping (a popular solution) was reduced, recycling instituted and energy recovery started. Only a 1934 U.S. Supreme Court ruling abolished ocean dumping. The trend then was toward incineration which was fiercely opposed by local residents. Trying another tact, by 1946 13 landfills were disposing of 80% of New York City’s waste.

Public debate and environmental concern over the sewage that we generate continue to touch on politics, power and the morality of consumerism.

We need to rethink the nature of garbage as the price we pay for our way of life. — S.K.

Did you know that...

• Fresh Kills is a Dutch transliteration for "Fresh River."

• Fresh Kills opened in 1948 and can be used for perhaps another 20 or 25 years.

• 800 of Fresh Kills’ 2,400 acres are currently in use.

• Each of the 20 barges arriving at Fresh Kills carries 650 tons of waste.

• In 1994, 160,000 Christmas trees were mulched and recycled at Fresh Kills.

• New York Telephone helped eliminate 768 tons of paper waste in 1994 by printing telephone bills on both sides.

• Fresh Kills has two wildlife refuges and it encourages landscaping to create natural wildlife habitats.

• Species sighted at Fresh Kills include bald eagles, ospreys, hawks, owls, herons, and ducks.

• Threatened species include the red-tailed hawk and the long-eared owls. — S.K.



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