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
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
matched me up with Professor Maria Mavroudi who teaches an environmental
elective to NYU undergraduates and includes on-site field trips as
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
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
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
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.
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
• In 1994, 160,000 Christmas trees were mulched and recycled at
• 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.