(Scanorama February 1999)
Now, let´s see: a paper cup with a plastic lid. Five paper napkins. A plastic spoon. Three packets of sugar. All stuffed into a heavy-duty paper bag.
And all I did was order a cup of coffee at the deli on the corner of Hudson Street.
One-third of lower Manhattan is built on landfill, ground created from garbage, ashes, dirt, rubble and unknown quantities of other solid waste dumped at the water´s edge over the years. This is not unusual – it looks pretty much like this everywhere the urban consumption culture has gained a foothold. In poor parts of the world, children comb garbage dumps searching for food. In the rich parts of the world, where completed landfills are converted into parks and ski hills, they play on top of them.
But New York City produces 13,000 tonnes of household waste every day. Just imagine how much space that takes. Where do you put it?
They say that the constantly growing Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, south of Manhattan, is visible on satellite pictures from outer space. Maybe it´s the interior fermentation that shows up on the heat-sensitive cameras. Fresh Kills sweats, bubbles, steams and belches, as would anyone forced to gorge on stuff no one else wants. Naturally, there are problems with gases and leaching. Shoppers at the nearby mall hold their noses while they shop at Macy´s department store.
”In the fifties, there were no problems anywhere,” says Line Supervisor Dave Hendricksen, one of the 650 employees at the landfill. “Now, everyone talks about the environment. Fresh Kills could have stayed open another 25 years had it not been for the law requiring us to close. It´s politics.” He wears a no-nonsense smile. ”And, hey, this is a democratic society.”
We drive among grass-covered hills and garbage-eating monster machines. With his open-necked khaki shirt, crew cut and chiselled granite face, Hendricksen looks like a hero in an American action movie. All he needs is a uniform.
This is where he´s always wanted to be since he was a child. ”In Brooklyn, as a kid, I saw them building a landfill. I thought then: that´s what I wanna do, I want to be among those great big trucks.”
Hendricksen got exactly what he wanted, in full measure. It takes 100 garbage trucks to fill one of the 20 barges that are towed every day down the Hudson and East Rivers to the vast garbage-strewn landscape on Staten Island. As the tugboats veer off into the unloading canal with the petrochemical storage tanks of New Jersey looming in the background, the sky is darkened by a cloud of seagulls. At last count, 53,000 seagulls lived on Fresh Kills. They compete for food with 49 other species of birds.
With gorged stomachs and outstretched wings, they soar on the thermal updrafts sweeping up the slopes of garbage. Before the landfill was opened in 1942, Staten Island was covered with peaceful tidal wetlands. Today, the island is one of New York´s five boroughs, with houses crowding around the landfill, their gardens facing the chain-mesh fence on which flying plastic bags have been plastered by the wind in fluttering formations.
”What does it mean when a dump has become New York´s single biggest architectural accomplishment of this century?” asked Professor Robin Nagle, who teaches classes in consumption and garbage at New York University, in a recent lecture at the American Museum of Natural History. Defining most of us as ”members of a shared garbage culture”, Nagle gave one possible answer: ”Our postmodern life has run amok precisely because it seems an inevitable and unstoppable consequence of our lifestyle that we generate more and more and more trash.”
Fresh Kills is a world unto itself. On a post at the main entrance, someone has even written: ”Welcome to the end of the world”. Dave Hendricksen first claims it takes two hours to drive around the whole landfill. After four hours, a few hills still remain. We have travelled across landscaped lawns and open wounds in the ground, where paper, plastic and food remains seem to seep out of the subterranean depths. One day there are two dead horses on top of one of the heaps. We are wandering around a waste land that is slowly being pushed upward, towards the picture-snapping satellites. From the highest point, 50 metres of garbage above sea level, the Manhattan skyline looks like a phantasmagoric toy city shimmering in the heat haze.
”People recycle much more nowadays. I´ve seen the changes in the stream of garbage,” says Hendricksen.
”But what about this place?” I say and look around.
”Eight million people, it´s like a quilt, a multitude of ethnic and religious groups,” Hendricksen says. “It´s difficult to get co-operation from groups this diverse. It´s about what we have been brought up to believe. If you look at the world today, how much co-operation do you see? People need education. They never recycled before.”
When Republican Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor in 1993, one of his promises to the residents of Staten Island was that Fresh Kills would be closed. At the end of 2001 there will be neither incineration facilities nor a landfill in New York City.
So what will happen to the 13,000 tonnes of garbage the city produces each day?
Privatization is what will happen. What this means is that the garbage from the whole city – as is done today in the Bronx – will be hauled away by private waste haulage contractors and buried in communities beyond the horizon. The competing contractors are preparing their final bids right now.
”The waste has to leave New York,” says Marty Bellew, deputy director of the city´s Bureau of Waste Disposal. ”There´s no other outcome. For the receiving communities, the economics of it would be: if they already have a landfill and some excess capacity, why not make a few extra bucks? They get a charge per tonne for the acceptance of waste at their facility. The charge varies, anywhere from 25 cents per tonne and upwards.”
Thousands of tonnes of garbage are already being shipped from New York to Virginia and Pennsylvania. ”Large private corporations such as Waste Management and USA Waste have numerous holdings of landfills across the country – and across the world,” Bellew says. “They are in Japan, they are in Hawaii. They are all over”.
According to Bellew, New York City paid $52 per tonne last year to contractors to quickly haul away household waste in the Bronx. The trucks operate in shuttle traffic. Garbage is politics and what you can´t see won´t upset you. A poster with mayor Giuliani´s portrait hangs outside Bellew´s office at the New York Department of Sanitation. On it, he tries to look like the new sheriff in town and is quoted saying: ”Don´t mess with me. New York is my city. Don´t mess with it.”.
Robin Nagle at New York University is not impressed. ”The business of waste is huge and in New York there is truth to the allegation that the Mafia has run the private garbage services. A hundred years ago much of the garbage problem in New York was handled by scavengers, people in the street who would go through piles of rubbish and pick out bone, wire, cloth, buttons, that sort of thing, and sell them. There was an interesting ethnic hierarchy and the people on top of this business were Italian.”
Nagle, who is writing a book about the place of garbage in our culture – ”My favourite term is refuse”, points out that many landfills, dumps and toxic waste sites are located in poor communities. ”To them, it´s a needed source of revenue. They´re kind of trapped. If they don´t take it they lose the opportunity of making millions of dollars. But if they do take the garbage, what are they introducing into their own environment?”
It´s 5.30 am and the morning sky is just turning a pale grey as I make my way to the garbage truck garage on West 59th Street on Manhattan. A young man in a knitted turban is sitting alone in the lotus position on the sidewalk on 12th Avenue at the Hudson River, calling out his morning howl. Scattered seagulls drift through the air like lost wrapping paper.
The men assemble around the white trucks, tell a few jokes and toss their coffee cups in a skip. Christian Esposito has been lugging garbage for 14 years and has seen the trash mountain grow, steadily and irrevocably. ”The amount of garbage is amazing,” he says. ”The truth is they don´t know what they´re gonna do with it.” His supervisor, Charlie Pisco, laces his voice with sarcasm: ”I guess they have a plan.”
When the early morning sun has burned through the grey haze, Esposito and colleague Joseph Maenza are well into their route on the west side of Manhattan, lumbering along fairly tidy residential streets where surprisingly many people sort their refuse, putting plastic bottles, newspapers and aluminium cans in separate bins. Both federal and state laws hold landlords responsible for making sure their tenants sort their trash, but no one, least of all the men who collect them, know what is concealed in those black garbage bags.
A year ago, one of them stuck his arm into a bag and was covered by chemicals which burned off his clothes and finally took his life.
”Every dog in creation pees on the bags on West 22nd Street,” snarls Esposito, examining his spotted gloves. ”Those people just don´t care.” He seems content, nonetheless, aware of the fact that the big city would be almost impossible to live in without his and his colleagues´ services. He tossed his old dream of becoming an actor on the garbage heap a long time ago. When he was young he played in a rock band. What happened? ”I got married when I was 20,” he says. “She didn´t want to be a gypsy.”
So Esposito commutes instead from his home on Staten Island – well away from Fresh Kills, he is careful to point out – and makes his daily rounds along the kerbs of Manhattan. ”I have Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins on my route. They have a condo here. Very nice folks. I would never run through Susan´s stuff.”
In the 1960s a persistent guy turned up who rooted through Bob Dylan´s trash every day in hopes of finding the code that would unlock the secrets of the songwriter´s surrealistic imagery. What does a discarded bottle mean, or the chewed stump of a pencil? Robin Nagle, light as a feather and quick with a smile, sits in her office at New York University, but she has a much broader perspective than this vantage point allows. She is convinced that people´s garbage can tell you a lot about them if you know how to interpret it.
“Trash is the backside of wealth,” she says. “Fresh Kills is Manhattan´s outhouse. Since we tend to measure prosperity in things and possessions, we make great efforts to deny our garbage, the side of existence that faces on destruction and death”.
”Is there a single activity in your life, besides sleeping, that does not generate trash?” she asks, snapping her fingers to illustrate her point. “How did we get there? And why is it okay? There is a relationship we have to our material life that has a large element of fear in it. Everything has to be easy to let go of so we can move on to the next new thing. This extends to relationships and to jobs. Life has never been so fast, we have never been so rushed as we are now, culturally. We have never been so unable to hold still.”
In the disposable society we dispose not only of things, but also of people. ”You can extend the disposability model to people that don´t have a high income or an education,” Nagle says. “We put older people away. In New York, we have a large homeless population that is being chased off subways and other public spaces. They´re like trash. We want them to go some place where we can´t see them.”
Late in the evening, when the yellow glow from the streetlamps swims on the rain-slick asphalt, new garbage trucks come to collect the restaurant refuse outside my window. Brakes squeal, lids bang. It is the night of the private waste haulage firms and black men in raggedy t-shirts hang from the sides of the trucks like figures in relief; a sanitation patrol that appears suddenly to clean up the pavements and prepare the way for the local diner´s first early-morning breakfast patrons.
“Slowly, slowly, people all over the world will realize that everything needs to be tied together,” says Marty Bellew at the Bureau of Waste Disposal. “Packaging, mass consumption of energy, transportation, economics – everything.”
But on our way towards the ecological society, will garbage trucks roll in long convoys from New York City or Stockholm or Copenhagen to faraway landfills, out of sight and therefore out of mind? ”I don´t envision that at all,” Bellew says. “That´s when economics will take over and the awareness level will be increased dramatically. It will cost too much to send your waste to another country. The legislation will be passed and we will all be forced to reduce our waste.”
The question is: how long can we wait? We´re living in the fast lane, like Robert Nagle says, but we also want a quick fix when something goes bad. I remind her that the United Nations held an international environmental conference in Stockholm already in 1972. She reminds me that we have been working on this mess for hundreds of years.
”I once visited the poet Gary Snyder at his home in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. On the way to his house there is a strange landscape, it´s in the middle of a forest and there are these great hills that are almost empty except for some lone pine trees. Snyder calls those hills the Prostitutes, because they were badly abused in the gold mining days. They destroyed acres and acres of land for a few ounces of gold. And only now, one hundred years later, are these hills beginning to heal.”
Nagle says this story made her contemplate the pace in her own life. “Seven generations from now, maybe we don´t have to deal with the obscenity that is Fresh Kills, the pornographic excess that Fresh Kills represents.”