Most things we buy are trash before we even get to know them well. Paul Hawken estimates (Natural Capitalism, p. 81) that only about 1% of the mass which we mine, harvest, or otherwise extract is still playing a useful role in the economy 6 months later. The other 99% is made up of either inherently consumable, unsustainable goods like coal, consumable but potentially renewable goods like food (depending on what we do with our sewage), or just plain waste, cast aside in the course of manufacturing, or “saved for later” in some landfill. Within the waste category, the overwhelming majority of the mass is stuff we never see, like the 20 tons of mine tailings and associated cyanide leachate that are generated in the making of each gold wedding band. In some cases the right category is unclear. Was the 800 gallons of 25,000 year old Laurentide ice sheet meltwater that got pumped out of the Ogalalla Aquifer to produce the cheeseburger Michelle and I split at Lucky Baldwin’s on Tuesday really waste? It was non-renewably extracted, but then mostly evaporated harmlessly into the atmosphere. Of course there’s also all the stuff we normally think of as garbage, that we wheel out to the curb each week. If you live in Pasadena or Glendale, or many of the other cities at the feet of the San Gabriels, that garbage is now in the Scholl Canyon landfill, in the hills just to the west of the Rose Bowl:
Scholl Canyon Landfill
If you lost your virginity at Caltech, this is probably where the condom is today. All the red plastic party cups you ever used at Munth parties are keeping it company, and the styrofoam cup noodle containers and plastic wrappers from your late night Maruchan ramen binges. And the enormous stack of old class notes you didn’t have time to burn or recycle when you left. All the leftover crap from you Ditch Day stack is buried here too. And not just yours, but decades worth of Caltech students. There really is no such place as “away”. If you take a closer look it doesn’t look so bad really:
Scholl Canyon Landfill Closeup
Zooming in, you’ll see only a tiny area of actual garbage, where the trucks were working the day the picture was taken. The rest of the landfill just looks like a construction site, because each night, they’re required to cover the garbage up. In California, about half the time landfills are covered with dirt. The rest of the time, we use what’s euphemistically called “alternative daily cover” or ADC. ADC is anything that you’re allowed to cover a landfill with, that isn’t dirt. In 1989, California passed a law (the California Integrated Waste Management Act, AB 939) creating the California Integrated Waste Management Board, and mandating that all cities in California had to divert 50% of their landfill waste by the year 2000. When you use something as ADC it counts as having been “diverted”, even if you never would have sent it to the landfill before.
Among the things which qualify as ADC are sewage sludge, ground up tires, construction and demolition waste, compost, “green material”, and my personal favorite, the residue of shredded automobiles:
Continue reading There’s no place like “away”