Read an Excerpt
THIS IS PARADISE
Puente Hills Landfill
City of Industry, California
Herman asks me if I smell anything, and the way he says it I can’t tell if I’m supposed to lie. He says he loves being part of nature, enjoys watching the sunrise, and then he says it again. “Do you smell anything?”
“Well, it is a landﬁll,” I say, ﬁnally. I’m trying to be polite. He is old, wiry, chewing a toothpick. He’s been at this for decades, always the ﬁrst to arrive, pulling no. 72, the thirty-foot-long tractor-trailer full of trash assigned to him each day. Dumping is permitted to begin at 6:00 a.m., and he keeps his ﬁnger on a red button inside a panel on the truck and constantly checks his watch.
“Women smell things men can’t smell,” he says.
At this hour the landﬁll looks nothing like what most people picture when they imagine a landﬁll. Nothing messy, nothing gross, nothing slimy, no trash anywhere at all. It looks, perhaps disappointingly, like an enormous, lonesome construction site, a 1,365-acre expanse of light brown dirt hiding buried trash from yesterday and thousands of other yesterdays. The scale of the thing alone boggles the mind. To stop and ponder the fact that nearly ﬁfty years of trash forms a foundation four hundred feet deep is simply to become fretful with some unnamed woe about America’s past and the planet’s future, and so I am trying not to do it. When fellow truckers arrive, pulling up next to Herman, the ground—so deep with trash—is so soft it bounces.
The Puente Hills Landﬁll, about sixteen miles east of downtown Los Angeles, was a series of canyons when people ﬁrst started dumping here. Now it’s a mountain. In 1953 the ﬁlm adaptation of H. G. Wells’s science ﬁction novel The War of the Worlds featured the Puente Hills as the landing site of the ﬁrst spacecraft in the Martian invasion. Dumping started in 1965 in an area named the San Gabriel Valley Dump. In 1970 the dump was purchased by the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, a partnership of twenty-four independent districts serving ﬁve million people in seventy-eight cities in Los Angeles County, and renamed the Puente Hills Landﬁll. Every day 13,200 new tons of trash are added. That’s enough trash to ﬁll a one-acre hole twenty feet deep. The other way to look at it is a football stadium ﬁlled two stories high.
On November 1, 2013, the landﬁll will be out of room, and all that trash will have to go somewhere else.
At six o’clock, Herman pushes the button. The back end of the trailer rises and 79,650 pounds of debris comes thundering out, most of it wood and plaster and nails and shreds of wallpaper. Be- side him a truck is dumping decidedly more organic garbage, pun- gent indeed, and way down the row, off to the side, a guy is pouring a truck full of sludge, sterilized human waste, black as ink.
Herman gets a broom, sweeps his trailer clean. 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 parting 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 not 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 get- ting 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 mat- ter 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.’ ”
“Nobody knows we’re even here,” Joe Haworth is saying as we make our way around the outside of the landﬁll, winding up and up past scrubby California oaks, sycamore trees, and the occasional shock of pink bougainvillea vine. He is driving his old Cadillac, a
1982 Eldorado, rusty black with a faded KERRY-EDWARDS sticker on the bumper. He has the thick glasses of a civil engineer, which is how he started, and the curls and paunch and demeanor of a crusty retired PR man, which is what he is now. He wears a Hawaiian print shirt and a straw hat, and the way he leans way back in the driver’s seat suggests an easy, uncomplicated conﬁdence.
“People driving by on the highway think this is a park,” he says. “Or they’ll be, like, ‘What’s with all the pipes going around that mountain?’ ”
In fact, we are driving over trash, a half century’s worth, a heap so vast, there are roads and stop signs and trafﬁc cops and a his- tory of motor vehicle accidents, including at least one fatality.
The outside of the landﬁll, the face the public sees, reminds me of Disney World, a perfectly crafted veneer of happiness belying a vastly more complicated core. The western side, facing the 605, is lush greens and deep blues, a showy statement of desert deﬁance, while the eastern face is quiet earth tones, scrubby needlegrass, buttonbush, and sagebrush; the native look on that side was re- quested by the people living in Hacienda Heights, a well-to-do neighborhood in the foothills of the dump. They wanted the mountain of trash behind them to blend in with the canyons reaching toward the sunset. A staff of ﬁfty landscapers do nothing but honor such requests. The goal: Make the landﬁll disappear by making it look pretty.
“No matter what you do with your trash, nature has to process it,” Joe is saying. “Okay? Think about it.” We are making our way up to a lookout point where we can get an overview of the action of the trash trucks and bulldozers and scrapers, a good show and a good place to sit and think. Joe speaks with rapid-ﬁre speed, constantly punctuating his lessons with Groucho Marx–style asides. “Look, we’d be up to our eyeballs in dinosaur poop if nature didn’t have any way to run this stuff around again,” he says. He loves this stuff. He is sixty-four years old, an environmental engineer, a Jesuit-trained fallen Catholic whose enthusiasm for waste management, solid, liquid, recycled, buried, burning, de- composing, is oddly infectious. I have come to regard him as the high priest of trash.
“Instead of being up to our eyeballs in dinosaur poop, we’re made of dinosaur poop,” he says. “You know? And other chemicals. We’ve got garbage in us. There’s a carbon cell from Napoleon in your elbow somewhere. It’s all nature running things around again, a continuous loop. It’s all done by bacteria breaking it down into carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, okay? Think about it!”
I tell him I’ll add it to my list, which keeps getting longer the longer I’m here. Joe retired from the landﬁll a couple of years ago, but he comes back to consult, to visit, to help Donny, his assistant who took over his job, and to sit and marvel. He entered the refuse world back in the 1960s, when people ﬁrst awakened, as if from a lazy daydream, to the notion that trash not only matters but trash is matter, and matter never leaves. You can burn it. You can bury it. You can throw it into the ocean. You can try to hide it, but it still exists in some form: ash, sludge, gas, particulate matter ﬂoating in the air. “It all comes back to the idea of the cycle,” he says. “We’re going to keep reusing the same stuff, so let’s ﬁgure out how to use it responsibly so we don’t choke on it.”
He gives me an example. “See those pipes?” he says, pointing as we cruise up the landﬁll. “Those are sucking gas.” The pipes are fat and prominent, about two feet in diameter, and a constant source of wild wonder. Eighty miles of pipes encircle the landﬁll, pulling out a deadly mix of methane, carbon dioxide, and other gases continuously produced by the fermenting trash. The pipes are connected with seventy-ﬁve miles of underground trenches and to a network of fourteen hundred wells. The methane mix is highly explosive and smelly and in the past has been an environmental nightmare. As trash continues to ferment, the methane is unstoppable. And so the pipes—a kind of landﬁll miracle, a technology pioneered by Sanitation Districts engineers—deliver the methane downhill to the Gas-to-Energy Facility. The methane feeds a boiler, creates steam. The steam turns a turbine. The turbine generates ﬁfty-eight megawatts of electricity—enough to power about seventy thousand Southern California homes.
Before I started hanging out at the landﬁll, I had no idea we could generate electricity from trash. “Most people don’t know this,” I say to Joe.
“Oh, a lot of people know it,” he says.
No, they don’t. I have checked. I have consulted folks back home, regular trash makers, average citizens going through cartons of Hefty bags, who think little beyond “Gotta take the trash out” when it comes to the ﬁnal resting place of their garbage. “People don’t know we power homes with landﬁll gas,” I say. “Don’t you think people should know this?”
He looks at me, weary. “Why do you think I’ve been busting my ass at this for thirty years, lady?”
He blinks, removes his glasses, takes out a handkerchief, and wipes them clean. “That’s what I did,” he says. “I did nothing but tell people about what we do here. Now, how much time does society have to listen and understand? Well, the answer to that is, society’s interest level is pretty low. It doesn’t necessarily want to know where its waste goes. It’s embarrassed by its responsibility in this arena.”
Joe parks the car and we get out. We stand and peer down into the landﬁll, at trash, the very stuff Herman and his fellow truckers dumped earlier this morning. From this distance, the open landﬁll is a giant brown ﬁve-hundred-acre bowl, with a frantic line of trucks inside snorting and pregnant and awaiting release.
This is the cheapest place to dump trash in all of L.A. County, about $28 a ton, and so it is the ﬁrst choice of most garbage companies. When the landﬁll reaches its 13, 200-ton daily capacity, usually by about noon, the guard at the gate will raise a ﬂag visible from the freeway: a sign to truckers to keep on moving and ﬁnd another place to dump. Anyone can dump here, any private citizen with a pickup full of junk willing to pay the fee.
Trash gets piled in as many as three active areas, or “cells,” daily. Each cell is about the size of a football ﬁeld, and every hour an additional 1,200 tons of trash is put into it. A team of thirty heavy-equipment operators dances madly over the pile. Huge bull- dozers, ten feet tall, equipped with seventeen-foot blades, push and sculpt the trash into rows. Then the mighty Bomags, 120,000- pound compactors with 130,000 pounds of pushing power, smash and crunch and squish the trash, forcing out air, forcing it tighter and tighter to save space. All of these machines clamber impossibly close to one another, backward, forward, over steep hills of trash, clinging lopsidedly to edges. From up here, the sounds are all roar and backup beeps echoing around the bowl, and the view is a colorful shock of red and green and yellow and white, a smash of crawling color.
One of the cells has already reached capacity, and so the scrapers have moved in, the biggest machines of all, ﬁfty-three feet long, sixteen feet high—the wheels alone are nine feet tall—and with their big belly hoppers pick up clean dirt, and dump it about a foot thick over the cell, sealing in odors, rats, bugs, concealing the left- overs of a yesterday everyone is more than ready to be done with.
Forgotten. Gone. By day’s end, there will be no trace of trash anywhere in the landﬁll.
The next day, the process repeats. Cell by cell, the garbage spreads across the landﬁll ﬂoor until it hits the far side, the edge of the bowl, and a new layer, or “lift,” is begun.
A constant parade of water trucks sprays the dirt to control dust, and a team of paper pickers runs madly on foot to catch anything the wind might pick up and try to carry away—the worst offender being plastic grocery bags that can take off like kids’ balloons. A chemical odor retardant is sometimes used when things get too bad, or again if the wind conspires, and there are a lot of seagulls waiting on a nearby ridge. Seagulls are a landﬁll nuisance because they ﬂy away with food scraps and, as is their reputation, ﬁght each other over them mid-ﬂight, often losing them, and soon a lady has a half-eaten hamburger splashing into her backyard pool. For a time, engineers were utterly confounded by the seagull problem, ﬁring off cannons to scare them away, piping in the sounds of hawks and owls—but the gulls got so used to the sounds they would stand on top of the cannons and inside the speakers. The solution was elegant and simple: tall, portable poles placed at intervals over the working face of the landﬁll, with nylon ﬁshing line stretched between them. The lines disrupt the gulls’ unique spiral landing pattern; the birds give up before even trying. “And I guess they’re too stupid to walk on in under the wires,” Joe says. He’s got his sunglasses on now, and, together with the hat and the shirt and against the background of the lush foliage, he is the picture of vacation.
A more urgent and literally more pressing concern than birds in any landﬁll is leachate, the liquids that might ooze out. People are not supposed to throw away paint thinner or nail polish or batteries or transmission ﬂuid or motor oil, but plenty do, plenty of it comes in on trucks, and plenty of it gets smashed and smushed, mixing with rainwater into an unpredictably toxic cocktail that, if it escapes the landﬁll and gets into the groundwater, could be deadly to nearby communities. And so a twelve-foot liner of clay, plastic, sand, and other barrier materials covers the walls and ﬂoor of the landﬁll—a diaper of the largest scale imaginable, designed to absorb and seal in wetness. Seventeen miles of pipes carry the leachate into collection areas. A team of ﬁeld engineers specialize in monitoring the leachate, cleaning and purifying it. One of the ways a landﬁll engineer anywhere in the world earns bragging rights is if he can pour himself a glass of the leachate from his landﬁll and drink it.
All of this—the operational area of Puente Hills—is invisible to the public, thanks to earthen berms that rise ten feet above the working face. The scraper drivers keep adding to the top of the berm as the landﬁll ﬁlls, constantly building the fortress wall, so all the work goes unnoticed.
For their part, the scraper drivers refer to the berms as “visuals.” The most fun you can have on a scraper, they have told me, is steadying your 155,000-pound machine over the tip of a visual barely wider than the span of your tires. Once in a while a scraper will fall off a visual, sometimes sliding one hundred feet down or sometimes hanging there, half on and half off, until a crane can be summoned to rescue it. A driver who falls off a visual will get called “Tipsy Toes” or “Tipper” until the next guy does it and earns the torch of shame.
A bulldozer or Bomag driver who manages to roll his machine over into the trash will likewise have to endure the name “Flipper.” “You should go down there,” Joe says. “You should go down there and ride in the trash, get a feel for it.”
Mike “Big Mike” Speiser is the most famous Bomag driver at the landﬁll, and some say in the world. This is only incidentally because he looks, as much as a person can, like a Bomag. He is proudly boxy, enormous, bald, and he appears as though he could crush the trash without the assistance of machinery. He is forty-ﬁve years old and has impressive tattoos: a Grim Reaper, a skeleton with a dagger through the head, a skull with ﬂames shooting out, and a skull with horns and a bullet hole in its head. “Like the Devil got shot in the head or something,” he says. “Basically.”
He is a shy man who blushes when he smiles, and he is known for being a gentleman. He is famous because he won ﬁrst place on compactors—a test of agility and speed—in the recent Solid Waste Association of North America’s International Road-E-O in Cocoa Beach, Florida. “He is the best in the nation,” a few of the operators have told me. Mike does not himself brag about the honor, but he does allow: “I am very, very good at this.”
Mike and I stand at the edge of a cell of trash in motion, Bomag chugging, ready to roll. He climbs the ladder to the cab and offers his hand to help hoist me up. “The air conditioner works nice, and it’s a pressurized cab, so it keeps the smells out.” He shows off the air-ride feature of the cushioned seat, apologizing that there is only one. He takes the controls while I hunch behind him and hang on to his soft shoulders. We crawl slowly, as if in a tank, to- ward and into the cell of trash, about thirty feet deep. We are high above with a marvelous view of smeared paper plates, Target bags, egg cartons, Green Giant frozen peas, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, all manner of Hefty and Glad bags splayed open to reveal the guts of everyday American life. Effortlessly, we climb over a mattress and a TV and a tricycle and a rocking chair and soda bottles and deodorant, until pretty soon the eye refuses to differentiate the trash, refuses to register nonsense the mind can’t begin to place in anything close to a meaningful narrative. We go rolling through an acre of garbage, mounds and mounds of it cracking and turning to mush under the teeth of the Bomag.
“No doubt, we make a lot of trash in America,” Mike says. “No doubt. And this is a tiny piece of one day, in one landﬁll. But I don’t tend to think about that. Mostly I think about not getting run into by a dozer.”
We sink in, climb out, sink, climb. Mike keeps moving forward, pushing trash toward the edge of the cliff formed by the day’s massive pile—a ledge so high you can’t see what, if anything, is over it.
“You’re getting close to the edge,” I tell him.
“I have to get these verticals down as quick as possible,” he says, and without hesitation keeps moving forward. “You worry about smoothing things out afterwards. When we’re diving over the vertical you’ll see why.”
He chatters on about smoothing and grabbing and peeling, but the only words I take in are “diving over the vertical,” which we are about to do. We are about to free-fall over a cliff of trash three stories high. I make the point that this is scaring the shit out of me.
“A lot of guys I train cry their ﬁrst couple of weeks,” he says. He assures me that the Bomag is extremely agile. He says the only worry, really, is tree stumps. “One time I was coming over a vertical, and on the way down I hit a stump about the size of a car. I started sliding down the slope sideways. You just kind of hold on and gun it and try to get off of it. That one gave me a pucker butt.” We drive straight toward the open sky, and head as if on a sui- cide mission over the cliff. I expect a crash, a violent tumble, death, but the Bomag clings to the trash like a squirrel, and we begin our slow descent down, about thirty feet straight down, into more trash—where six or seven bulldozers zoom about, backward, forward, pushing trash, sculpting the cell.
I ask Mike who’s in charge here, who has the right of way, what the pattern is, who yields to whom. He says everyone more or less ﬁgures it out as they go along. He talks about riding dirt bikes when he was ﬁve. “Experiences like that prepare you. You learn the limits of motion.” Any kid who grew up with dirt bikes and four- wheelers would obviously love a job like this, he says, adding that he considers himself blessed.
Before he started working here in 1990, Big Mike worked as an auto mechanic. “I could not take the stress of that life,” he tells me. Like so many of the people I meet at the landﬁll, he tells me he enjoys nature, being outdoors, and a good deal of solitude. We climb back up the cliff of trash to square off for another dive down, and he whistles. Then he invites me to join him for lunch later. “I mean, if you want.”
Between the leachate, the methane, all the enormous equipment, the dangerous dives, the brainpower, the rotating cells, the seagull lines, the irrigation, the bougainvillea vine—all the landscaping, all the ﬁeld engineers, all the chemistry—I’m thinking: This is ridiculous. This is a lot to go through so people can continue living in denial, as if our trash has some magical way of just vanishing. At one point, I confess to Joe Haworth that I have no idea where, back home, my own trash goes after it leaves the end of my driveway, gets hauled off in a green truck while my dogs stand on the porch and bark stupidly at it. I have no idea whatsoever, and I certainly have no sense of my trash having a destiny of such complexity and such bother.
This, Joe tells me, is a preferable situation to when trash was simple. Throughout most of history, trash was a linear concern, the end of a simple four-beat pattern: you dig up raw materials, make something with them, use the something, and when the usefulness is over, you throw the thing away. One, two, three, trash. One, two, three, trash. One, two, three, trash. The piling of trash became a concern as soon as there were enough people clustered in one place to notice it. The city of Athens is said to have organized the ﬁrst municipal dump in the Western world, in about 500 B.C. Citizens were required to dispose of their waste at least one mile from city walls. This was a remarkably forward- thinking plan, especially when you consider that, zooming all the way up to the eighteenth century, most Americans were simply throwing their trash out the window into the street—and this de- spite the fact that trash-related diseases such as bubonic plague, cholera, and typhoid fever had been known to alter the populations of Europe and inﬂuence monarchies around the world.
Burning trash became a big deal in the late 1800s with the invention of municipal incinerators as well as the practice of putting a match to the stuff in one’s own backyard. Burning trash was wonderful, magical, because it made it seem to disappear.
Throwing trash into the ocean had a similar effect, and for a while that practice joined burning as America’s solution. But stinky, ruined beaches and clogged harbors prompted the Supreme Court to ban trash-in-the-ocean in 1934. Even so, it’s worth noting that, thanks to lawbreakers and people in countries without regulations, a soup of plastic waste ﬂoating in the Paciﬁc Ocean now covers an area twice the size of the continental United States. This expanse of debris, held in place by swirling underwater currents, stretches from about ﬁve hundred nautical miles off the California coast, across the northern Paciﬁc, past Hawaii, and almost as far as Japan. Scientists are still trying to ﬁgure out what to do about that one.
Joe Haworth grew up in downtown Los Angeles, and he re- members burning trash as a boy. “Everybody had a backyard incinerator,” he tells me. He’s sitting on one of the gas pipes on a lower ledge of the landﬁll, under an oak tree, taking in the shade. “I re- member looking at the wax melting off the milk carton, thinking,
‘Oh, that’s really cool.’ We put the ashes in a bucket, and the city would haul the ashes away. You’d separate the food scraps. They’d be taken to the pig farms. Then we had a mayor, Sam Yorty, saying,
‘Hey, if we throw all this stuff together, we can make it easier for the housewives, make it simpler for them; let’s put it all in one big can and haul it away.’ ” The story delights him, as so many stories do, and he bangs on the pipe to animate this next part. “Sam Yorty was elected, and housewives were bashing trash lids together, saying, ‘Bless you, Mayor Sam!’ Yup. Look up Sam Yorty. Y-O-R-T-Y.” And so, the urban landﬁll, which in the beginning was a dump on the edge of town. When the pile got too high, someone would light a match to it and make room for more. And more. And more. Volume became an absurdly huge problem, with the dawning of the baby boom and the quantity of trash exploding in the crazed TV-dinner consumerism following World War II. In 1955, Life magazine heralded the advent of the “throwaway society.”
Burn all that trash in a crowded place like Los Angeles and you contribute to the most famous smog problem in the world. In 1959 the American Society of Civil Engineers published a standard guide to “sanitary landﬁlling.” Instead of burning trash, the idea was to bury it. To guard against rodents and odors, the guide suggested compacting trash and covering it with a new layer of soil each day.
And so, the modern era of trash.
Joe Haworth and his college buddies were studying civil engineering at Loyola Marymount University at the time. Joe had not yet had his trash awakening, although he and his engineering friends, infected by the idealism of the time, the dawning of the environmental movement, were getting excited about . . . sewage.
“The whole nation’s plumbing was coming apart,” he tells me. “It was literally going to pieces. It was like the mayor’s idiot son ran the local sewage treatment.” There was no thinking. There was just expediency: Dump the crap into the river. In the big-picture tradition of the Jesuits, a professor at Loyola was urging Joe to do something with his life. The professor told him about sanitary engineering. He said there was a future, something big, bigger than anyone could imagine, and a chance to do something good.
There was no EPA yet. There were virtually no federal laws concerning pollution. Oil tankers were regularly dumping crank- case oil into oceans, air pollution was literally killing people— ninety-six in just four days in New York City—and in Ohio the Cuyahoga River burst into ﬂames ﬁve stories high from ﬂoating chemicals.
And so, the awakening. In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a cry of ecological radicalism meant to awaken a public lazily dependent on the chemical control of nature. The book ignited the ﬁrst serious public dialogue about the dangers of pesticides and other chemicals. Ed Muskie, the famously cranky U.S.
senator, championed a national environmental policy, pushing the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act—much of the work born of his disgust over the polluted rivers in his native Maine.
In 1970, President Nixon created the EPA.
The modern environmental movement was nothing without sharp young minds capable of inventing change. Funds became available, traineeships at places like Stanford, Caltech, MIT. The best and brightest, including Joe, got free rides to study trash. Joe went to Stanford. “A lot of us felt the obligation to go into public service,” he says. He kicks the dirt. It all seems so adorable now. Boomers changing the world. What happened to all that? “This was such exciting stuff,” he says. “We were thinking up all- new ways of helping nature play catch-up after a couple of pretty messy centuries.” It was a thrilling time to be a sanitary engineer, even as the title gradually morphed into “environmental engineer.” In fact, these guys would go on to change the paradigm, inventing systems that would begin to provide relief to a planet choking on its own debris.
Joe never set out to be a PR guy. He was more or less called. So much was happening, so many innovations. His colleagues didn’t have the knack for putting multipart engineering concepts into the vernacular, but Joe had it in spades. He created the information ofﬁce and became a mouthpiece.
Using landﬁll gas to generate electrical power—that was a good example. He remembers those early days with the fondness of an old man thinking of his ﬁrst kid. It happened at Palos Verdes, one of the Districts’ older landﬁlls, which was adjacent to a handsome neighborhood where a woman was complaining about her dead roses. She blamed the landﬁll: surely something disgusting was emanating out of that dump. She was right. Inspectors found that methane, the explosive gas they normally simply ﬂared to get rid of, had migrated from the landﬁll into the neighborhood.
“So we said, ‘Whoa, we gotta do something,’ ” Joe says, standing up now, as if trying to solve the puzzle anew. “We dug a trench near her roses, put gravel in it. We ﬁgured, well, that stuff will just come up through the gravel because that’ll be the easiest road for it to travel. When that didn’t work, we put a pipe in, started to suck the gas out. Then our guys said, ‘You know what, we’re burning this stuff now just to get rid of it. That’s a pretty good-looking ﬂame. I wonder if that would work in an engine.’ So our guys then began to run it through an internal combustion engine. And it ran the engine.”
It was one of those eureka moments: Use landﬁll gas to generate electricity! To a young environmental engineer, it was the most elegant example imaginable of closing the loop, reusing every- thing, making something useful out of, literally, garbage.
“One of our guys thought of putting a Christmas tree up on the landﬁll site,” Joe says. “Not a real big one. But running this little generator on landﬁll gas and lighting this Christmas tree. It got attention. Because it was such a curious thing.”
It worked. They built an energy station, and a couple of years later, dignitaries from around the world, including Prince Charles, came to visit the Palos Verdes landﬁll site to see energy come out of trash.
Currently, about 425 landﬁlls in the United States produce land- ﬁll gas (LFG), generating about 10 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. This is a green fuel, offsetting the use of 169 million barrels of oil per year or 356,000 railcars of coal. According to the EPA, the carbon reduction is the equivalent of removing the emissions from nearly 14 million vehicles on the road or planting nearly
20 million acres of forest.
All those complications of trash—the methane, the leachate, all the enormous equipment, all the landscaping, all the chemistry— have really nothing to do with enabling an irresponsible public intent on ignoring trash. That’s our own deal, our own psychology. In real-world terms, the complications of trash are the human inventions and human interventions intent on closing the cycle to restore nature’s severed loop.
“Think about it,” Joe says, squinting in the harsh glare of the noon sun. “What is pollution? Pollution’s just the wrong stuff in the wrong place at the wrong time. Any other time, it’s a resource. Okay? Think about that.”
When I enter the lunchroom with Big Mike, he lags be- hind, tells me to go ahead and get started. By now I know the dynamics of “second lunch,” at noon, and I wonder where Big Mike will sit. The place is stark and temporal, a large white double-wide with tables and bulletin boards and newspapers and buzzing ﬂuorescent lights.
I head down to the long table where Steve, Wes, Patrick, Jamie, Tony, and the rest of the happy loudmouths of second lunch are diving into their lunch pails. Second lunch is almost all “Dirt,” the men who run the scrapers and push dirt. First lunch, at eleven thirty, is almost all “Rubbish,” the men like Big Mike who crush garbage. The Dirt crew is very gabby about the Rubbish crew. They say Rubbish is aloof, boring, and miserable. Dirt, they say, is happy, hilarious, and loving. I am trying to understand the source of these distinctions.
Each day the guys of second lunch seem excited to have a visitor in the lunchroom and, like schoolkids, talk at me all at once. “We are the biggest landﬁll in the nation,” one of them declares.
“We have awesome equipment,” says one. “We have eighteen D9s.”
“We have two D8s.”
“Compactors? We’ve got ﬁve of those.” “And two D10s—120,000 pounds each.”
“We have a D11 out at our Calabasas landﬁll, which is even bigger than that one.”
“I personally don’t think I’ve ever seen a D12. To be honest with you, I don’t think Caterpillar even makes them anymore.”
“We have the biggest machines in the world.” “We are number one.”
Steve, a scraper driver, tall, gangly, with long blond curls, holds court at the corner table. If he is the leader of this group, it is be- cause he can withstand constant jabbing and ridicule, mostly about his hair, with its history of bad cuts, bad bangs, Farrah Fawcett layers. Lately, the guys have been encouraging Steve to get a mullet. They have offered to pay him to do it. Steve emphatically refuses, but the image brings delight to Jamie, to Joe, and to Patrick, and somehow morphs into a discussion of the possibility of Steve one day making porn, mullet porn. There is no logical sequence to the evolution of this riff, but it takes on a life of its own, until soon midgets enter the story and the idea of Steve making midget mullet porn. The laughter is uproarious, and one guy spits out his Mountain Dew, and there is stomping of feet and pounding of tables until the lunchroom trailer shakes like a ship of drunken pirates.
I feel bad for Mike up there all alone. Mike usually eats at eleven thirty, with the rest of Rubbish, but he got delayed on ac- count of driving me around on his Bomag, so now he’s stuck here with Dirt.
I get up to go sit with Mike, but then Jamie, the youngest here, thin, clean-cut, offers me a peach, saying he picked it himself from his mother’s tree, so I sit back down.
“I drove on the Bomag with Big Mike today,” I tell the guys. “He dove me over verticals.”
“Yeah, we saw you out there,” says Wes, a guy with a wide brow wearing a Budweiser T-shirt. “Big Mike will take care of you.”
Big Mike waves from across the room. He’s an exception to the rule of second lunch, one of the few men in Rubbish whom Dirt doesn’t make fun of. This is on account of Big Mike’s win at the Road-E-O, his furthering the cause of making Puente Hills Land- ﬁll number one.
“I also rode in a rig with Herman this morning,” I tell the guys.
“Herman?” “Miserable fucker—” “He’s not as bad now.”
“It was when he drove the water truck that he was really bad.” “His truck was number 6601. He would hide it.”
“He was, like, ‘That’s my water truck! You better not touch it.’ ”
“He had his cowboy hat. You better not touch his hat!” They crack up over the memory of Herman’s hat. Oh, that’s a good one. They are all gossip and cackle. I tell them they sound like girls.
Someone brings up rats.
“I’ve only seen one rat in all the years I worked here.”
“Coyotes eat the rats. The only rats we see are rats that other people bring in.”
They proudly agree that there are no rats at the landﬁll—and if there is one, it is only because it was hiding in a dumpster that got dumped. For the most part, the rats are crushed by the compactor, or the dozers, or buried alive in the dirt.
As for the occasional dead rats, these offer possibilities. Like the one time Patrick wrapped one in a soft tortilla shell, presented it to his supervisor, and said he was sick of people leaving their lunch around all the time.
Oh, that’s a good one. Oh, there have been so many good times here at the dump.
All of these men are lifers, most having worked their way up from paper pickers. Steve has been here for twenty-three years, Tony for nineteen, and Patrick for fourteen. For a heavy-equipment op- erator, getting a job with the Sanitation Districts is considered a ticket to paradise, given the beneﬁts and good pay—about $80,000 a year before overtime—the steady year-round work, and the fact that trash is recession-proof. Most of the crew lives far east of the landﬁll, sixty, seventy, eighty miles away in the California desert, commuting more than two hours each way because this is L.A. and nothing is affordable. Because of the distance, and because they have to maintain squeaky-clean driving records in order to keep their jobs, they are not the sort of guys who leave work and hang out together in bars. They vanpool together, watch movies.
They spend their days alone, speedily pushing dirt from here to there, and so, aside from their time together in the van, all they have is the lunchroom.
They tell me that any of these operators can run any piece of equipment in the yard. All of the Dirt crew has at some point run Rubbish and vice versa, and even Dirt has to concede that Rubbish is more fun.
“Crushing things,” says one. “The biggest thrill at this entire landﬁll is crushing things.”
“Crushing boats. Just to destroy a boat. Or a trailer or some- thing like that. That’s probably the biggest thrill that I can think of.”
“I crushed a mobile once. What was neat about it was I didn’t know it was there, but when I came up to it, I kind of tagged onto the corner of it and I must have hit it just right, because when I hit it the whole thing just ﬂattened.”
For all the joy in crushing things, the facts of the matter some- times give these guys pause.
“You’d be amazed at what gets thrown out,” one says. “Stuff that could be donated. We could write a book about the American way of waste.”
“Companies throw stuff away because of taxes. Like brand- new running shoes. These companies cut all their surplus shoes up so nobody can get them. But they would be perfectly ﬁne. They could donate them. They could do something with them.”
“When I ﬁrst started here, for, like, probably two or three weeks these big semitrailers were just dumping piles of brand-new computer typewriters. Piles! Sometimes there would be three trucks next to each other, dumping brand-new computer typewriters. Never been opened. Still in the box.”
“Waste. Waste. Waste. Sure, it bothers you, but what can you do about it?”
“There was a time someone dumped $2.1 million here. It’s buried in there.”
“That is not true.” “It’s true!”
“Remember when they dumped all them Susan B. Anthonys?” “Thought it was chocolate candy, but it was real.”
“That is not true, either.”
“It’s buried in there, I swear to God.” “How do you even know?”
“How do you know it’s not?”
“Remember the Sears that closed down? They had their big sale. Then whatever didn’t sell came into the landﬁll. Brand-new. Brand-new! Other customers would be here dumping, then run over and pick up brand-new chain saws.”
Salvaging is strictly prohibited at the landﬁll. This may sound like some picky rule, but the truth is, people who are stupid enough to dive in among the dozers to grab something sometimes end up dead. Private citizens who dump here are provided a separate dump- ing area away from the action of the machines, but that doesn’t stop them from walking over to the working cell and trying to go for the grab.
“We’ve had people crushed.” “Oh, yeah.”
“You can’t see them. You literally don’t know they’re there. No one is supposed to be there.”
“Remember that lady that got crushed?” “Oh, yeah.”
I make the point that with all this drama, Rubbish sounds way more exciting than Dirt. Maybe Dirt is jealous of Rubbish and that accounts for the animosity?
This analysis brings jeers.
“Those guys are miserable,” one says. “They hate each other.”
“No, they hate themselves.”
“It’s a body thing,” one says, and the group agrees on that one. Most of the Rubbish crew is in pain, or used to be in pain, or is ﬁghting it. Typically, a man moves over to Rubbish only when his body can no longer take Dirt. Rubbish is soft. Dirt is hard. A man who spends eight or ten hours a day ﬁve days a week on a D10 pushing dirt is a man with jangled bones, achy joints, herniated disks. “Your longevity is what we’re talking about,” one says. Most of the Rubbish guys are old, nearing retirement, with a history of back and neck operations. “Going over to Rubbish is more or less being put out to pasture,” one says.
There are exceptions. Again, Big Mike, who occupies such a hallowed place in this landﬁll. He drove a scraper for just two years before his back got destroyed. He had surgery, a whole year in bed, and then he returned to have a terriﬁc career in Rubbish on his Bomag, number one in the U.S.A.
But usually Dirt means you’re still young. Falling off visuals, straddling one, Tipper and Tipsy Toes. Dirt is the good old days.
These days are, of course, numbered. The landﬁll is scheduled to close in 2013. A skeleton crew of maintenance workers and ﬁeld engineers will keep the Puente Hills infrastructure working—will monitor the leachate, maintain the gas wells and the power plant that will continue to transform methane into electricity for about thirty years. But there will be no more trash, no more trucks, no more verticals to crash over, and no more radical dirt moves on a D10. Most of the Rubbish crew is old enough to retire, while the Dirt crew will get absorbed somewhere within the enormous Sanitation Districts organization, so at least they’ll have jobs.
None of the guys in the lunchroom will admit to the possibility of ever missing this dump, this history, these good old days, and yet they scheme together about their bosses getting permits to open more space in the canyons, more space for trash, more time for Puente Hills.
“It’s a pipe dream,” one says. “Sooner or later, you just have to face the fact that this place is about to close.”
When the landfill closes, a Waste-by-Rail program will take over. The trash will be put in sealed boxcars and delivered two hundred miles west along the Union Paciﬁc Railroad to the desert, to the new Mesquite Regional Landﬁll in Imperial County, a super- landﬁll said to last a hundred years.
And all this old trash will still be sitting here, fermenting, producing gas. In that way, the Puente Hills Landﬁll will stand as a kind of monument, the symbol of an era of new thought.
The mountain of trash will be capped, sealed, covered in layers and layers of stone and clay and soil, planted, and turned over to the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation, a place for people to play. Plans have been in the works for decades: Every time a truck dumps a ton of trash here, a dollar goes into a Puente Hills Landﬁll Native Habitat Preservation Authority fund. The goal of the fund is to maintain a wildlife corridor more than twice as large as the ﬁll area. Already miles of hiking and horseback-riding trails traverse this land and even the landﬁll it- self, separated from daily operations.
Over time, the ground will settle in odd and unpredictable ways. You can’t construct buildings on a landﬁll, because the trash has a life of its own, much of it slowly decomposing and, surprisingly, much of it not. Trash specialists called “garbologists” have done archeological digs in older landﬁlls and have found that, rather than decomposing, a lot of trash, due to the lack of oxygen in a landﬁll, is actually mummiﬁed there. Newspapers from the 1960s have been uncovered from deep inside the earth—with headlines and news items intact.
“Isn’t that hilarious?” Joe says. He loves the garbologist story, the mummy idea, all the crazy surprises.
We’re in the car again, marveling at the work of the landscaping guys, and he’s got his arm out the window pointing this way and that like some grandpa showing the old neighborhood. “See those little pipes?” he says, motioning toward small irrigation pipes snaking all over the ground.
“More pipes,” I say. “A lot of pipes.” It’s really nothing so sur- prising to see an arid landscape made lush with water ﬂowing through irrigation pipes.
“Remember I showed you the sewage-treatment plant?” he says. He’s nodding knowingly and his shirtsleeve is ﬂapping in the breeze. It takes me a moment to make the connection he’s making, between irrigation pipes and sewage—
“No—” I say.
“Yeah,” he says.
These pipes don’t just carry any water. They carry reclaimed wastewater from the Sanitation Districts’ nearby sewage treatment plant.
“Isn’t that neat?” he says.
He parks at a fence, up at the top of the landﬁll, just beyond the horse trails, where there is a strawberry farm. It’s on land adjacent to the landﬁll, rows and rows of fat green plants ready for picking. “Come see the strawberries,” he says, shoving the car door with his shoulder, and it reluctantly creaks open. “Okay, now see those pipes?” he says.
“Oh, come on,” I say. “Not the strawberries.” “Yeah.”
The strawberry farm is dependent on recycled wastewater for its irrigation too.
“Isn’t that neat?” he says. He bends at his knees and then pops up with a little clap. “You should be writing about a sewage treat- ment plant,” he says. “That’s where the action is.”
There has been so much talk at this landﬁll about sewage, and apparently I can no longer avoid it. Joe and all the engineers here refer to it with a shrug. No big deal. This is just the way things work. Sewage water feeding ﬂowers and strawberry plants. It has taken me a while to accept the notion that this, in fact, is the way things work.
“Oh, just think about it,” Joe says. “What is a sewage treatment plant? It’s an apology to nature for putting too many people in one place.”
He pauses, gives me a moment to mull that one over. He pulls his hat down to cut the sun. “Nature isn’t designed for us to live the way we do. Nature designed it more like the Native Americans had it: When the neighborhood started to smell, you picked up your tepee and went over there. There was some basic human rule that said you go thataway.” He points with both hands moving toward some imagined exit. “Primitive societies knew that nature would ultimately reclaim all that organic material so they could come back in a few years.”
Nature gave us rain, streams, rivers, and the ocean to ﬁnish the job of digestion. “This is just a straight environmental-engineering calculation,” he says, heading back to the car, and he opens my door for me so I climb in.
“Just about everybody in this country has one cubic foot of digester somewhere out there ﬁnishing the job that he or she couldn’t complete,” he says. “Your guts start the process and nature completes it. Now, where is that going to happen? If you let our sewage from this L.A. area with ten million people ﬂoat into the ocean, you would have one really beat-up ocean.”
With that, he throws the car into reverse, then starts driving down the mountain. He pulls over to a lookout spot where we get a good view of the sewage treatment plant in the distance, just over the I-605, tucked into the hills. I feel I should say something complimentary, but it looks like every gray, ﬂat, giant, boring industrial building you’ve ever hated for marring the landscape.
“We take the processes that occur in an ocean or a river and we do it in tanks,” he says. “The same bacteria that work in nature— basically a big bacterial soup that emulates what goes on in the ground or in a river—does the whole thing in a tank in a more concentrated fashion. So, instead of taking ten days in a river, we do it in eight hours inside a tank.”
There is something vaguely utopian about all of this. A beautiful landﬁll blooming with pink ﬂowers, wastewater feeding straw- berries, ﬁfty-eight megawatts of electricity out of garbage and sludge, hiking trails over trash. It would seem we were talking about an entirely different planet, not our own supposedly doomed one—where the sky is falling; where, because of our gluttony, we are in danger of making one ﬁnal grand mess of the place, if not melting it or blowing it up. Those are all certainly viable outcomes. But there is more to the story: There are people on this very same planet having a rousing good time ﬁxing the place, people motivated by the thrill of repair, the simple joy of invention, and an urge to do good.
The more time I spend at the landﬁll, the more I get the sense that I’m in a different dimension, listening to more highly evolved beings that have been here all along but, somehow, nobody ever noticed.
I meet up with Carol, the old lady who works the front gate and greets all the truckers who come in, starting with Herman each morning and then about three hundred more through the day. She is short, haggard, hunched over, with curls sprouting beneath a ball cap. The guard booth is a shack just big enough for Carol and her stool and her clip fan and her bag of birdseed. The shack has a back window opening to the landﬁll abutting it. This is the bottom of the landﬁll, the oldest layer of trash, nearly a half century of trash, and so trees and shrubs have long since taken over.
“I started out with just doves, and now I got, like, six different kinds of birds,” she tells me. “Bright yellow, and a small one with red on its chest. In the morning I see deer, coyotes, bobcat, mountain lion, some owls, some hawks, rattlesnakes, rabbits, and squirrels. That’s the whole reason I like this place so much.”
It is easily my biggest surprise, to hear so many people speak of enjoying nature as part of the landﬁll experience. What a weird and yet perfectly sensible link.
“I hold my breath a lot when the small trucks without tops come in,” she says. “It doesn’t hit till after they pass. I’ll say, ‘Oooh, the poochie truck went by!’
“I write poetry. I have to write the words down immediately or else I’ll lose them. I saw a wolf here once that inspired me. I wrote about his family. He kept searching for them and never found them. I called it ‘Long Lost Love.’ ”
In the end, I tour the newest building on the site, the Puente Hills Materials Recovery Facility, or MRF. I have been resisting this place. It could be because it looks so bland and sterile, like a mint- green shopping mall or a giant municipal ofﬁce building, or it could simply be because I am reluctant to face my own responsibility in all of this. The MRF is to be the starting point of the Waste-by-Rail system; it’s where they’ll sort the trash, save and sell the good stuff, and then send only the unusable junk out on the expensive trip on the railways. Already the sorting has started, reclaiming some of the trash that would have ended up in the Puente Hills heap above.
Nearly all of the engineers I meet boast about the MRF: how huge it is—large enough to house three 747s; how the design is environmentally friendly, with over ﬁve hundred skylights, and recycled materials used throughout the project, from structural and reinforcing steel to ceiling and ﬂoor tiles.
Joe would like to highlight his own contribution: an observation deck where the public can come through and watch. “I insisted on this,” he says. “I said we have to be able to show people what’s happening to their trash.” He’s dressed today in a green ﬂowered shirt, khaki shorts, and tennis shoes. He is excited to be here, like a man greeting a newcomer to his fancy new mansion. The observation deck is sleek and futuristic, a long glass corridor dimly lit by runway-style ﬂoor lights. Below us, the action of the MRF: Trucks pull in one end of the enormous building, dump garbage. Dozers move the garbage to the sorting ﬂoor, where bulky valuables, wood, carpet, and large chunks of cardboard are pulled out. This is commercial garbage intended for recycling—a minuscule fraction of L.A. County’s trash—but to Joe and his cronies it represents a beautiful outlook for, one day, all our trash. After the big stuff is picked out, the trash is sent via conveyor to an auto- mated picking system and ﬁnally to the picking line, where teams of sorters—women wearing safety glasses and bandannas and surgical masks—pick, Lucille Ball style, through the trash. One grabs paper, one grabs clear plastic, one aluminum, and so on. The separated materials are baled and stacked, awaiting purchase.
“Isn’t that impressive?” Joe says, hands on his hips, looking down.
“Actually, I ﬁnd it pretty depressing,” I say. I lean into the glass and my breath makes fog. I feel like Ebenezer Scrooge and Joe’s the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come pointing to where I’m headed: a world in which a whole lot of poor people have to pick through my garbage so the planet doesn’t suffocate. I sink, as perhaps anyone would, into recycle guilt.
“I sort of feel like it shouldn’t have come to this,” I say.
“Oh, forgodsakes, there’s no room for sentimentality,” he says, leading me to a bank of elevators.
Americans recycle about one and a half pounds of the ﬁve pounds of trash they produce each day—a national recycling rate of 32 percent. This is actually not horrible when you ﬁgure that, in
1989, when a barge called the Mobro 4000 famously carried three thousand tons of unwanted trash up and down the East Coast. looking for a place to dump, our recycling rate was just 16 percent. That barge caught the public’s attention: We have no place to put our trash! California led the recycling charge, enacting a 1989 law that said its cities had to recycle 50 percent of their garbage by 2000. Today, San Francisco has a recycling rate of 69 percent, the best of any American city.
The goal, in the larger and perhaps mythical sense, is 100 per- cent. Zero waste. The goal is to stop thinking of waste as a problem and to start thinking of it, simply, as the result of a design ﬂaw in manufacturing: we should be reusing everything. “It’s just about closing the loop,” Joe says as we get into the elevator. “And maybe that starts with us ﬁrst just getting hold of our gluttony. You know, we still have remnants of that old reptilian brain that tells us to just keep getting more, more, more in order to be happy.”
“You know, a guy gets his ﬁrst BMW, expects to be happy,” he says. “Then he’s off skiing with Bob, who has a better BMW. Damn. He was supposed to be happy! It didn’t work. So now he needs a four-thousand-square-foot house. You know the story.”
I tell him I don’t see Bob and his buddy slowing down anytime soon. We are a nation of consumers. We can’t seem to stop our- selves. We don’t seem to even want to stop ourselves.
He does not see this as a uniquely American or even a modern phenomenon. “We’re not smart enough yet,” he says. “We’re young. You can argue how long Homo sapiens have been around, but the guess is something like 150,000 years. We are amateurs at this. We have just barely gotten here in terms of the clock of the earth.” The elevator stops and he holds the door open, so I go ﬁrst.
“We have our physics way ahead of our psyche,” he says when we reach the ﬁrst ﬂoor. We head down a hallway so clean, our shoes squeak. “Like, we know how to make a lot of stuff,” he says. “But the notion of responsibility? We’re slower on that. The idea that you’re supposed to leave the world better than the way it was when you showed up? We’re onto it, but we’re not nearly there. We need to be able to take the next step and realize that the world’s ideas are bigger than just a bunch of stuff.”
The more he talks like this, the more optimistic he becomes: people will get smarter, more conscientious, more in tune with the needs of the next generation; chivalry will spread throughout the world!
I apologize for not seeing it. I confess that I don’t see this recy- cling thing really kicking in where I come from, where many peo- ple regard recycling as a quaint, retro 1990s fad. Rumor has it that there’s a paper glut, that no one knows what to do with all those plastic soda bottles other than make some silly belts out of them, that all this stuff just ends up in landﬁlls in the end, so why bother? “In the early days of recycling, maybe,” he says. “Paper goods were mixed at probably a pretty low grade where the guy had it for six months in his yard, it got wet and turned into a huge spitwad. But the higher the cost of disposal goes, the more inventive people become.”
We stop in the workers’ locker room and Joe ﬁnds us both a hard hat and a pair of safety goggles.
It costs $29 a ton to dump here at Puente Hills. It will cost $60 a ton to haul trash by rail out of the Los Angeles basin. “People get really creative at $60 a ton,” he says. We talk about thriving markets in China: wastepaper is America’s number one export by volume to China. The ships that bring all those toys and TVs in from China now return full of our old paper, which they use to pack more goods made in China. And as for making new paper, 36 per- cent of the ﬁber that goes into new paper now comes from recycled sources.
“And now there are rug companies that will actually lease you a rug,” Joe says. “If someone spills on the little square, they pop up the square. The company takes the square back, they shave the fuzz off, they melt the plastic, make new fuzz, put it back on. Yeah. Isn’t that crazy? And it’s being done because of the disposal costs. It pushes backward.”
I ask him if there is any squashing his optimism.
“People are basically good-hearted until put in a very bad corner,” he says. “We just have to keep giving them reasons to be good- hearted—the opportunity to be good-hearted. You know, their inclination is to be good folks until it’s gone bad on them. Then they get defensive. What’s Churchill’s line? If you’re young and not liberal, you have no heart. If you’re old and not conservative, you have no brains.
“Look, environmental consciousness is not a religious thing. It doesn’t have holy precepts that say you can’t touch a plastic bag or you’re a horrible person. It’s more: Get a grip and ﬁnd a balance. Life’s organic. It’s smelly and gooey. Get past it. It’s just science. I think as we get more people reconnected to science through recy- cling, we get them to understand the magic of this planet. They’ve forgotten the magic. The truth is, it doesn’t take that much connecting to go WOW! It’s like lying on your back in the mountains, looking at the stars. Being able to go WOW! And holy mackerel! It really doesn’t take a lot of study to appreciate this place.”
All geared up for our tour through the ﬂoor of the MRF, Joe pushes a door and we head in. It deﬁnitely has the feel of two air- plane hangars—a massive space with a sky-high ceiling. The sorting area with its clanking conveyor belts takes up a tiny corner of the building. Trash falls into it from a hopper above and goes marching along the belts while the women watch and grab and pull at it. I stand behind a pregnant Hispanic woman snatching dirty empty soda bottles out of a heap of garbage rolling by so fast, she nearly misses a perfectly good twenty-ounce Sierra Mist.
She catches my eye and I don’t quite know what to do with my shame, and so, stupidly, I smile and give her a thumbs-up.
Joe invites me out to dinner. First we have to stop home and pick up Shelly, his wife. We crawl on the crowded 605 in his old Cadillac and he looks tired, spent, and I have to think by now he is talked out.
“I just don’t know about God,” he says, apropos of nothing, and because he is not, and probably never will be, talked out. “I don’t know about an afterlife,” he says.
“Yeah, me neither,” I say. The ride is smooth and the leather seats stick to my legs. This was a damn fancy car in its day.
“I’m more about that Marxist thinking that religion is the opiate of the masses,” he says. “Calm the people down so that the kings can get away with murder.”
“But nature certainly seems to be hinting at an afterlife,” he says. “As much as I can be cynical about that sort of thing. Nature says, ‘Wait a minute, now, it’s all cycles.’ Nature does not seem to be telling us that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and then we all go boop.”
The sun is falling appropriately onto the horizon. We both ﬂip our visors down. Even so, it’s blinding, and we’re not moving, and this is going to be a long ride home.
“The spiritual world could be just a part of the cycle that we don’t yet understand,” he says, opening his window to get some air, which is probably technically smog. We sit and stare into trafﬁc.
“Of course, my wife swears that she was here before as a Spanish guy,” he says. “She remembers water coming in through the portholes, the whole bit. But she’s odd, anyway.”
The description turns out to be an apt setup. When we ﬁnally get to the house, Shelly won’t let us in because it’s too messy for company, and so we sit in the backyard and sip pinot grigio, and I marvel at the odd assortment of stuff in the yard and on the porch, a crooked little fake Christmas tree, an empty pond, little ceramic dwarfs, and a fat black cat. Shelly is as tall as Olive Oyl, with a handsome face and a jet-black mane, and she chain-smokes and speaks the same crazily observant language as her husband. The two get tangled in notions, in thinking about what it would be like if there were no more people on earth, in trying to remember the names of types of frogs, or the names of saints, until one of them has to run inside and get a book to look it up.
At one point, when Joe is inside trying to ﬁnd his encyclopedia of movie actors, Shelly turns to me and holds her glass up to offer a toast. “To landﬁll people!” she says.
I raise my glass politely.
“Aren’t they the most ethical bunch?” she says. “It’s weird. So many of them were Jesuit-trained, so maybe it goes back to that, where doing your best for the common good is a paramount principle.” She takes a ﬁnal drag of her cigarette, smashes the butt in an awaiting seashell. “But they approach their jobs in the most principled way. They’re taking the worst two things we have—trash and sewage—and turning them into golf courses and wonderful things.
“Isn’t that weird?” she says. “Seriously, it’s like a cause for these people. I’ve noticed it from the beginning, having to go to all these dreadful conferences and things. I used to think, ‘These should be our politicians. We should only elect people trained in landﬁll maintenance.’ ”
Joe comes back out. He didn’t ﬁnd the encyclopedia. Instead, he’s carrying a journal article that reminded him of something funny. “No one knows where water came from,” he announces. “Some people think it came in as dirty snowballs. Asteroids. They’re not positive water started here. It may have come from space.”
“Oh, he loves this one,” Shelly says to me, as if to provide warning. “He is now going to tell you where molecules came from.”
“All the molecules came from space,” he says. “Ask any nuclear scientist about the origins of the bigger molecules: carbon and nitrogen and oxygen and all the stuff that makes up life—they were all hydrogen to begin with. They came out of the fusion process that takes place in the center of suns.”
“Wait for it—” Shelly says to me.
“So we’re stardust, literally,” he says. “We are atomic waste!” He slaps the table, more satisﬁed with that one than he has been with anything all day.