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New Press, The
Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage

Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage

by Heather RogersHeather Rogers
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“A galvanizing exposé” of America’s trash problem from plastic in the ocean to “wasteful packaging, bogus recycling, and flawed landfills and incinerators” (Booklist, starred review).
Eat a take-out meal, buy a pair of shoes, or read a newspaper, and you’re soon faced with a bewildering amount of garbage. The United States is the planet’s number-one producer of trash. Each American throws out 4.5 pounds daily. But garbage is also a global problem. Today, the Pacific Ocean contains six times more plastic waste than zooplankton. How did we end up with this much rubbish, and where does it all go? Journalist and filmmaker Heather Rogers answers these questions by taking readers on a grisly and fascinating tour through the underworld of garbage.
Gone Tomorrow excavates the history of rubbish handling from the nineteenth century to the present, pinpointing the roots of today’s waste-addicted society. With a “lively authorial voice,” Rogers draws connections between modern industrial production, consumer culture, and our throwaway lifestyle (New York Press). She also investigates the politics of recycling and the export of trash to poor countries, while offering a potent argument for change.
“A clear-thinking and peppery writer, Rogers presents a galvanizing exposé of how we became the planet’s trash monsters. . . . [Gone Tomorrow] details everything that is wrong with today’s wasteful packaging, bogus recycling, and flawed landfills and incinerators. . . . Rogers exhibits black-belt precision.” —Booklist, starred review

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595581204
Publisher: New Press, The
Publication date: 09/01/2006
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 673,868
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 7.50(h) x (d)

About the Author

Heather Rogers is a journalist and filmmaker. Her documentary film Gone Tomorrow (2002) screened in festivals around the globe. Her writing has appeared in The Nation, Utne Reader, Z Magazine, the Brooklyn Rail, Punk Planet, and Art and Design. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Read an Excerpt


The "Waste Stream"

Most Americans set their full garbage cans out on trash night and retrieve them empty the next morning. Aside from fleeting encounters — such as a glimpse of a collection truck trundling down a neighborhood street — many people have only a vague sense of where their discards go. They may think that trash is benignly and permanently disposed of in "proper" places. However, the truth is that these sites are filthy, mysterious and ultimately only short-term palliatives. The veiled and dirty story of the discard treatment process tells us more than just where our effluent goes; it also reveals the vast resources channeled into getting rid of our dead commodities.

While for some householders the bulging trashcan placed on the curb might seem like the end of the line, it actually marks the beginning of what many municipal sanitation departments now euphemistically call the "waste stream." Seemingly imperceptibly, this flow of refuse gets processed through a lengthy and complex system that is grisly, oddly fascinating, and integral to the functioning of our daily lives and the metabolism of the market.


In the dark chill of early morning, heavy steel garbage trucks chug and creep along neighborhood collection routes. A worker empties the contents of each household's waste bin into the truck's rear compaction unit. Hydraulic compressors immediately scoop in and crush the dross, cramming it into the enclosed hull. Since collection is the most expensive part of the refuse treatment process, condensing the stuff makes for more efficient use of valuable hauling space, but also means that potentially reusable objects are often immediately destroyed and rendered unsalvageable. When their rigs are full, the collectors return to a garbage depot called a transfer station, where they unload. Once empty, the trucks head out for the next round and continue on this cycle until the day's work is done.

The transfer station has been used in basically the same way since the earliest days of organized waste collection in the nineteenth century. There was always a limit on the amount a carter could haul in one load, so strategically located lots for temporary dumping were essential. As in the past, today's transfer stations tend to be huge warehouses, sheds and yards where tons of garbage is stored, sorted, consolidated and reshipped either by eighteen-wheelers, railcars or barges. Typically located in poor and working-class neighborhoods near highways, waterways and rail lines, these transfer stations stink and contaminate the soil. They are a nexus of nonstop diesel exhaust and house giant populations of rats and other pests.

San Francisco's main waste-processing hub is pretty typical for a city its size. This transfer station, owned by Norcal, a state-wide private rubbish handler, is located in the southern part of the city, nestled between a major freeway, several public housing projects and a working-class immigrant neighborhood. Most of the city's household wastes and a portion of its commercial discards are processed at this huge forty-four-acre facility.

Sprawling across the site are several low industrial buildings connected by dirt access roads. Compactor garbage trucks stream in and out of a cavernous pitched-roof warehouse, referred to by Norcal employees as "The Pit." Here plastic garbage bags are disgorged from the hydraulic collection trucks by the tens of thousands, their snagged and ruptured bladders spilling tons of waste down into a football-field-sized concrete canyon full of rotting refuse. Swarms of screeching seagulls hover overhead.

Looking down into this hellish scene, one sees a bulldozer, half-submerged in the goo, splattered and caked in muck, its windshield covered in a thick translucent film that obscures the lone driver. Back and forth the dozer grinds and lurches through the garbage, compacting, compressing, and moving oversized heaps away from the zone where the trucks unload. From inside The Pit's high metal roof falls a steady mist of water to keep the dust and paper down. The stench is unbearable: fetid, greasy, cloying, it penetrates one's clothes and skin, lingering persistently in the nose and mouth. Garbage workers say they can never fully wash the smell away. Toward the end of the day, the dozer's eight-foot steel spade shovels this stewing, compacted mess into cargo containers that are hitched to trucks and hauled about fifty miles east to the company's Altamont landfill. (Other transfer stations might send their refuse to an incinerator.)

On the west side of the compound in another titanic corrugated steel structure is the Materials Recovery Facility, or MRF. This is where one finds a more inspiring side of garbage: recycling. Here glass, plastic and metal get dumped from collection trucks onto a wide conveyor belt, which moves the materials through a series of mechanical sorting operations. At one section, blasts of pressurized air blow light plastic off the belt, leaving the heavier metal and glass behind. The plastic is then sucked through a huge overhead tube into a separate part of the warehouse — a cavernous, otherwise empty room heaped twenty feet high with spent milk jugs, water bottles and yogurt containers.

At another point, recyclables flow onto a special perforated conveyor belt that shakes and jerks to sift out broken glass, which falls through the holes into a receptacle below. (The broken glass is sold separately for less money than whole bottles.) Then the materials pass a series of powerful magnets that attract ferrous metals, leaving mostly the valuable and easy-to-sell aluminum behind. (Aluminum is the only item in our current waste stream that is profitably and regularly recycled.) Workers oversee the entire process, checking for contamination and sorting what the machines cannot, like differentiating green from clear or amber glass. At the end of this complex conveyor system, each branch of the belt drops the sorted material into the appropriate receptacle.

Midway between Norcal's Pit and its MRF in yet another concrete slab metal warehouse is the paper sorting and baling station. Here workers direct the bulging collection trucks as they off-load newspapers, junk mail, office paper and magazines bundled in brown grocery bags. These longer, partially open, split-bin trucks do not compact their cargo like garbage haulers and so slough the payloads from their interiors in loose and slippery heaps; the air hangs thick with a strange paper dust. From there a tractor gathers the material and dumps it into a baler, which loudly and lethargically excretes giant blocks of compressed printed matter. Workers driving forklifts then organize these easily transportable units into orderly rows. From here the bales of paper will be loaded onto another truck and, like the other salvaged materials, hauled either to a recycling center or more likely to a broker for resale.

The gentle slope of a grassy hill rises over the activity at Norcal's rambling facility. Its south-facing side is encrusted like a giant mosaic with items employees have plucked from oblivion. Matted stuffed animals frolic with sun-faded plastic gnomes. Toys, old Christmas decorations, and unusual items like a cowboy hat, an antique lamp and a sunken disco ball fill out the ever-expanding composition. It's a bizarre site in this otherwise highly circumscribed zone, where the most wretched mess is always well contained. This installation pays homage to all those commodities that disappear when they get thrown away. It resembles a spontaneous altar, the kind that might form on a street corner where someone was killed in a car accident. It is a form of folk art that's simply a human response to witnessing so much waste.

Out of Sight

Once garbage leaves the transfer station it goes either to an incinerator or, more likely, to what's called a "sanitary landfill." Encapsulating garbage in sealed underground plastic "cells," the newest land-fills are expected to hold their densely compacted trash in perpetuity. Unlike their precursors, today's most advanced land disposal sites are meticulously engineered and closely regulated and have monitoring systems for wastewater and airborne emissions. And, like so much else in American culture, today's fills are supersized — new facilities are referred to as "mega-fills." The subterranean cells that comprise mega-fills range in size from ten to one hundred acres across and up to hundreds of feet deep. One Virginia whopper has disposal capacity equivalent to the length of one thousand football fields and the height of the Washington Monument. Costing on average $500,000 per acre for research, development, and construction, these new garbage graveyards are awesome, eerie scenes.

There's a reason landfills are tucked away, on the edge of town, in otherwise un-traveled terrain, camouflaged by hydroseeded, neatly tiered slopes. If people saw what happened to their waste, lived with the stench, witnessed the scale of destruction, they might start asking difficult questions. Sitting atop Waste Management Inc.'s Geological Reclamation Operations and Waste Systems (GROWS) landfill, a large hill that rises three hundred feet composed entirely of garbage, the logic of so much consuming and wasting quickly unravels. The fill's "working face," where the active dumping takes place, is a massive thirty-acre nightmare. A bizarre and filthy enterprise, the scene is populated by clusters of trailer trucks, yellow earthmovers, compacting machines, steamrollers and water trucks. They churn in slow motion through this surreal landscape, remaking the earth in the image of garbage. Throngs of seagulls hover, then plunge into the rotting piles, the ground underfoot is torn from metal treads, and potato chip wrappers and spare tires poke through the dark dirt as if floating to the surface. The smell is sickly and sour.

The aptly named GROWS landfill is part of WMI's 6,000-acre trash megafacility just outside Morrisville, Pennsylvania. As of 2002, GROWS was the single largest importer of New York City's garbage and one of Pennsylvania's biggest landfills. Although refuse from New York and other metropolitan centers gets hauled to Virginia, Ohio and other states, Pennsylvania is the country's leading rubbish importer. The sprawling WMI compound also includes a waste incinerator, another newer landfill, a recycling center, a leaf composting lot, two soil mines and a reconstituted wildlife area that the company can't stop boasting about.

Perched on the banks of the Delaware River, this land has long served the interests of industry. Overlooking a sprawling, mostly decommissioned U.S. Steel plant, WMI, the world's largest trash conglomerate, now occupies the former grounds of the Warner Company. In the previous century, Warner surface-mined the area for gravel and sand, much of which was shipped to its cement factory in Philadelphia. The area has since been converted into a reverse mine of sorts; instead of extraction, scores of workers dump, pack and fill the earth with almost 40 million pounds of municipal wastes daily.

Back atop the GROWS landfill, twenty-ton dump trucks gather at the low end of the working face, where they discharge their fetid cargo. Several feet up a dirt bank, a string of larger trailers gets detached from semi trucks. In rapid succession each container is tipped almost vertical by a giant hydraulic lift and, within seconds, twenty-four tons of rotting garbage cascades down into the day's menacing valley of trash. A "landfill compactor," which looks like a bulldozer on steroids with mammoth metal spiked wheels, pitches back and forth, its fifty tons crushing the debris into the earth. Another smaller vehicle called a "track loader" maneuvers on tank treads, channeling the castoffs from kitchens and offices into the compactor's path. The place runs like a well-oiled machine, with only a handful of workers orchestrating the burial.

Move a few hundred yards from the landfill's working face and it's hard to smell the rot or see the debris. The place is kept tidy with the help of thirty-five-foot-tall fencing made of "litter netting" that surrounds the perimeter of the site's two landfills. As a backup measure, teams of "paper pickers" constantly patrol the area to snatch up any stray trash. Misters dot fence tops, roads and hillsides, spraying a fine, invisible chemical-water mixture into the air, which binds with odor molecules and pulls them to the ground.

In new state-of-the-art landfills, the cells that contain the trash are built on top of what is called a "liner." The liner creates a giant underground bladder that is intended to prevent contamination of groundwater by collecting leachate — liquid wastes and the rainwater that seeps through buried trash — and channeling it to nearby water treatment facilities. WMI's two Morrisville landfills leach on average 100,000 gallons daily. If this toxic liquid contaminated the site's groundwater it would be devastating.

Liners are constructed differently in varying terrains and climates, but in wetter regions generally look like this: several feet of earth are hard-packed; then a half-inch layer of bentonite clay padding ("Claymax") is laid down. Next comes 60-mm-gauge black plastic sheeting, made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE, a thicker version of the material used for milk and detergent jugs); an inch-thick plastic drainage mesh is then installed; on top of that goes another layer of bentonite padding and 60mm HDPE; then a half-inch-thick synthetic felt fabric gets laid down to protect the layers underneath. Topping it all off is eighteen inches of gravel to facilitate drainage.

Once the cell is filled with trash, which might take years, it is closed off or "capped." The capping process entails covering the garbage with several feet of dirt, which gets graded, then packed by steamrollers. After that, layers of Claymax, synthetic mesh, and plastic sheeting are draped across the top of the cell and joined with the bottom liner to fully encapsulate all those worn out shoes, dirty diapers, old TVs and discarded wrappers.

Capped landfills are subject to ongoing monitoring in order to comply with various state and federal regulations, many of which came about due to the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972. The operators of high-tech fills regularly check leachate and groundwater for toxicity while they extract "landfill gas"— methane, carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, hazardous air pollutants, and odorous compounds released by decomposing garbage — through a series of wells. The wells are drilled into the capped fill and use a vacuum system to suck the vapors from the rotting refuse. If handled properly, the gases are either burned ("destroyed") or turned into electricity after they've been collected.

That's how the landfill runs if all goes well. Not surprisingly, improved landfills have their flaws. Employees and regulators have discovered pollutants in Virginia's mega-fills, often as a result of "cocktailing," the illegal mixing of restricted hazardous and toxic wastes with regular municipal discards. Medical waste, including blood, chemotherapy waste, biohazard bags, human body parts and radioactive castoffs, and industrial refuse like asbestos and lead paint have been found. Groundwater contamination by heavy metals was detected at two of Virginia's megafills, raising questions about the reliability of these facilities.

The new way of rubbish disposal also impacts ownership in the industry. Because building high-end garbage graveyards is so expensive, fewer small businesses and municipalities can afford to go into the trash trade. This leaves the field wide open for well-capitalized firms like the behemoth WMI. And because the overall number of disposal companies is shrinking, fewer firms now have more leverage in setting prices and more power influencing public policy.

It's not that the interests of the trash conglomerates are all that different from those of smaller companies; increased garbage equals bigger profits for both. The difference between the two lies in scale. In Pennsylvania over the last decade the number of garbage disposal sites has shrunk from several hundred to about fifty, but disposal capacity has soared. That means far fewer companies now own bigger sites and — crucially — given the ability to bury or burn more trash, they do. Previously, there were logistical constraints on small companies; with less access to capital they could grow only so fast and they could consequently dispose of only so much garbage. Today, with large trash corporations, the limits are sky-high.

The giant rubbish firms also hold considerably greater sway than their quaint predecessors over political decision making. In a recent development on the policy front, the EPA under industry-friendly George W. Bush has proposed deregulating landfills nationwide, arguing that mandated environmental protections have become obstacles to innovation.


Excerpted from "Gone Tomorrow"
by .
Copyright © 2005 Heather Rogers.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Chapter 1 - The "Waste Stream",
Chapter 2 - Rubbish Past,
Chapter 3 - Rationalized Waste,
Chapter 4 - Technological Fix: The Sanitary Landfill,
Chapter 5 - The Golden Age of Waste,
Chapter 6 - Spaceship Earth: Waste and Environmentalism,
Chapter 7 - Recycling:The Politics of Containment,
Chapter 8 - The Corporatization of Garbage,
Chapter 9 - Green by Any Means,
Copyright Page,

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