Where Do You Put Your Garbage?

I took a trip to the dump the other day. Not, actually, to dump garbage, it was an unrelated expedition. A lot of people never see the dump, the place where their garbage goes after they stick it out on the curb and try to forget about it, and it can be an enlightening and interesting field trip. I highly recommend it, actually. You may not have to travel very far, depending on where you live, and along the way perhaps you can spot some garbage barges and other things making their journey from your house to the final destination of your unwanted food wrappers, your styrofoam cups, your clingwrap packaging.

Dumps are highly variable sorts of places. Ours is rather subdued, as far as dumps go. When people think of dumps, they may imagine great exposed piles of steaming garbage, but that’s not necessarily how they work. Dumps, as a general rule, operate by digging large pits and lining them so they can add garbage in batches, cover, and seed so grass grows on top. Our dump looks sort of like a series of barrow mounds, more than anything else. And, much like actual barrow mounds, if cracked open, undoubtedly there would be treasures inside.

The lining is supposed to prevent leaching. Garbage tends to have rather unpleasant things in it, since people persist in throwing things away when they really shouldn’t. The lining, at least theoretically, protects the surrounding environment, although leaks and cracks often appear, allowing whatever is inside the dump to slowly trickle out into neighbouring soil and waterways. Dumps also need ventilation, because things get quite hot inside and methane buildups happen, so periodically you encounter little pipes sticking out of the ground to allow the trapped gases inside to escape, instead of exploding.

The air around a dump is, well, it can be ripe, and sometimes it is less ripe, depending on circumstances. It helps to go in the cold, when odors tend to be suppressed. When the ground crackles with frost you can see the clear spots on the mounds, where the underlying heat keeps the frost from settling in, and sometimes things steam gently, especially once the sun is over the horizon. But yes, it definitely smells, especially when you are up close. When you are, for example, hurling your garbage into the pit, because here there are no sanitation workers to handle it for you, and you must be the one to send it on its final journey, bulging plastic bags tumbling into the ground. Sometimes they rip along the way and leave a stream of your life’s detritus.

The ground around a dump, a waste transfer station, any kind of sanitation facility, as they are called, is usually littered. Garbage escapes, especially lightweight garbage that jumps up in a skirl of wind right as you try to aim it in the right direction. Drifts of garbage float across the grounds and usually fetch up against the chainlink fence. Periodically, someone goes around and scrapes it off, compacts it into bags, and tries to deliver it once again. The second delivery may be successful, but already more garbage is piling up at the edges, and will continue to do so, even after people leave, the dump is full, and the gate is locked, because it has a way of worming to the surface.

Inside, the garbage sits, often largely inert. Depending on conditions in the dump, things you would think would break down may not, and of course things like plastic keep chugging along, with nary a thought in the world. I wonder what it will be like in 100 years. We see the remains of middens from thousands of years ago with mostly organic material, bones, scraps, and now our middens are crowded with petroleum products and waste paper and glass and Pete knows what else.

People are better about recycling now than they used to be, more and more things wind up in the dump because they cannot be handled any other way, because people can send food scraps to a composting company if they don’t compost themselves, and can recycle their tins and glass and certain kinds of plastics and paper and everything else. One would think there would be less garbage, on these grounds, but this does not appear to be the case. The garbage keeps mounting because people keep inventing new things and coming up with new and creative ways to package them and all of this stuff ends up in the dump, eventually, moldering into the ground in a soup of unwanted and lost objects.

The dump is a sobering and disturbing sight. We hide dumps and waste management facilities, usually on the grounds of smell, that people would not want to be right on top of them, although actually it is possible to run a relatively low odor dump and some facilities have even been repurposed, turned into parks and recreation areas so people can play baseball and eat apple pie on top of piles of festering garbage. I think the real reason has a lot more to do with the fact that dumps are not just ugly and unsightly and potentially malodorous, but also a reminder of all the waste we create. It makes me wonder how long it will take before the entire surface of the earth is just covered in garbage, great mounds of it, what it will be like for future generations looking for a place to put their trash and finding ours instead, how long it will take before we decide that doing things like sending garbage into space would be a fantastic idea.

It never seems to end, the tide of waste. So we keep building barrow mounds and we keep hiding them from sensitive eyes.