Infrastructure

Ed Humes on living with LA's mountain of garbage

mountaingate-aerial.jpgI love stories about infrastructure: sewers, pipelines, trash and the like. SoCal investigative author Edward Humes has been on a roll of books in recent years, about Wal-Mart, enviro activism, the south, evolution poliitics. His newest, "Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash," is coming from Avery and warms my wonkish heart. An adapted excerpt in the Wall Street Journal presents some eye-opening stats about our trash habit — even with recycling and the lessening of our trash stream, he says that "each of us is on track to produce a staggering 102 tons of waste in an average lifetime." Trash, he observes, has become America's leading export if you count the containers full of mountains of scrap paper, cardboard, beer cans and junked electronics that gets shipped across the oceans from North America.

A sample of the piece with local relevance:

On the opposite coast, Los Angeles has opted to construct a garbage mountain 500 feet high, taller than most of the city's high-rises. This is Puente Hills Landfill—trash as geologic feature, so full of 60 years' worth of decomposing garbage that the methane it produces is pumped into generators that provide enough power for 70,000 homes.

At the landfill's flat and dusty summit, a dozen bulldozers and graders swarm every day, backing and turning and mashing and shaping. "More people should see what I see here," says Michael "Big Mike" Speiser, whose job is to sculpt trash into a mountain with the blade of a bulldozer. "Everything that's advertised on TV ends up [here] sooner or later, and a lot sooner that most people think."

Puente Hills is just the largest of the 1,900 municipal landfills operating nationwide. The chief executive of Waste Management, the world's largest trash company, estimates that there is at least $20 billion in valuable resources locked inside the materials buried in U.S. landfills each year, if only we had the technology to recover it cost effectively.

The U.S. doesn't have to handle trash this way. Other countries with big economies and high standards of living have rejected the disposable products that make up so much of America's garbage—in part because European countries hold manufacturers, not taxpayers, responsible for the costs of packaging waste.

Humes also recently posted at Forbes.com on the subject. (I think we're both still listed as contributing writers at Los Angeles magazine.)

Some places around LA that we think of now places used to be canyons that were filled with trash and covered over. Mountaingate, the affluent enclave at the top of a very steep road on the west side of Sepulveda Pass, is one of the most obvious. The golf course sits on top of the Mission Canyon landfill once operated by Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts.


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