Our Garbage, Ourselves

Scaling Mount Trashmore, sorting through the clues to the mystery of everyday life

Citizens of Dade County, rise up and take back your mountain! You built it, after all. It's a monument to you and me, the little guy, the dreamers of the Sunshine Dream, homo disposicus.

I refer, of course, to Mount Trashmore, the monster county garbage dump in South Dade. From its 200-acre footprint on the shores of Biscayne Bay, our putrid Parnassus looms fifteen stories over a mangrove marsh to form the highest point of land in the flattest place on Earth. The alpinist returning from this verticality will say that from its summit you can see the Everglades, the Keys curving over the horizon, the faraway twinklings of Miami Beach. Farther, even: Squint and you can look right through the veil of Time, into the eyes of Civilization and Human Nature. The landfill has its secret life, a hidden hydrology and biochemistry, a singular aesthetic. It has a public life, too, politics and economics and a mythology whose sum is a reflection of ourselves as intimate and ineluctable as our children, familiar yet strange, wonderful and troubling.

Which is why, on the night of the winter solstice, I drove twenty miles south from Neon Gotham and began my assault on the seven-million-ton massif. Because it's there. Because the flag must be planted. Because it is ours, and the time is ripe to claim it.

Standing on the roadside in the shadow of a salinity dam, I climbed into my desert camo coveralls, donned an old pair of Red Wing cowboy boots. I had already, as they say on TV, cased the joint. The night watchman and his pickup were parked a mile away at the landfill administration building. No doubt Mr. Watchman would scratch his head if he could see the contents of my backpack: one pair of bolt cutters, a handheld night-vision scope, rubber chemotherapy gloves, an aerial photograph of the terrain between SW 232nd and 248th streets, a Wal-Mart rat pistol, Mag-Lite with extra batteries, GPS altimeter, plastic sample bags, and a matching set of chilled Heinekens. The snowshoes didn't fit in the pack so I strapped them onto the outside and began blowing up the inflatable kayak.

When I was done, my Casio read 0320. At 0327 I was paddling west through Black Creek Canal, hugging the weeds along the shore. The note I left on the dashboard read: "Out of gas. Back by morning."

In the beginning, God created Heaven and Earth, and later on plastics, construction debris, and disposable diapers. What did they do with their apple cores in Eden? With last season's fig leaf? With toenail clippings and empty snake-repellent bottles? Probably the same thing South Florida's prehistoric natives did, which is to say they built middens. From 500 B.C. until the 1700s, the Tequesta threw their oyster shells and charred bones and broken pots in piles, 300 of which remain scattered across urban Dade County -- some smack in the middle of downtown Miami -- at a piddling average height of two to three feet. The Tequesta were jolly itinerant horticulturists and hunter-gatherers, and when the mounds got too big or too foul, they conveniently moved on. Sometimes they used old middens for house foundations. It was when humans took to agriculture full-time and stuck to one spot that garbage became a problem. Gordon Willey, an anthropologist who in the late 1940s studied ancient settlement patterns in Peru, has argued that garbage itself was a significant driving force in the creation of cities and civilization -- dealing with garbage demanded a hierarchical class structure and a high degree of organizational sophistication. In present-day Dade, the 244 men and 16 women who ride the county's 165 garbage trucks earn a salary that ranges from $20,600 to $24,900.

Since the Industrial Revolution, garbage has become more varied, colorful, and toxic, and humans have applied both high and low technology to the challenge of its disposal. But one of the many arresting aspects of garbage is the fact that throughout history there have been only four tried-and-true ways of dealing with it, none of which is new: burying (landfills), burning (incineration), trying to reclaim something of value from the refuse (recycling), and reducing the amount of garbage generated in the first place (source reduction). Like most metropolises, Greater Miami uses a combination of these strategies. Mount Trashmore is our monument to the successes and failures of the first approach, which is, incidentally, the cheapest.

Trashmore, officially known as the South Dade Solid Waste Disposal Facility, is essentially a midden writ large, with a few significant engineering refinements tacked on since the landfill opened in 1980. One of the first surprises for the visitor is the realization that Trashmore isn't a single peak but a broad, panoramic mountain range, with five rectangular "cells" marching westward from Biscayne Bay, north of SW 248th Street and east of 97th Avenue. As you read this, cells one and two, the oldest peaks and the ones nearest the water, are being neatly capped with an eighteen-inch layer of gray-white limestone gravel. They are full, and the goal now is to seal them not only from rodents and rain but from oxygen, in order to keep the 150-foot mounds as inert as possible. Cell three is active, i.e., open for business. Cells four and five are hypothetical: Five, the farthest west, is a big piece of empty, undeveloped land; four is being painstakingly readied for use, with the construction of underground drainage pipes and a floor made of compacted limestone, a layer of clay, and a seamless, 60-millimeter-thick plastic liner. The garbage of the future will be dumped on top of this foundation and will eventually rise to the dizzy height of 260 feet -- the highest geological feature along a 1500-mile strip of Atlantic seaboard from Maine to Florida.

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Thank you for a great article. Very informative, very interesting to read. I can only imagine how much time and research was needed to write this story. Thank you Sean.

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