Our Garbage, Ourselves

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

This is bad news for those of us who think buying biodegradable products is better than using plastic and Styrofoam. But which do we really want? An arid, inert, well-engineered dump like Mount Trashmore, or a seething biological cauldron?

Consider the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, since 1948 the primary repository of New York City's refuse. Built on a 3000-acre tidal marsh, Fresh Kills rises slightly higher than Trashmore and outweighs it fifteen times over. It's due to fill up in 2005. Drilling samples have revealed that its core temperature runs as high as 140 degrees Fahrenheit, and every day it spews approximately one million gallons of genuinely toxic broth into the New York harbor. There's no liner of any kind underneath it. This is the one landfill in America where true biodegradation has been shown to take place, and it's not a pretty sight.

Fresh Kills, the largest landfill on Earth, is something of a mecca for garbologists. But there's a less-studied example of bad planning much closer to home. Between 1952 and 1978, the county leased 250 acres of marsh from a group of private owners and dumped into it untold tons of trash, garbage, sewage sludge, incinerator ash, and junk metal. Like Fresh Kills, the Old South Dade Dump has no liner underneath, not even the sandy clay that swaddles Trashmore's first two cells. Moreover, unlike Trashmore, it was not run as a sanitary landfill -- the refuse wasn't covered over nightly with dirt to inhibit biodegradation. For years Dade County has tried to purchase and clean up the site, which lies immediately south of Mount Trashmore across SW 248th Street and the Goulds Canal. So far, efforts have been stymied.

Meanwhile the old dump is poorly monitored. In a July 1995 memo to her boss, Gwladys Scott, a DERM inspector, noted that the dump "predates anything we ever regulated," that it has "a long history of ground water and air contamination," and that spontaneous combustion of the grown-over refuse is a big problem, smelling up the neighborhood for some seven miles.

"The smoke cannot be seen from the paved roads," Scott continued. "The odor often occurs between dusk and dawn in the residential areas and day or night in the farming areas that are closer to the site. The odor is very acrid and irritates the eyes and nose. The waste materials have not been specifically identified but probably contain paints, plasters, batteries, chemical wastes from homes and farms, et cetera. In some photos I saw 55-gallon drums, a car body, and a tire. South Dade landfill employees have stated that the Old South Dade Dump has been burning for as long as they have worked there -- up to fifteen years."

Of course, the fact that Mount Trashmore isn't (at the moment) oozing deadly contaminants into our drinking water or poisoning the marine ecosystem doesn't eliminate it as a potential polluter. Our homegrown Everest is going to be around for a long time. In 1884 British archaeologists dug into a landfill on a hill outside Rome. They found the contents well preserved A and eye-wateringly pungent after twenty centuries. What Trashmore's current good hygiene does indicate is that the Department of Solid Waste Management has done a pretty fair job of dealing with an impossible proposition. The fundamental ecological objection to Trashmore, the unresolvable one, is its location. It would have been hard to find a worse place for a garbage dump than on the edge of a fragile bay in a place with a water table mere inches from the Earth's surface. The problem is, it would also be hard to find any better place. Virtually all of Florida, like Long Island, is geologically unsuited for landfills because of its porous soil.

I made a slow end-run around the Interceptor Trench and arrived, finally, at the base of Mount Trashmore. Not only was this the longest night of the year, it was also perfectly moonless, a confluence that occurs only once every nineteen years. Even so, Trashmore glowed white against the overcast sky. It looked a thousand feet tall. I began to climb, surprised at how hard the white gravel was, like crudely mixed cement.

When my altimeter read 50 feet, I could see Biscayne Bay spreading out toward the invisible Bahamas. At 90 feet I stopped to savor the view, winded -- for seven years I haven't climbed anything more rugged than the back steps to my apartment. All this subtropic sloth has conferred upon me the lungs and legs of a flatlander.

Then I was up and over the top. The wind came on like a rhino, crossing a steppe the size of three football fields. A hundred yards away stood, unmistakably, a porta-potty. Heineken in hand, I swung up into the bulldozer's ragged cockpit, sorely tempted by the starter button; the key had been left in the ignition. I was the prince of Olympus. Cock-a-doodle-doo!

There are getting to be as many people in Greater Miami as there were in the entire United States when the country was born. (Thomas Jefferson counted 3.9 million souls when he oversaw the U.S. census in 1790; today Dade County holds just over two million.) An oft-repeated myth about garbage holds that modern people generate much more of it per capita than did their ancestors. Actual analysis of landfills suggests that American households don't necessarily throw out more than our Roman or Mayan counterparts in their respective decadent eras. But we have an awful lot of households. Humankind in Dade -- homes, offices, small and big businesses, construction sites, industries -- produced a staggering 3.5 million tons of refuse last year.

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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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