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Tuesday August 14, 2007 Edition
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From Where I Lie: The Final Solution

Tuesday August 14, 2007

By Larry Johnson

   It would seem that San Francisco has created the ultimate waste recycling system. In the early 90s the city transformed its solid waste transfer and recycling center into an artist colony. As a result, it has been able to keep nearly 70% of its waste out of its landfills. It works like this: 50 artists are given 24/7 access to the 75 tons of “old appliances, worn clothing and construction debris,” and as a result the city has reduced its waste stream considerably and the artists have turned the “junk” into “art”. The dump itself displays some of the art objects in its own sculpture garden, but the rest is displayed throughout the community in various schools and parks.

     By 2010, San Francisco hopes to recycle at least 75% of its garbage into works of lasting interest and beauty. This is definitely a creative solution to a growing problem. What San Francisco has done is to carry the town dump of yesteryear to its final evolutionary destiny.

     The landfill of today is not your father's dump. Many are not even dumps at all but transfer stations. These are intermediary places where the flotsam and jetsam of our wasteful society are temporarily stored until they can be transported to a final destination. I am somewhat suspicious that much of our garbage doesn't really have a final destination at all but is merely transported from one transfer station to the next. I can see it now, trucks moving back and forth across the country, carrying our garbage to distant way stations and then, at some future date, returning the stuff to its place of origin. Eventually, of course, all of this stuff disappears under the influence of road wear.

     There are very few examples of the modern dump that reflect the best of what was the town dump of yore. Salisbury comes immediately to mind as a singular positive example. On a recent trip to the Salisbury landfill with a friend ( she is a resident of that town) I was momentarily treated to a glimpse into the waste stream of the past.  This landfill is an old fashion dump in every way, with one notable exception. It is extremely neat. There are no stray diapers or other disgusting objects floating about. On passing through the gate, one might momentarily believe that he or she is entering some kind of interesting park. However, this first impression doesn't last for in the distance are neatly separated piles of various kinds of junk and garbage.

     Now, I use the words “junk” and “garbage” advisedly because much of the stuff I saw appeared as though it had been prematurely declared dead, and with a bit of imagination could be resurrected, regenerated and put back into service, as though nothing had ever happened to it.

     As with the words junk and garbage, I am reluctant to use the word landfill as a euphemism for dump, but I will, because there are some significant differences between these two nouns. The word dump conjures up a steaming, smelling and visually scary place crawling with vermin.

     The old style dump, like the one in Middlebury of the 40s, 50s and 60s was designed to eventually leach and slide into a river and to disappear downstream over time. Out of sight, out of mind.

     The modern landfill, on the other hand, has a liner of some kind that prevents seepage, and is usually located in a soil-stable area; it is then covered continuously with some kind of soil, sand or gravel. Another important difference is the fact that modern recycling techniques have taken a great deal of the waste out of the system and put it back into circulation where it can become waste again.
     Now I remember the Middlebury dump of old as a cross between a second hand shopping center and hell. It was crawling with rats, which made it a midnight hunting preserve for miscreant teenagers with access to .22 caliber rifles. But more importantly, it was a place for treasure hunting. Part-time, professional treasure hunters could often supplement their incomes by recycling saleable items, and no one had better access to these valuable thrown-aways than George Blaise, the venerable dump master, who had despotic control over the ebb and flow of the local waste stream.

     If George saw something in the trunk  of a car that had promise, he would direct the driver to drop it off next to his shack, a small, non-descript building constructed from dump materials.

     I remember George as a short, thinnish man, slightly stooped, whose skin looked like smoked leather, a result, I would suspect, of wandering through the ever-burning, ever-smoking dump.  George was more like a conductor than a dump man. He would briefly ask you, as you entered his domain, what you were carrying and, depending on your answer, would direct you to one place or another. Sometimes it was necessary to wait in line, and this offered many opportunities to exchange information with people you only saw on Saturday mornings. This is another social dimension of dumping that has been completely eliminated from modern waste disposal. The hustle and bustle of a transfer station doesn't lend itself to conversation. There is very little opportunity for this sort of thing. You're in and out almost without a word.

     With a bit of tweaking here and there, I believe we could take San Francisco's creative ideas and put them to work right here. Instead of driving our junk all over the countryside in search of a final solution, we could leave it right here, open our dumping stations and landfills to creative artists and let them transform our detritus into valuable and saleable items. These items could then be purchased by tourists---giving the state some much needed revenue---and taken to other parts of the country where they would eventually end up in somebody else's landfill. Just think of the money we'd save in transportation costs, not to mention the profit to be made from sales taxes.


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