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Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash

Chapter One

Dark Angels of Detritus

On a cool October morning, I caught up with John Sullivan and Billy Murphy in the middle of their Park Slope garbage route. I watched them carefully, from a slight distance, but still it took me several long minutes to figure out, in the most rudimentary way, what my san men were doing. They moved quickly, in a blur of trash can dragging, lid tossing, handle cranking, and heaving. Though barrel-chested and muscle-bound, they moved with balletic precision. Sometimes Murphy and Sullivan appeared to be working independently, other times they collaborated. Save for the grunts and squeals of the truck, it all happened in relative silence. While Murphy drove to a gap between parked cars, Sullivan slid barrels up the sidewalk to the waiting truck. Sometimes Murphy jumped down to load, sometimes Sullivan did it on his own. Then they switched. The truck moved in jerks, halting with a screech of brakes. Although most sanitation workers stopped for coffee at eight, Sullivan and Murphy kept loading. Upon their return to the garage at ten-thirty, no one voiced the usual san man’s query: “Did you get it up?” Sullivan and Murphy—twenty-year veterans of the Department of Sanitation, each approaching the age of fifty—had, as they always did.

I’d met the team at 6:00 a.m. roll call at the local DSNY (for Department of Sanitation, New York) garage, a low brick structure on the farthest fringe of the neighborhood. It was still dark when I locked up my bike and walked hesitantly into a large, dimly lit room filled with garbage trucks: eleven for household refuse and nine for recycling. I made my way down a cinder-block corridor lined with smoking san men and into the fluorescent-lit office. Like many a high school principal’s redoubt, it had a window overlooking a hallway filled with loiterers and humming with paranoia. There were even lockers and a lunchroom down the way.

Waiting for Jerry Terlizzi, the district supervisor, to appear, I took a look around. Every stick of furniture—desks, cabinets, footlockers—appeared to have been plucked from the street and coated with the same brown paint. The walls were crammed with yellowed memoranda and notices but held not a scrap of decoration. A dark roan dog and a dull black cat padded around the building, former strays, but even their names seemed impermanent.

“The dog, the dog. Oh yeah, that’s Lupo,” said an officer uncertainly when I inquired. And the cat?

“Her name is Meow,” answered a clerk.

“No, it’s Mami,” corrected another.

While I waited for Terlizzi to get off the phone and call roll, I listened to the men.

“It’s gonna rain the next three days.”

“Oh, man, that garbage is gonna be heavy. You’re gonna lose five pounds on Friday alone.”

“I hate rain. That’s a drag.”

“Yeah, well, you’re a garbageman.”

Behind me, someone said in a mincing tone, “Can I fill out a job application?” That was for my benefit, so I chuckled along with everyone else. Then two men came in from the street, jostling and punching each other’s shoulders. One said, “Somebody just stole the wheels off a bike out there!” I sprang for the door, and the guys laughed.

“Just kidding, but I wouldn’t leave it there. Some bum from the park is gonna steal it. Bring it in here.” He said it “he-yeh.” I went out to get my bicycle and when I got back briefly pretended someone had stolen the seat, prompting instant outrage, though it was actually in my backpack.

I looked at the worker cards stuck into a bar on the Plexiglas window. The rectangles of cardboard were soft with handling, inscribed mostly with Italian and Irish names, and coupled with trucks identified with an alphanumeric. As senior men, Sullivan and Murphy had exclusive day use of truck CN191 (another team would use it at night). The junior men took whatever they were handed. By now, about thirty men were standing around smoking and chatting in their dark green DSNY sweatshirts. The garage had one female sanitation worker, but she wasn’t in today. When I’d meet her later, she’d invite me to use her private bathroom, which was decorated with cute animal posters.

New to this scene, I was struck by the way the men spoke to one another. They were loud and harsh, in one another’s faces. They seemed quick to anger. Maybe there was too much testosterone in a small place. Or maybe just too many men who didn’t like to have a boss breathing down their neck, a factor that had lured some of them to the job. Inside, the complaints never ceased. So-and-so was an idiot. The night crew never did its job right. The boss could go to hell. I’d be crushed by such contempt, but no one here seemed to mind.

Terlizzi was parked behind a small desk. He was tall and thin, with wavy silver hair, high cheekbones, and a bemused manner. “I’m missing a truck,” he told a clerk, irritated. Its collection ticket, which would state how much weight the truck had tipped at the transfer station, hadn’t shown up in his paper or electronic records. The clerk opened a program on the ancient computer and scrolled down. “I checked that already,” Terlizzi barked. The clerk sighed, and Terlizzi stepped out to call roll.

Two to a truck, the men roared into the twilit streets, and soon the office fell quiet. After asking me to sign a waiver, Terlizzi handed me over to John Burrafato, who worked on Motorized Litter Patrol. A pugnacious man with a small black mustache and a military bearing, Burrafato cruised the district in a department sedan, making lists of bulk items—pallets discarded in an industrial area, a blown tire in the middle of the road—to be collected by truck. He noted problem areas and wrote $25 summonses to residents who didn’t follow the recycling rules and $1,500 summonses (going up to $20,000) for wholesale illegal dumping. Because DSNY spent relatively little on public education, only a minority of city residents seemed to understand all the garbage rules. Being pugnacious, then, was a prerequisite for this job.

Burrafato was supposed to bring me up to my neighborhood, where Sullivan and Murphy were already at work. But he wasn’t ready to do this quite yet. First, there was paperwork for him to clear, then a mechanic to insult. I sat on a brown footlocker and read the Daily News while he flitted in and out of the office. Terlizzi had found his missing truck, but the air was still poisoned with his ill humor. Someone on the telephone was pressuring Terlizzi to sign off on some forms. He said, “I didn’t say when I’ll do it, but if you need it right now, I’ll come back there and do it!” He leaped to his feet and slammed down the phone. “Fuck you!” he shouted at the supplicant, who could easily have been me. Just yesterday, I had been pestering him on the phone about getting the waiver. “You make that coffee yet?” he growled at Burrafato now.

“No, I’m getting these guys straightened out.” Burrafato went out, came in, went out.

“Okay, the coffee’s done. You want a cup?” Burrafato was talking to me.

“No, thanks,” I said, wanting only to get out of there. Burrafato went into a small room and poured himself coffee. By now I was reading the sports section. Then I read the ancient memos on the walls and studied the maps, trying to figure out my district, garage, section, and route. New York’s roughly 320 square miles are broken into fifty-nine sanitation districts, where about 7,600 workers clean the streets twenty-four hours a day, six days a week. (In comparison, Los Angeles has about 580 workers tidying up 450 square miles, but its population is less than half of New York’s eight million, and its trucks host just one worker instead of two. Chicago, with a population of 2.9 million spreading over 228 square miles, relies on 3,300 sanitation workers.) Brooklyn’s districts are divided into zones North and South. Here in South, there are eleven other garages besides my own, which is called the Six. The territory covered by the Six is in turn broken into five sections: my street is part of Section 65, which is divided into three routes cleaned by three different trucks. When I was satisfied with my triangulations, I poked my head into the side room to ask Burrafato a question. He was watching TV and sipping a second cup of coffee.

I retreated to my footlocker. Terlizzi was now on the phone with “the borough,” his bosses at the Brooklyn headquarters, ordering up an FEL, or front-end loader. “Someone just dumped the contents of the first floor of his house onto the street,” he said to me. “Happens all the time.” As soon as he got off, the phone rang. It was the cat lady on Fifth Street, complaining yet again that the san men hadn’t collected her garbage. A clerk named Scooter handled the call, which meant he held the receiver at arm’s length so the entire room could hear the woman’s litany of grief. When it was over, he told her soberly, “I’ll make sure this information gets to the right people.” He hung up, and the assembled burst out laughing. Everyone knew about the cat lady; she owned twenty animals. “It’s not against the law to dump your litter box onto your garbage, but it’s common courtesy to put it in a bag,” Scooter explained.

At last, Burrafato unlocked his sedan and drove me uphill. By now, Murphy and Sullivan were halfway through their route and lightly sweating. The men seemed dour and angry to me, and I was afraid to ask them questions. On foot, I watched and I followed. Soon I realized they seemed sour only because they were concentrating. In constant motion, lifting heavy barrels, they could get hurt if they didn’t pay attention. Metal cans banged against their legs; trailer hitches poked from high SUV bumpers. Drivers honked, urging the men to hustle it up, to get their truck out of the way. Double-parked delivery vans blocked their progress. There was also a surprising amount of dog shit near the garbage cans, and many plastic bags were shiny with urine. Had I never noticed this before?

After a few minutes, I began dragging together barrels from neighboring houses to form a group, but the guys didn’t want me lifting anything into the truck. “You’re gonna be sore tomorrow,” Murphy said. He was rounder than Sullivan, and he had a stiff, loping walk, not quite a run. He kept his head mulishly down, his eyes trained on the ground. His palms were thick-skinned and yellow, with deep crevices near the nails. Around the garage, he was known as Daddy. Sullivan had an angular face softened by a narrow strip of beard. His hair was a wiry brown and gray, cut into a mullet. A black belt in karate, he was more agile than Murphy. I found him soft-spoken but intense.

Most people don’t think of garbage collection as particularly dangerous work. It may be dirty, boring, and strenuous, but compared to the potential perils of, say, coal mining, the risks in heaving trash seem minor. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies refuse collection as “high-hazard” work, along with logging, fishing, driving a taxicab, and, yes, mining. While the fatality rate for all occupations is 4.7 deaths per 100,000 workers, garbage collectors die at a rate of 46 per 100,000. In fact, they’re approximately three times more likely to be killed on the job than police officers or firefighters.

Six days a week New York’s Strongest—who along with New York’s Finest (the cops) and New York’s Bravest (its firefighters) constitute the city’s essential uniformed services—operate heavy machinery and heave ten thousand pounds in snow and ice, in scorching heat and driving rain. Cars and trucks rip past them on narrow streets. Danger lurks in every sack: sharp metal and broken glass, protruding nails and wire. And then there are the liquids. Three New York City san men have been injured and one killed by acid bursting from hoppers. It takes about a year for a san man’s body to become accustomed to lifting five to six tons a day, apportioned into seventy-pound bags. “You feel it in your legs, your back, your shoulders,” Murphy told me.

Still, plenty of people want the job. The starting pay is $30,696, with an increase to $48,996 after five years. The health benefits are great, the scavenging superb, and you can retire with a pension after twenty years. With a good winter, one with plenty of snow to plow (in New York, DSNY is responsible for snow removal, which often involves overtime pay), a senior san man can earn $80,000. Thirty thousand applicants sat for the written portion of the city’s sanitation test the last time it was offered.

At eight o’clock, truck CN191 turned east onto my block. I saw my downstairs neighbor close our gate and turn with his German shepherd toward the park. “We’ll get ten tons today,” predicted Sullivan, tossing a black bag into the hopper and cranking the handle. Nine tons had been the norm, but now that the city wasn’t recycling plastic and glass, that extra weight landed in his and Murphy’s truck.

We moved up the street, about three brownstones at a time, looking for breaks between parked cars. This type of collection was called “house to house.” In Manhattan, where high-rises are the norm, san men did “flats,” and a truck could pack out after clearing just one or two big buildings. A route in Manhattan might have just three short legs (called ITSAs, though no one remembered why), a route in the lowlands of Brooklyn several dozen.

At last, CN191 parked in front of my building: a brownstone divided into three apartments that shelter six adults, three children, two dogs, two cats, and one fish. (The fish was mine, and it generated very little solid waste: one packet of fish food, I’ve discovered, lasts three years.) I was nervous. Had we put the barrels—three for putrescible waste, one for metal, and one for paper—in a convenient place? Were the lids off? They were supposed to be on, but they were a pain, and the san men didn’t like them. Lids slowed things down. I wondered if someone had dropped a Snapple bottle or a packet of poodle poop into our barrels reserved for paper or metal. Sullivan and Murphy didn’t care, but the guys on recycling weren’t supposed to collect “contaminated” material, and Burrafato, in theory, could scribble a summons for it. I wondered if my trash was too heavy or too smelly or contained anything identifiably mine. Would Sullivan make some crack about the stained napkins and place mats I was tossing? Would Murphy think it coldhearted to throw out a child’s artwork?

Watching for dog shit along the curb, Sullivan rolled one plastic bin to the street and Murphy grabbed two others. They looked heavy—I knew they were about three-quarters full—but the men hoisted them to the hopper’s edge without apparent effort. A small plastic grocery sack puffed with refuse, possibly mine, tumbled into the street. My heart almost stopped. Murphy swooped down upon it, tossing the tiny package into the hopper with a flick of his gloved hand. It was over. Nothing untoward had happened. Nobody had said a word.

I suspect that many people feel guilty about the volume of their trash. As I became more educated about garbage, my feelings of shame and guilt grew. There was stuff in my barrel, like those stained linen napkins, for which I’d failed to find further use. When I’d brought this stuff into the house—a new T-shirt, healthful food, a really fun toy—it was live weight, something I was proud to have selected and purchased with my hard-earned money. Now the contents of the bag were dead weight, headed for burial. No wonder we prefer opaque garbage bags. And no wonder that recycling bags, which flaunt our virtue, are often translucent.

Was I being neurotic? What, after all, could Sullivan and Murphy say about me, based on an average week’s trash, that couldn’t be said about a million others? That I wasted food, made unhealthy snack choices, bought new socks, or had a cold? I knew, after just one day on the job, that san men constantly made judgments about individuals. They determined residents’ wealth or poverty by the artifacts they left behind. They appraised real estate by the height of a discarded Christmas tree, measured education level by the newspapers and magazines stacked on the curb. Glancing at the flotsam and jetsam as it tumbled through their hopper, they parsed health status and sexual practices. They knew who had broken up, who had recently given birth, who was cross-dressing.

Sometimes the things one rejects are just as revealing as the things that one keeps, but not always. When sixties radical A. J. Weberman sorted through Bob Dylan’s garbage, which he’d snatched from outside Dylan’s Greenwich Village brownstone, he found nothing that helped him interpret his hero’s cryptic lyrics. Unhappy about this invasion of privacy, Dylan chased Weberman through Village streets, smushed his head to the pavement, and eventually sued him. The US Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that the Constitution gives individuals no privacy rights over their garbage, though some state constitutions offer more stringent protection.

Weberman went on to found the National Institute of Garbology, or NIG, and to defend trash trolling as a tool of psychological investigation and character delineation. When he tired of Dylan’s garbage, he dove into Neil Simon’s (he found bagel scraps, lox, whitefish, and an infestation of ants), Gloria Vanderbilt’s (a Valium bottle), Tony Perkins’s (a tiny amount of marijuana), Norman Mailer’s (betting slips), and antiwar activist Bella Abzug’s (proof of investments in companies that made weapons).

Looking through trash often says more about the detective than the discarder. When city officials in Portland, Oregon, decided in 2002 that it was legal to swipe trash in an investigation of a police officer, reporters from the Willamette Week decided to dive through the refuse of local officials. What the reporters found most remarkable, after poring through soggy receipts and burnt toast, was how bad the investigation made them feel. “There is something about poking through someone else’s garbage that makes you feel dirty, and it’s not just the stench and the flies,” wrote Chris Lydgate and Nick Budnick. “Scrap by scrap, we are reverse-engineering a grimy portrait of another human being, reconstituting an identity from his discards, probing into stuff that is absolutely, positively none of our damn business.”

* * *

At a large apartment building on the corner of Eighth Avenue, Sullivan parked the truck at an angle to the curb. The building’s super had heaped long black garbage bags—each a 120-pound sausage—into a four-foot-high mound. It took the team less than two minutes, and a few cranks of the packing blade, to transfer the mound from the street to their truck and crush it all together. When they were done, one bag remained on the sidewalk, its contents gushing through a long tear. “Gotta watch for rats when it’s like that,” Murphy said, slightly breathless.

“Once a rat ran across my back,” Sullivan said. “Whaddaya gonna do?” Maggots, known in the biz as disco rice, were something else. On monsoon days, they floated in garbage pails half full of rainwater. “I won’t empty those,” Sullivan said.

Before the city’s recycling suspension, it was easy for street people to collect deposit bottles for redemption: residents segregated the glass and plastic for them. Now, scavengers tore through everything in the same sacks, heedless of the mess. “It’s the homeless,” said Sullivan with a shrug. “The super is gonna have to clean this up.” A driver with a cell phone to his ear leaned on his horn. Murphy and Sullivan appeared to be deaf.

The ITSAs rolled on and on. I lost track of the street, whether we’d cleaned the left side or the right. Sullivan talked about the seasonal changes in garbage. “In the springtime, there’s a lot of yard waste and a lot of construction, because of tax returns. You get more household junk in the spring. You can always tell when an old-timer dies. There’s thirty bags and a lot of clothes.”

Sullivan continued. “Food waste goes up after Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. You see a lot of barbecue stuff, lots of food waste. And you can always tell when there’s a sale on washing machines, usually around Columbus Day.”

“People eat different up top,” Murphy said, meaning the blocks closer to Prospect Park. “A lot of organic people, fresh stuff. They’re more health conscious. There’s more cardboard from deliveries; they order those Omaha steaks. People up top read the New York Times. They’re more educated. In my neighborhood, Dyker Heights, it’s all Daily News and the Post.” Though Sullivan thought garbage increased in the summer, with tourists visiting, Murphy thought it went down. “People are away,” he said. “In October, you get a lot of rugs and couches.” Harvest season.

The way residents treated their garbage said a lot about them, in the san man’s world. “In the neighborhood where I live, the garbage is boxed and gift-wrapped,” Joey Calvacca had bragged to me. For the last seventeen years, Calvacca had been working in the Brooklyn North 5, in East New York. Though he’d long ago moved from the city to Long Island’s North Shore, he still spoke in the dialect of The Sopranos, eliding all r’s. “But where I work, it’s a mess. People don’t use bags. There’s maggots, rats, roaches. The smell will make you sick. I’ve gotten stuck with needles.”

“And what about your garbage?” I asked.

“It’s normal garbage,” he said, shrugging.

Good and bad referred to garbage content as well as garbage style. Good garbage, the san men taught me, was garbage worth saving. They called it mongo. The sanitation garage was brimming with it: a microwave, a television, chairs, tables. “Some neighborhoods in Queens, the lawn mower is out of gas and they throw it out,” Calvacca said. “They throw out a VCR when it needs a two-dollar belt. We throw it in the side of the truck to bring home.” Silk blouses and designer skirts billowed from the trash of upscale buildings. Tools and toys, books and bric-a-brac were there for the taking. Officially, mongo didn’t exist. Sanitation workers weren’t allowed to keep stuff they found on the curb. But everyone did, and no one complained.

The truck was about two-thirds full now. Inside, brown gunk dripped off the packing blade into a nest of ratty clothing. Rounding the corner onto Seventh Avenue, Sullivan and Murphy pulled over to gulp from water bottles and wipe the sweat from their foreheads. I felt chilly in a rain jacket over a fleece pullover. Their cotton shirts had bibs of sweat. On 95-degree days, Sullivan said, he went through three T-shirts in one shift. In the rain, he didn’t even bother with a slicker. “You’re soaked from the inside anyway, water running down your neck,” said Sullivan. “It’s awful.”

I asked how close they were to finishing today. “We’ll do it all in three and a half hours,” said Sullivan. “That’s without a coffee break or lunch.”

“Why do you work so fast?”

“To get it over with,” said Murphy.

That didn’t exactly explain the panic to finish early. San men couldn’t go home when their job was done; they had to stay in the garage until their shift ended, at 2:00 p.m. The men would pass the time eating lunch, watching videos or TV in the break room, playing cards, and working out on exercise equipment rescued from the jaws of the hopper. “We used to have a pool table, but it wore out,” Sullivan said. Now the men napped on white leather couches, relics from another era. (From garage to garage, break room decor varied enormously, constrained by the availability of local mongo, the super’s aesthetic sensibilities, and the culture of the particular garage. Now and then, a call from “downtown” resulted in a clean sweep, and all the bad paintings, ceramic kitsch, macramé wall hangings, tin signs, plastic flowers, hula hoops, and velvet Elvises went into the garbageman’s garbage pail.)

“The time passes quickly,” said Sullivan. “You’re coming down from a big high afterward. It’s like an athletic event.” He screwed the cap onto his water bottle. “I figure it’s the length of a marathon, every day. You just try to get through it. You can’t think about it. It’s a state of mind.”

In 1993, Italo Calvino published an essay about his daily transfer of trash from the kitchen’s small container to a larger container, called a poubelle, on the street. “[T]hrough this daily gesture I confirm the need to separate myself from a part of what was once mine, the slough or chrysalis or squeezed lemon of living, so that its substance might remain, so that tomorrow I can identify completely (without residues) with what I am and have.” He equated his satisfaction with tossing things away to his satisfaction with defecation, “the sensation at least for a moment that my body contains nothing but myself.”

I felt a kinship with Calvino, for I was obsessed with throwing things away. Transferring objects—whether food scraps, the daily newspaper, or a lamp—from my house to the street made me feel lighter and cleaner, peaceful even. My apartment wasn’t large, and so everything I subtracted gave me more of what I craved: emptiness.

Eventually, Calvino came to realize that so long as he was contributing to the municipality’s waste heap, he knew he was alive. To toss garbage, in his view, was to know that one was not garbage: the act confirmed that “for one more day I have been a producer of detritus and not detritus myself.” Riffing on death and identity, Calvino referred to the men who collected his garbage as “heralds of a possible salvation beyond the destruction inherent in all production and consumption, liberators from the weight of time’s detritus, ponderous dark angels of lightness and clarity.” In a similar vein, Ivan Klima, in his novel Love and Garbage, noted that street sweepers regard themselves as “healers of a world in danger of choking.” My san men, while not obviously self-reflective, knew exactly how the public viewed what they did: “People think there’s a garbage fairy,” one worker told me. “You put your trash on the curb, and then pffft, it’s gone. They don’t have a clue.”

When their truck was full, at around ten-thirty, Murphy dropped Sullivan at the garage, then rumbled over the Gowanus and pulled into the courtyard of the IESI transfer station, a white-painted brick building at the corner of Bush and Court Streets, in Red Hook. The drill here was simple: weigh your truck, then pull around to the tipping floor, back in, and pull the lever to dump. If the men had loaded their truck properly, the ejected garbage would extend six to eight feet in a supercompressed bolus before dropping to the ground. Garbage that simply spilled out was poorly packed or indicated that the truck hadn’t been full. The quality of the dump was known as “the turd factor.” According to one designer of packer trucks, “The driver can learn from experience by observing the turd factor and know just how much trash he can put in the truck per trip. If he gets a good turd on every trip to the landfill, that’s a good day.” Judging by the conformation of today’s load, Murphy and Sullivan had done well. The morning’s labors—twenty thousand pounds collected in less than four hours—now lay in a heap, indistinguishable from the heaps dumped before or after. Without a backward glance at what he’d deposited, Murphy put the truck in forward gear.

Integrated Environmental Services Incorporated was founded in 1995 and had grown by acquisitions, gobbling sometimes as many as a hundred companies a year. It bought this facility from Waste Management in 1999. By 2003, IESI was the tenth-largest solid waste company in the nation. In New York it was the third largest, after Waste Management and Allied Waste.

I pedaled down to the Court Street station a few days after going out with Sullivan and Murphy, hoping to speak with the plant manager. The doors on the bays were closed, and no one was about. I saw no trucks, and I smelled no garbage. If you didn’t know what went on inside this building, you wouldn’t, on a cold and slow autumn day, be able to guess. I rode around the neighborhood, noting that it was zoned for industry. Then I turned a corner, from Bush onto—just coincidentally—Clinton, and now the multiple towers of the Red Hook housing projects, home to eleven thousand mostly low-income residents, rose before me.

Garbage follows a strict class topography. It concentrates on the margins, and it tumbles downhill to settle in places of least resistance, among the poor and the disenfranchised. The Gold Coast of Manhattan’s Upper East Side produces far more waste than the neighborhood of Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, but city officials have never tried to site an incinerator on Park Avenue, as they did in Williamsburg. Similarly, landfills have no place within the city limits of Grosse Point, Beverly Hills, or Palm Beach. Across the nation and around the world, trash is dumped, metaphorically, upon trash.

Of course, there are, in this era of modern landfills, plenty of communities that say yes to trash, even to trash generated far, far away. The inducement is cash—or its in-kind equivalent. Tullytown, Pennsylvania, population 2,200, has raked in $48 million over the last fifteen years in exchange for burying fifteen million tons of trash, mostly from New York and New Jersey. Literally, this is the town that garbage built: waste paid for its town hall, half the police force, the new fire truck, the marine rescue boat, playground, trees, sidewalks, lampposts, and fireworks. (Towns that agree to host dumps invariably get free garbage pickup, too.) The town of Taylor, Pennsylvania, receives a minimum of $1.5 million a year from the Alliance landfill for hosting a five-thousand-ton-per-day landfill, in addition to a one-time lump sum of $900,000, which paid for a new library and a senior center.

Lee County, one of South Carolina’s poorest, receives a fifth of its annual budget from Allied Waste, which pays $1.2 million a year to dump there. Sumpter Township, in Michigan, turns a fraction of Toronto’s waste into nearly half its annual income. In 2003, Waste Management paid Michigan’s Lenox Township nearly $1.8 million, which it used to improve a park, buy two EKG machines, and acquire two thermal-imaging cameras for the fire department. Charles City County, in Virginia, lacks a supermarket, drugstore, and bank. But after the Chambers Development Company built a supersized landfill there, the county cut property taxes (Chambers pays 30 percent of the county’s operating budget) and started to build schools. In Canton Township, Michigan, the Auk Hills landfill contributed $13 million to build the town’s Summit on the Park community center. (These deal sweeteners aren’t unique to trash and tiny towns: before New York City could build a sewage treatment plant on Manhattan’s far Upper West Side, it promised the community a twenty-eight-acre park, complete with soccer field, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, and an ice-skating rink—all sitting smack-dab atop the settling tanks and sludge thickeners.)

Giant waste companies don’t mind paying host fees: they help smooth over community opposition and legal hassles. Christopher White, president of Mid-American Waste Systems, explained the historical setting of host fees to a Forbes reporter: “It’s something the utility companies and the railroads have done for years.” In the dozens of tiny towns that were exploited, then polluted and abandoned by King Coal before being forced to contemplate megadumps in their scarred backyards, this type of justification, made by an absentee power lord, probably isn’t all that reassuring.

“People get very rich very fast if they’re willing to impose on a poor community that can’t fight back,” Al Wurth, a political scientist at Lehigh College, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, told me. “There are enormous incentives for certain groups to do this. They’re not thinking about the effect of stuff three generations from now. They’ll be gone. But the stuff lingers on.” It is an especially raw deal for neighboring towns that aren’t getting new ball fields and Fourth of July fireworks. They get all the truck traffic, the air and water pollution, the birds, the stench, and the degraded property values, but all the host benefits lie just over the county line.

A decade before Fresh Kills was slated to close, New York City officials went shopping for a new place to dump. One destination under consideration was West Virginia’s McDowell County, near the state’s southern border. Facing acute unemployment and underdevelopment, the town of Welch, the county seat, saw no better economic alternative than to build a landfill in a bowl-shaped hollow at the end of Lower Shannon Branch, a dirt road that winds for six miles through hill country.

In exchange for accepting 300,000 tons of waste a month, most of it from New York City, Welch would receive an $8 million fee from the development company, 367 jobs, and one wastewater treatment plant, a novelty for a county that, by dumping raw sewage into its creeks, had been in violation of the Clean Water Act since 1972. Only a handful of people had questions about the project, but just as the contract was about to be signed, a protest movement materialized. Much was made of the waste’s provenance: accepting garbage from New York and New Jersey, the landfill would surely be tainted with AIDS and by medical waste, it would be run by the mob, and “cocktailed” with toxic and nuclear dregs. (Homegrown trash, presumably, didn’t even smell.) The plan was ultimately defeated by economics, despite a referendum in favor of the dump. In 2004, the landfill’s developers presented a reworked proposal for McDowell to the state legislature. After all, the county was still in desperate financial straits, its creeks still flowed with sewage, and New York was still producing waste.

Across the nation, environmental justice groups have sprung up to fight the siting of transfer stations, landfills, wastewater treatment plants, and other polluting industries within low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. According to a 1987 study conducted by the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice, three out of every five African Americans or Hispanic Americans live in communities with one or more unregulated toxic-waste site. These environmental justice groups track cancer and asthma clusters, educate their constituents, and work to clean up hazardous waste.

In my travels with trash I learned that more than two-thirds of New York City’s residential and commercial waste flows through transfer stations in just two neighborhoods: the Bronx’s Hunts Point and Brooklyn’s Greenpoint-Williamsburg. (Altogether, the city has sixty-two land-based transfer stations, not one of which is located in Manhattan.) It isn’t just garbage that irritates the stations’ neighbors. Six days a week, twenty-four hours a day, ten-ton packer trucks roll in with their deliveries—at some stations, more than a thousand of them a day. Altogether, they travel a total of forty thousand miles a day, trailed by a diesel plume of particulate matter. According to Inform, an independent research firm that examines how business practices affect the environment and human health, packer trucks account for only 0.06 percent of the vehicles on US roads, but they consume more fuel annually—and discharge more pollution—than any vehicles other than tractor-trailers and transit buses. Why do garbage trucks have such a heavy impact? Because they cover twice as many miles per year as the typical heavy-duty single-unit truck, and they travel less than three miles on a gallon of gas.

Greenpoint, home to sixteen waste transfer stations processing about a third of the city’s garbage, has the highest concentration of airborne lead in New York City, and the second-highest rate of asthma. Epidemiologists link the disease with particulate matter smaller than two microns, the stuff that spews from the stream of packer trucks bringing garbage in, and from the tractor-trailer trucks that idle in a queue, waiting to haul it away.

Since Fresh Kills closed, almost all of the city’s waste is trucked from transfer stations to out-of-state landfills and incinerators. According to Keith Kloor, reporting for City Limits, it takes about 450 tractor-trailer trucks to complete this task each day, burning roughly 33,700 gallons of diesel fuel. The combined round trips add up to 135,000 miles. An additional 150 packer trucks, carrying about fifteen hundred tons of waste a day, make shorter trips to three incinerators in New Jersey and Long Island. The trucks wear down city streets and outlying highways, and their emissions of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons, and other pollutants contribute to elevated asthma and cancer rates, acid rain, ozone depletion, and global warming.

The cost of shuttling city garbage around the boroughs and out of state is not cheap. In tolls alone, the city spent $2.25 million in 2002. Trucking and tipping fees cost another $248 million. Including the hiring of three hundred additional drivers to relay full trucks to transfer stations, the city spent $257 to dispose of each ton of trash in 2002, a 40 percent increase over the 1996 cost.

My garbage was now in private hands. To get a look at it, I had to call Mickey Flood, the CEO of IESI, in Fort Worth, Texas, and then Ed Apuzzi, the company’s vice president for business development and legal affairs in the Northeast region, who decided we should meet at the transfer station on Election Day, when DSNY wasn’t delivering garbage (though commercial waste continued to pour in). At the appointed hour, I stood at the building’s corner and waited for Apuzzi to show. The sidewalk was litter free but greasy. A truck had damaged the corrugated metal fence across the street, and there was a deep pothole on the corner filled with opaque gray liquid. The building had recently been painted white with blue trim. Under the company logo—a pine tree—was a phone number to call with any complaints.

Casually, as if I weren’t really spying, I glanced inside the transfer station. At first, I couldn’t tell what I was looking at. Like a Hollywood soundstage, the walls, floor, and ceiling were painted black, and there were large floodlights mounted on tracks overhead. But there weren’t many of them, and they shed only a dim light on the hilly mosaic of garbage that covered half the floor. Higher up, they illuminated what I at first took for dust motes but realized, when I got a little closer, were droplets of a powerful perfume, which shot from nozzles near the ceiling. The smell was sweetly antiseptic. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I made out large black bags of garbage, small supermarket sacks of garbage, one of which could have been mine, some bulk metal pushed off to one side, a rotted board, chair cushions, a ketchup bottle. But still, the upper contours of the space were indeterminate. I could have been in a planetarium.

At first the jumble of goods, some ten feet high, appeared homogeneous to me: it was just a lot of garbage—dirty, ragged, bagged, loose. But to the practiced eye of a fanatic recycler or a Mexican pepenador, a professional trash picker, the pile was actually heterogeneous. It contained metals and textiles, wood and glass—commodities with value. Save for the preponderance of plastic, it comprised almost the same materials found in a nineteenth-century ragpicker’s shanty: bones, broken dishes, rags, bits of furniture, cinders, old tin, useless lamps, decaying vegetables, ribbons, cloth, legless chairs, and carrion.

Back in the day, all of those items would have found another use. Today, they were prodded into a rough pile by a worker in a front-end loader and spilled into a tractor-trailer parked along the far wall of the tipping floor. Using the backside of its bucket, the loader awkwardly patted the reeking mass into one solid rectangular cube. The driver tucked a tarp over the garbage and, with a roar of the engine, was gone.

While I waited for Apuzzi, I made small talk with Frank Morgante, the site manager. I asked him if neighbors complained about the station.

“They walk by here and they give us looks,” he said. “They look at us like we’re garbage. I want to say to them, ‘You want to solve the garbage problem? Stop eating. Stop living. Then we won’t have any more garbage.’”

A middle-aged man walked by, and I asked him what it was like living near a transfer station.

“IESI is not a good neighbor,” he said. “The place smells and it’s overrun with rats.”

“We have an exterminator every two weeks!” Morgante interjected.

“That just sends them up there,” the man shouted, indicating his home in the Red Hook housing projects.

Earlier, Morgante had told me that rats tumbled out of the trucks—they weren’t living at his transfer station. Now he told the neighbor that the trash didn’t sit in the transfer station. It came in and it went out. In. And out. He repeated it brightly. The neighbor didn’t care about in and out. He cared about the continual presence of garbage. He cared about its cumulative physical impact.

“This place has given me asthma,” he said.

“You probably had asthma before we ever worked here,” Morgante said. They were getting a little loud. The neighbor waved his arm as if to ward off Morgante’s retort and turned to leave. “You know why the garbage is here?” he asked. “It’s because we’re poor.”

“You know what?” Morgante said to his back. “I’m poor, too, and I don’t live that far from here.”

Apuzzi finally appeared. He was clean shaven, with a neat haircut and what I took to be, in November, a salon tan. He seemed ill at ease here. He declined to wear the orange vest and hard hat that Morgante had forced upon me before I made the ten-foot walk from the bay door, over the knee-high tide of garbage, to an open stairway that led to a small office. Frowning in his dress shirt and polished brown shoes, Apuzzi picked his way over a sofa cushion, across the slippery frame of a foldout bed, and in between two black garbage bags. A sheen of brown muck coated the floor.

The office, which smelled slightly garbagey, contained a cheap L-shaped desk with a computer, a small meeting table, and several ceiling-mounted security monitors. The room had no street windows, but it did have an interior window that overlooked the tipping floor, and that’s what I wanted to see.

At 11:00 a.m., the trash was halfway up to the horizontal yellow line on the push wall. The front-end loader, with its six-yard bucket, was filling a truck. I asked Apuzzi why everything was painted black. “I don’t know,” he said. He seemed as puzzled as I was.

I asked him about his background. I imagined that like many in the trash business, he was a guy whose career had probably started out promisingly enough in another field but had then taken a sudden turn and rolled downhill. “I’m an attorney,” he said. “I worked as a litigator in Manhattan and then Princeton until IESI bought my family’s waste collection business.” Now his boss was Mickey Flood.

“Trucks dump here until about eleven p.m.,” Apuzzi said, gazing down on the trash. “The floor has to be clean by midnight—empty of garbage and washed. Then the garbage starts coming in again.” I watched as a kid from the projects zipped around in a small forklift, picking bulk metal objects from the trash heap—a stroller, a desk, a swing set frame. He piled this stuff in the station’s adjacent empty bay. Metal is heavy, and IESI didn’t want to pay to tip it in someone else’s landfill. The company could sell it for scrap. “The garbage always sits less than one day,” Apuzzi continued. “On Sunday we’re empty.”

I asked how many trucks came in each day. “City trucks bring about eight tons each and commercial trucks bring thirteen. You can do the math.” I divided the station’s permitted 745 tons by 21 tons, the amount in one commercial and one residential truck, and got approximately 75 full trucks entering each day. The tractor-trailer trucks held 20 tons, so that was an additional 37 trucks leaving. They delivered the waste to two landfills IESI owned in Pennsylvania or—if those landfills had met their daily permitted tonnages—to two or three others owned by competitors.

“And you always get your seven hundred forty-five tons?”

“We always make our quota,” Apuzzi said. “When we’re full, we let the Brooklyn garage know, and they divert trucks to other transfer stations.”

The number of truck trips out of transfer stations—450 tractor-trailers a day—was a flashpoint for garbage activists. Environmental and local advocacy groups wanted the city to reopen its marine transfer stations—there was at least one for each borough, excluding Staten Island—and barge the garbage from neighborhoods. The packer trucks would still drive in, but tractor-trailers would be eliminated from the equation.

“If the city opens its marine transfer stations, we’ll do just commercial,” Apuzzi said. His permit was good for 745 tons—it didn’t matter where it came from. But he didn’t think garbage barges were coming anytime soon. “It will cost the city more at the marine transfer stations because containerization is significantly more expensive. Retrofitting the stations will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.” (Apuzzi was right, but just for a year: after announcing it would fix up the transfer stations, the city backed down from the plan, citing its expense, then recommitted.)

The city now paid IESI an average of sixty-five dollars a ton to tip residential waste. “What we pay to tip at landfills fluctuates,” Apuzzi said. “If the distance to the landfill is long, it costs us more to get there, but tipping fees are lower.”

“Where do you usually go?”

“Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. We own a landfill there.”

“I’d like to visit it, see what happens to my trash next.”

Apuzzi narrowed his eyes and wrote something on his legal pad. “I’ll see what I can do,” he said, not sounding confident.

I asked if there was community opposition to the transfer station. “Historically, yes. But since IESI has been here, we run an efficient and environmentally sound operation. We run with the doors closed. We don’t allow garbage to spew out. We use a perfume neutralizer. We have little traffic. We’ve got a ventilation system with a scrubber on the exhaust. Over the years, community opposition has dwindled.” He looked at his watch.

“Let me ask one more thing,” I said. “Do you think we have a garbage problem?”

“That’s a good question,” Apuzzi said, sitting back in his chair. He was quiet for a moment, then, “No, I don’t think we do. We have plenty of room for it. It would be nice to have a landfill within the city boundaries. But I don’t think Fresh Kills is going to reopen soon. That place was an environmental nightmare.” I smiled to myself. Just as individuals imagined their trash was better than the next guy’s, so did dump owners think their operations were better than the next dump owner’s.

“I don’t know a thing about Fresh Kills,” I told Apuzzi. “I’m still waiting for someone to let me in there.”

With that, our interview was suddenly over, and Apuzzi ushered me from the office. I never saw IESI’s vice president for business development and legal affairs in the Northeast region again, despite repeated attempts to meet up with him. In any case, my attention would soon turn from transfer stations to landfills. Although it was no longer the final destination of my garbage, the Fresh Kills Sanitary Landfill was the K2 of trash heaps, and I was determined to make an assault on its closed and forbidden slopes.

Excerpted from Garden Spells © Copyright 2012 by Sarah Addison Allen. Reprinted with permission by Bantam Discovery. All rights reserved.

Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash
by by Elizabeth Royte

  • hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316738263
  • ISBN-13: 9780316738262