What Becomes of the Unwanted

What Becomes of the Unwanted

Louise Lin went to the Green Island Landfill to talk to the people who deal with the waste products most people prefer to ignore

If you want to be attacked by irate pukeko, the Green Island landfill is the place to go. Jennie Upton, Education and promotion officer at the DCC, is showing me around. A young blond woman calls out: “watch out for the pukeko! They’re really angry!” Jennie explains, “they’re breeding at the moment. The mothers get very protective. But if we stick to the path we should be fine.” I wonder how much damage a bird the size of a chicken could do. Then I wonder what these birds were doing here in the first place. Don’t they belong, in, like, an estuary? As it turns out, the Green Island landfill was built next to an estuary. Not the best decision, in retrospect. Contaminated waterways anyone? 

We are walking up to the tip face. No pukekos in sight. We have to walk up because there is a ‘bund’—a small hill, planted with good looking trees, in between, which hides the landfill from the public eye.  The name ‘landfill’ is in fact a misnomer: you don’t actually dig a hole to put the trash in. Instead, you start on the ground level, build up the sides of the landfill with clay, or other material, and fill your way up.  As we walk up Jennie points out the odour plant. It’s a fence, topped with a thin tube. There is a mist emanating from small holes in the tube, drifting out like a smoke machine at a stage play. “When the wind blows in the direction of town, the smell of the landfill is blown through the mist. The mist smells of lavender. It stops the smell of the landfill reaching the town.”

Yes, we make great efforts to keep our landfill from offending the eyes and noses of the public. We like to make trash as invisible as possible, sequestered in bins, taken away in mysterious trucks. Rubbish is the detritus from our lives, the stuff that’s left at the end of the day when we’ve gone to bed happy and satisfied. Its very nature is distasteful; we throw out what we want gone, after all. It also has the power to contaminate (not always physically) all that comes into contact with it. Last week, I had been hanging around the transfer station watching people throw things out. I ended up chatting to a lady who was throwing away old doors—“there are a lot of pukeko in the area” I mentioned. She said “There must be a swamp nearby.... It makes me like them a little less, knowing they eat rubbish.” How does this stigma towards rubbish affect those who work in the waste disposal industry? At Mt. Cooee Landfill, I saw the insides of a rubbish collection truck. They were clean - shiny clean. “We eat our lunch in here” Graham the truck driver explained.

As we are walking past the transfer station, we see a guy dumping all manner of potentially useful items, including, amongst other things, a bathtub, into the landfill transfer. I am gobsmacked. Jennie mutters under her breath. “This is a common sight” she tells me. She calls out with a laugh: “I hope there’s no use for that stuff anymore!” the guy laughs sheepishly, and drove off, presumably to the recycling centre (or to place a complaint).  “Pure laziness” snorts Jennie.  

In our profligate consumerism, we have become indolent and wasteful, a ‘throwaway society’, says historian Susan Strasser. She argues that we have gone from a society where virtually everything is mended and reused—she digs up old household manuals which advise mending china with egg-white, making shirts out of flour-bags—to the society of today, chucking out old bathtubs and doors on a whim.

As Jennie and I walked up to the landfill, we pass a steam-punky copper canister emitting a heatwave of shimmery air. I enquired. It’s a gas flare. Landfills produce methane, as the organic matter within is anaerobically digested. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and out of concern for the environment (or the Emissions Trading System) we are collecting it up, in big black pipes running through the landfill like veins. We use it to power the water treatment plant next door, a system which we started building in July 2007. But not today: something must be broken, because the copper canister is burning the collected methane into CO2. “I’ve never seen it do that before” notes Jennie. She grows pensive at the sight. “This is what we’ve created.”  

The landfill is a visible presence from the transfer station, despite the barrier of the bund. A cloud of seagulls augur its presence. When we climb to the top, the cloud becomes a swarm, ballooning off a surprisingly tiny pile of bright colour. There are enough seagulls to fly the Giant Peach, but that rubbish really didn’t look like the conglomerated refuse of the entire Dunedin population. After all, we threw out 10,220 tons in domestic rubbish alone in the year of 2014. Jennie enlightens me: they cover the old stuff over with dirt every day, to contain the trash and odours, and to keep the rodent and gull population under control. (If this is controlled, I’d hate to see it out of control!) We do not walk along the landfill, due to the pukeko risk. I follow Jennie back down.

The Landfill is like a Human Body  

I am sitting in a car with Dave and Megan. Dave is the environmental engineer of Delta, the company that manages Green Island and Mt. Cooee landfills, amongst other things. Dave wants to give me a sound bite for my assignment—this is what he tells the little kids when he takes them on landfill tours. 

“The landfill is like a human body” he declares. “You take in the waste, like your McDonald’s or KFC, and you wash it down with milk or water—that’s the rain. It’s anaerobically digested: just like in your stomach. Leachate comes out, like urine. And the gas produced, methane and CO2: farts.”

 “What about poop?” I ask. He gives me an enquiring glance. “You know, if the landfill is a human, what’s the landfill equivalent of poop?”  I don’t think this was the line of enquiry I was supposed to take.  “The stuff in the ground. You stick the waste in the ground and it breaks down.”  

“What does it look like?” I ask, curious.  

“Well, we don’t tend to dig it up again.”

Crushing Rubbish —Mt Cooee 

It is a grey, chilly afternoon, and I am at Mt. Cooee Landfill, Clutha Country, talking to Tina, the resident compactor driver. A compactor is a curious, and slightly intimidating machine. It looks like a giant tractor, but instead of tyres it’s got these giant metal wheels with great big spikes on the end, and a front grating to push the debris around with. Its function is to (you guessed it!) compact rubbish: it rolls over and over the tip face, squishing down the rubbish as small as possible. Landfill airspace is valuable, at $130 a cubic meter, and the more you squish now, the less it sinks later. Since landfills are usually converted to recreation areas after they’re closed, this is a good thing –you don’t want your children’s playground to gradually submerge into a morass of decomposing litter.  

Tina, who is driving the compactor, greets me with a vibrant smile. “Today we’ve got household rubbish, which is nice and small, compacts down very easily” says Tina. “When you compact, it’s like you’re sculpting with clay. You’ve really got to know how to shape it, to give it the best possible shape. When you get something big, like a tree stump, what you do, is you build up around it with plenty of the small stuff, to smooth it out. It’s an art form.”  

Mt. Cooee doesn’t look quite like a mountain. It is more like a desert, with sand dunes of detritus, and in the middle, a child’s sand-pit, ‘sculpted’ by the compactor. The ‘sand’ is bright, synthetic colours, an incongruous medley of the strange and the familiar. Shredded plastic bags, empty cans, tyres, a blue blanket with football patterns is all chomped into the compactor. A Mountain Dew bottle, half full, is caught in the grating, its contents shaking around as she drives. She rolls back and forth, up and down. The effect is strangely meditative. 

As I leave, I remember that I had planned to ask Tina if she minded the smell. But I realise: the very fact that I had forgotten to ask shows how unobtrusive the smell was. It was ripe and foetid, but soft, and it faded into the background.

A landfill doesn’t just dispose of solid waste. The soupy stuff from wastewater treatment – sludge, it’s called - is also treated and disposed of. Dave shows me the sludge pits, pools of shimmering brown liquid. He tosses a pebble in - gloop - it’s a long time before it hits the bottom. Bubbles of methane rise to the surface and pop. The dehydrated sludge is scooped out and sits to the side of each pit: a Seuss inspired mini-mountain. “Disgusting, isn’t it,” says Dave. It is surreal. 

Back in the car, I realise: at a landfill, rubbish isn’t rubbish anymore. It isn’t the leftover stuff from the day’s business—it is the day’s business—an entity in its own right.

When Cleanfill Goes Dirty 

The purpose of Dave and Megan’s day trip is to inspect a contaminated cleanfill site in Edendale. A cleanfill is like a landfill, except the stuff being dumped (theoretically) won’t degrade or emit toxins. A load of aluminium dross, the by-product of aluminium smelting, has been dumped. It’s supposed to be rendered inert, but something’s gone wrong.  

It’s a long drive: three hours, down roads that get progressively smaller and emptier. We end up in a quarry, driving through small hills of sand and gravel of varying colours and textures. 

We stop, get out, and walk through the gravel to get to the contamination. Suddenly, a sharp, acrid smell of ammonia hits me. The contaminated dross... we were standing on it. 

Its appearance, common garden gravel. Megan walks around and snaps a few pictures, Dave talks to Kevin (who runs the site) about how someone was supposed to build a shed there, and someone’s made some mistake, someone else made another mistake, etcetera. They plan to mix it with concrete, because that’s how you render volatile substances inert, then cart the whole lot to the nearest landfill. We drive off. Three hours there, three hours back, all to smell some gravel. But this gravel’s doing bad stuff to the atmosphere, and will take a real bucketload of money to sort out. Dunedin has no cleanfill monitoring system in place. If something like this were to happen here, no one would be liable. 

People throw out weird things. Smelly gravel isn’t the worst of it. I asked Dave what the weirdest thing he had seen someone throw out was. “Once there was a guy who came in really distraught because someone had thrown out his comic book collection.” He thought for a while. “It was antique comic books, though so I guess that was understandable. Another time someone had thrown out pens... boxes and boxes of biro pens. All unused and unopened.”

Zero Waste  

Dunedin is a Zero Waste city. What that means is that the council’s vision is of a Dunedin where there is no rubbish going into the landfills, nothing dumped in the sea, no gases going into the atmosphere. As you might have guessed, this is more of an ideal to aspire to than a practical target. The projected fill volumes for Green Island landfill are on the rise. The council is looking at implementing inner-city organic waste collection, but the cost, and the lack of market for the resulting compost are significant barriers. We don’t seem set on giving up plastic packaging anytime soon – aside from convenience, there are health and safety regulations that necessitate the packaging of food in plastic.

What now? 

The future of Dunedin landfills is uncertain. The resource consent for Green Island landfill is due to expire in 2023. If the resource consent is not renewed, it will be the end of a long piece of history. Green Island has been around since 1957—it was built on an old aerodrome site, after the Domain tip at St. Kilda was too full to accept trade wastes. The Council has purchased a piece of land in Smooth Hill, near Otokia, as a proposed landfill site, for the day Green Island closes.

By most accounts, rubbish is bad, and in need of minimisation. It’s harmful to the environment: decomposing organics emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, cleaning and cosmetic products leach heavy metals and toxins into waterways, and small plastic particles choke birdlife. 

In addition, it looks ugly, and smells bad. But is rubbish always foul? In American Beauty, a drifting plastic bag is beautiful. The same lady who had lowered her opinion of pukeko after seeing them eat trash spoke with fondness about the beautiful glass medicine bottles she found in an old long drop. After all, as anthropologist Mary Douglas points out, dirt is ‘matter out of place’. Even though I was complaining about the smell of ammonia earlier, I still enjoy eating ‘thousand year old eggs’ (duck eggs soaked in an ammonia solution). Black Star Books hosts a weekly dinner made up of ‘rubbish’ foraged from supermarket skip bins.  Rubbish is nothing more than a line in the sand. Behind every Mountain Dew bottle in the landfill represents a split-second decision: chuck it or keep it? 

We never think about what happens to that piece of Glad wrap after we throw it in the bin. But what we discard today has got a long way to go yet. It ends up in a weird place, affecting the lives and livelihoods of people, animals, plants, in ways you cannot imagine.

This article first appeared in Issue 9, 2016.
Posted 11:23am Sunday 24th April 2016 by Louise Lin.