Down in the Dumps, Again

“What we call progress is the exchange of one nuisance for another nuisance.”

                                                ~ Havelock Ellis

My friend knew where the old dump was outside of Leadville, and any excuse to go into the mountains was okay with me. We stopped on the edge of town and then turned down a dirt track to what looked like a lumpy field. Others had been digging here before us, churning the more-than-century-old piles looking for treasure.

Putting our waste somewhere out of the way is a practice as old as humanity. A hunter-gatherer spent time away from their abode and was able to spread their wastes out where nature could deal with it gradually. More permanent residents couldn’t afford to just live with the trash, as it would attract all kinds of scavengers, including predators, so they found not-too-distant ravines or streams to dump stuff. Archeologists call these middens, and mine them for artifacts and traces of past plant and animal debris likely used for food or other purposes. Flint knapping sites where arrow and spear heads and other tools were made revealed how sophisticated the culture was. 

You can tell a lot about a person from their trash.

In the U.S., we long ago decided that dumps were not good things to have nearby. We learned that if you leave garbage lying around, it attracts all kinds of vermin (rats and flies) and smells bad. In addition, it can wash into streams and rivers (and ultimately the ocean) and can pollute the groundwater. So, we have laws and regulations that limit what can be dumped, require landfills (dumps are not now allowed) to have liners to protect the groundwater, caps and daily cover to eliminate vermin and odors, and containment of surface runoff. Fences are required to control blowing trash and methane venting or recovery is often necessary.

However, the Leadville dump we were exploring was more than a century old and hadn’t suffered from regulation. It sat on the downwind edge of town, and in its day was a favorite haunt of rats, bears, coyotes and all kinds of birds. People dumped wagonloads of debris, garbage, rotten food, dead animals and whatever else they needed to get rid of. Because it was not covered regularly, water seeped into the piles and facilitated decay on its way to the groundwater.

We started working on the face of a partial excavation, using shovels, then trowels if we got into a spot with glass or metal. Mostly, we encountered a kind of soil created from decomposed organics, not unlike an unsorted compost. Sometimes we’d hit a pocket that smelled strongly of something nasty, but mostly it had a rich, earthy smell. We were careful about wearing gloves and a kerchief over our faces.

There were lots of unidentifiable bits of metal and glass shards of various colors and items from different eras. Broken crockery was plentiful and showed lots of different designs. Occasionally we’d come across most of a plate or bowl, and a cracked bottle or two. Like the miners that once inhabited the town, we were digging for treasure and had no real idea what we might find.

After a few hours, we surveyed our finds. We had a couple of intact, small bottles probably used for some kind of medicine, but most everything else was cracked or broken. There were quite a few indeterminate chunks of metal, nearly recognizable and tantalizingly mysterious. There was part of a wooden sign with obscured writing. What appeared to be bundles of cloth was possibly clothing or even just burlap bags or flour sacks stained brown by the decaying masses around them.   

Of course, in the old days, most useable or recyclable material was not tossed into the dump, but re-used for some purpose. Quilts were made with scrap cloth, pigs were fed with food scraps, bottles and jars were repurposed, and anything mechanical was salvaged for parts. Even after that, poor people would scavenge the dump for things they could use or sell.

Today, we try to encourage or enforce recycling of materials before they go to our landfills, but we’re not that successful at it. Companies and governments try to encourage recycling by direct payment, but the market is poor even for stuff like aluminum cans or white paper. They also cut customers some slack on disposal costs for materials recycled. But the recycle market is weak, and much of the material is shipped overseas (and may end up in our oceans).

As reported by Alex Thornton, “The Australian government has announced a A$190 million (US$130 million) investment in the nation’s first Recycling Modernisation Fund, with the aim of transforming the country’s waste and recycling industry. The hope is that as many as 10,000 jobs can be created in what is being called a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to remodel the way Australia deals with its waste.”

Like most developed countries, Australia has in the past shipped most of its waste overseas. By retaining their waste, Australia expects a more robust recycling industry to develop. Thornton quotes the federal environment minister, “As we cease shipping our waste overseas, the waste and recycling transformation will reshape our domestic waste industry, driving job creation and putting valuable materials back into the economy,”

He quotes Rose Read, recycling industry CEO, “The benefits to the environment of boosting recycling rates are well known — less landfill, less plastic in our ocean, reduced need for virgin materials, and lower carbon emissions.”

In the 1950’s and ‘60’s, our country’s economic boom fed a massive increase in the cost and availability of consumer products, many destined for the trash after one or a few uses. The general welfare and stricter controls over landfills reduced the amount of materials reused, and landfills began to fill up and be located farther and farther from towns. Aside from the nasty chemicals that were allowed, much of what was disposed could today be recycled or repurposed, and at some point, landfills from that era may be ripe for excavation and scavenging.

Until then, we should follow Australia’s lead in creating markets and jobs for recycled materials. After all, it’s only natural. 

Additional information:

Alex Thornton, Turning Trash Into Treasure: How Australia Plans to Recycle its Way to Recovery After COVID-19, August 4, 2020, Formative Content

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