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Why take a tour of the landfill?

This week I took my kids and some of their friends to the landfill. Every year around Earth Day we collect garbage that is revealed after the spring melt. Without fail we've had a wonderful time in the woods, surrounded by ephemeral woodland flowers, on a focused treasure hunt for plastic. It is fun, but it is also pretty gross. And it always gets me thinking about our culture of trash-making. 


The trip to the landfill was a kind of local tourism. It was a way to know this place better. And like any good trip, it has inspired me and helped me to better understand my place in the world.

Abdullah Younes is a Civil Engineer at the Dane County Landfill. He is a very nice man who is happy to talk with kids about trash.

Mr. Younes graduated from UW-Madison in 1985, when the current state-of-the-art landfill opened. As he nears retirement, he is clearly proud of the care he and his team take to divert trash to other uses and protect the groundwater we drink. For example, they send a full semi-truck of tires to be recycled into energy every week. And the stink you smell when driving by on Highway 12? That is the gas that is released from the decomposing trash, which is captured and added to the MG&E grid to provide 5,000 homes with energy. They also set aside bottles of useful cleaner and paint for a 'free store' open to the public. 

This landfill receives 1/3 of all of Dane County’s trash. Eight hundred tons of trash comes through their doors daily. A ton equals 2,000 pounds, so that is 1,600,000 pounds, or 133 medium-sized elephants at this one landfill. Multiply that by three and Dane County sends 2,400 tons of trash to the landfill every day.

The landfill is actually a collection of deep bathtub-shaped holes that are filled up until they are small mountains. These heaps of trash are contained within layer upon layer of protective materials: 4 feet of clay, a layer of plastic, a layer of cloth, then rocks, then dirt, then grass, until they resemble the gentle slopes of Quann and Demetral Parks

This landfill will be totally full in 6-8 years, when my kids are 12 or 14 years old. Mr. Younes said that finding the 200 or more acres needed for a new landfill in Dane County is a political problem.

When asked what can be done, he responded with what we all know, the only answer there is and yet one we culturally have no sense of how to do: Reduce, reuse, recycle.

Cultural Shift

Robin Wall Kimmerer tells the story of the legendary monster of the Anishinaabe people named Windigo in her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.  
"Cautionary Windigo tales arose in a commons-based society where sharing was essential to survival and greed made an individual a danger to the whole. In the old times, individuals who endangered the community by taking too much for themselves were first counseled, then ostracized, and if the greed continued, they were eventually banished...Indulgent self-interest that our people once held to be monstrous is now celebrated as success. We are asked to admire what our people viewed as unforgivable. The consumption-driven mindset masquerades as "quality of life" but eats us from within...We have unleashed a monster."

The story of the Crying Indian ad campaign

I read the story of the Keep America Beautiful ad campaign many years back. It left me disheartened. Here are the basics from a recent Chicago Tribune piece:

Keep America Beautiful was founded in 1953 by the American Can Co. and the Owens-Illinois Glass Co., who were later joined by the likes of Coca-Cola and the Dixie Cup Co. During the 1960s, Keep America Beautiful anti-litter campaigns featured Susan Spotless, a white girl who wore a spotless white dress and pointed her accusatory finger at pieces of trash heedlessly dropped by her parents. The campaign used the wagging finger of a child to condemn individuals for being bad parents, irresponsible citizens and unpatriotic Americans. But by 1971, Susan Spotless no longer captured the zeitgeist of the burgeoning environmental movement and rising concerns about pollution.

The shift from Keep America Beautiful’s bland admonishments about litter to the Crying Indian did not represent an embrace of ecological values but instead indicated industry’s fear of them. In the time leading up to the first Earth Day in 1970, environmental demonstrations across the United States focused on the issue of throwaway containers. All these protests held industry — not consumers — responsible for the proliferation of disposable items that depleted natural resources and created a solid waste crisis. Enter the Crying Indian, a new public relations effort that incorporated ecological values but deflected attention from beverage and packaging industry practices.

[A little more salt in the wound: the actor who played the Crying Indian was an Italian-American who used an Indian-sounding name in Hollywood.]

This "ad that fooled the environmental movement" really soured me to the responsibility corporate America had placed on me, and all individuals, to solve the problem while the big players continue making the big messes. 

But now I know it is about me, but it is more than my shorter shower or my cold-water laundry loads. It is about me making a cultural shift.

Because cultural shifts, like #MeToo, happen when individuals change. When we teach our children a different cultural norm. When our friends and neighbors see us modeling different values. And when we start expecting different priorities of our cities.

So this is what I’m trying to do: 

Cleaning out my mailbox: I have a love/hate relationship with the mailbox. I love getting mail but I hate dropping most of my mail directly into the recycling bin. The landfill tour made me realize I need to do the work it takes to get off the mailing lists to end the onslaught of mail-I-don’t-need. 

NOTE: This is easy to do for most catalogs. Simply go to the company website and start a live chat. Explain you want to be removed from the mailing list and they take care of it!

Eating at home or packing a picnic: All that trash that comes with a carry-out or food cart meal makes me feel glutonous. But there are such great restaurants and food carts in Madison! True. My husband eats at the library mall food carts several times a week, and even brings food home for us for dinner sometimes. He plans ahead and takes his containers. The vendors love it and generally give him bigger portions.
Switching back to cloth napkins: We got into the habit of using a lot of paper towels while the kids were little and I was doing tons of laundry. My kids are older now, slightly less messy, and much more a part of setting the table. I want them to grow up remembering cloth napkins for every meal, not just holidays. 

Investing in utilitarian bikes for the kids: This isn’t about trash, but petroleum. Now that the kids are old enough to be trusted navigating streets, we got them off their toy bikes and onto bikes they can use for all our family commutes. 

Using a bamboo toothbrush: This one feels silly, but apparently toothbrushes end up in the ocean and are a part of the problem. I've also been making some things like deodorant, hand cream and cough syrup. While keeping a few more little plastic containers out of the landfill is great, I'm also finding these homemade versions work at least as well as the branded chemical concoctions.
Refreshing my understanding of our local recycling program: I was just tossing everything in the recycling can like everybody else. I guess that is really not working. Read these:

Pausing before clicking: I think the option to buy stuff that you need online is an improvement from spending lots of my time shopping, going from store-to-store, buying stuff I don’t need while I’m there to save myself another trip or because it looks shiny and fun. However, it’s SO easy to click-and-buy, I hate the image that gives my kids: You need it, we’ll find it on the porch like a present in the morning. So I’m trying to at least take the time to look on Craig’s List before I click-and-buy. 

Traveling less: This one is really hard for me. We have family all over the country who wish we visited more often. But we are finding a balance. I am getting on a plane less frequently and, with my kids as my guide, remembering the beauty there is to explore in my own neighborhood, city, state, and Great Lakes Region. Sometimes we even intentionally have a “cabin weekend” at home and do the things we’d do on holiday, like wander around with curiosity, say no to social invitations, play family games and read, and generally relax.  

This is hard, too, because I truly love traveling, meeting people, experiencing different cultures, learning languages, and shifting my perspective. And I believe travel is a really big way that as individuals we have eye-opening experiences that shift us personally, which is part of the cultural shift that I think needs to happen.  

I remember very clearly traveling in Guatemala in my early twenties and walking along the shore of Lake Atitl├ín. Rows of corn were planted right up to the water’s edge, where each stalk seemed be growing out of a bed of trash instead of soil. Without a garbage collection system, what ended up in the lake or in jungle ravines washed right into this corn field. I was stunned and haven’t forgotten it. I think of it almost every time I see a garbage truck and say a small Thank You for the fact we have a functional civic infrastructure that picks up trash and takes it to the landfill. 

Saying Thank You more often: In a consumer society and capitalist economy, contentment is a radical act. Contentment comes for me when I feel gratitude. This is where making-less-trash connects with my spiritual practice. In my best moments as a parent, my intentions, words, and actions are imparting a culture of gratitude. Content with and grateful for the abundance of gifts around us, I hope my kids grow up to be more interested in the spring ephemeral flowers than the shiny plastic ephemerals that fill up garbage bags.

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