Urban Wastelands: A dig into our trash and a glimpse into our future
You can probably think of a few movies where the world is a wasteland: Wall-E’s endless landscape of rubbish, countless post-apocalyptic films, even the latest cute stop-motion animation movie, Isle of Dogs.
However, outside the realm of fiction, modern Canadian cities have been designed to hide the effects of our garbage. Disposable products - food packaging, single-use coffee cups, cosmetic tubes, plastic wrap, fast fashion, and so on - are cheap to buy, quick to be used up, and then disappear from our alleys (and our consciences) once a week.
Out of sight and mind
Imagine living in a world where all the garbage you and all your neighbours produce just piles up around you. In a recent CBC interview, rural landowner Doyle Booth expressed his frustration at just that. He lives in Beaver County, about 90 km outside of Edmonton. Two landfills opened up on neighbouring properties in the 1990s - one for municipal waste (including some from Edmonton), and the other for hazardous waste. Although the landfills state that they surpass provincial standards, the noise and odour are enough to disrupt Booth’s life. As he describes it, “Just leave your garbage on your porch for a couple days, say a week. You'll have the smell, you'll have maggots move in, the flies, maybe a cat going in there and ripping it up. That's what it's like."
But if you don’t live next to a landfill, it’s easy to become complacent in a system that lets us pretend that the garbage piling up outside our cities doesn’t exist. Imagine it’s 100 years from now, and future generations want a snapshot of how we lived. Do we want our lives to be immortalized in a deep hole of plastic bags, hot dogs, coffee cups, tattered clothes, and patio decorations? Already, anthropologists can use the masses of garbage that have been produced in the past to get a picture of the disposable lives of previous generations.
A Croc and water bottle float by in the John E. Poole wetland in St. Albert, reminders of the garbage that escapes from landfills and ends up in our natural area
The Fresh Kills story
The Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island in New York City operated from 1948 to 2001. It stretches 505 feet above sea level, but originated as a natural marshland. A group of archaeology professors and students from the University of Arizona began what they call the “Garbage Project”, which involves sampling the landfill for clues about the past. They use a bucket auger to extract layers of trash that haven’t seen either oxygen or sunlight in decades. Hot dogs and grass clippings from the 1980s are preserved, along with legible newspapers, styrofoam food packaging, kids’ toys long forgotten, and amorphous sludge dating back to the 1940s. After 20 years of studying trash samples, the Garbage Project has been able to intimately understand how communities lived (and what they chose to live without). I found out about this story from the book Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage and encourage you to seek it out if you are interested in the more detailed findings of the Garbage Project!
Reclaiming our trash legacy
So landfills reveal a lot about the disposable culture we’re living in, and its long-term, permanent effects. What if it doesn’t have to be that way? What if we could make the next 100 years of garbage imperceptible to future generations? Waste diversion is a hot topic these days, and Edmonton is joining the movement to divert as much waste as possible from disposal. Diversion includes recycling facilities for plastic, metal, and paper; compost facilities that provide the City with fresh, nutritious soil, biofuel production facilities, and technology that collects landfill gases to create energy. Edmonton’s facility has a goal of diverting 90% of residential waste from the landfill - unfortunately this number is less than 50%. However, with increasing landfill gas recovery operations and recently opened Waste to Biofuels facility, this number should climb as time goes on. To achieve an increased diversion rates citizens also need to be more conscious of how we deal with waste. Reducing disposable consumption, sorting our recyclables at home, and participating in home/community composting all contribute to diverting material from landfills.
As we move towards a future where landfills are not a necessary byproduct of cities, we must think about the legacy left by giant heaps of garbage on our environment. What about toxins leaching into the environment? Pathogens spread among animals who eat food waste? Pollution in the oceans caused by garbage picked up from landfills by the wind? While we can’t make the garbage disappear, we can remediate the areas that it is stored in and transform the land it takes up into something that benefits both our environment and communities.
Fresh Kills, the Staten Island landfill, is now a park area 2.5 times the size of Central Park. After closing in 2001, the area was capped with impermeable material and a plan was put in place for it to be naturalized. The full build out will take place over the next 30 years, and will include a variety of different natural landscapes.
Close to home: Riel Park
As an urban planning student, when I first learned about the Fresh Kills landfill project I was amazed at what we could do to transform such a noxious land use into something beneficial for health, community, and the environment. Looking through this year’s Emerald Award winners, I was surprised to learn that a similar project is occurring right here in the Edmonton Region! The City of St. Albert’s Riel Park Redevelopment Project was a Finalist in the Government Institution category at the 27th annual Emerald Awards.
Riel Park was a sewage lagoon in the 1950s, and later transitioned to be a dry landfill in the 1970s before closing and being redeveloped into recreational facilities in the 1980s and 90s. The redevelopment project that was just recently completed aimed to bring the landfill closure up to modern standards, protect the restored marshland, and provide more community and recreational facilities.
This is me at the redeveloped Riel Park site, with Tony Allard’s Cone sculpture!
Next week I’ll take a closer look at the Riel Park Redevelopment, why it was such a large undertaking, and how you can enjoy the outcomes of the project! Later in the series, stay tuned for an exploration of the trash system and some snapshots I took along the way!