The Life and Death of Landfills

How humans manage their trash and why dumping grounds can be resurrected to serve the environment

The Life and Death of Landfills
A woman walks across the Metalhenge viewpoint at the Blockland Landfill at sunrise / Sina Schuldt / / picture alliance via Getty Images

On a breezy afternoon in the spring of 2017, I visited the decommissioned landfill at Freshkills, located in the New York City borough of Staten Island, south of Manhattan. The landfill had been shut down shortly after the attacks of 9/11, when debris from the World Trade Towers was brought from lower Manhattan and thrown onto its mountains of refuse. It has since been undergoing a transformation into a conservation patch of land that stands to become the largest park developed in New York City in over a century.

The trip was part of my ongoing research on human litter — what happens to garbage and landfills as they grow and die, and how they affect the environment and nearby communities. I had been immersed in this topic for several years in my hometown of Mumbai, India, where I ran a microfinance nonprofit organization that gave loans to the waste pickers who trawled the city’s infamous dumping grounds known as Deonar, located in the eastern suburb of Shivaji Nagar and said to be the largest landfill in Asia. Buried at work, I had decided that my first trip in a long time abroad should be to New York City, one of the world’s most consumer-driven metropoles.

As we drove through the gate of Freshkills, I was stunned by a glistening light that shimmered on the ground, alternating like a mirage between pearly-white and silver hues. It looked magical. But on closer inspection, I realized that the sparkles were in fact castaway shiny things: crushed wash basins and tiles, porcelain that had outlived its purpose and was thrown into a mounting heap of junk so that it may die and, hopefully, in its next incarnation, find a new purpose.

Mariel Vilere, an official from the parks department who accompanied me, explained how this transformation will be achieved. The trash will be covered with landscaping sheets topped with at least 3 feet of soil so as to allow new flora to flourish, and the debris will dry up under the sun before the authorities lower it into the sea, a gift to the oysters that live along the seabed so that they may breed and grow inside the nooks and cracks of human disposables.

We drove farther into the park, passing through traffic lights that had once regulated the flow of garbage trucks that delivered trash from the city. We stood on top of a mountain of garbage, which the department had already covered with top soil. Indeed, the grasses had already begun to grow over it, and on that day, their green blades bent and shimmied in the seaside breeze. It was a glimpse into the new face of the reclaimed landfill — a terrain that would hopefully encourage the reemergence of wildlife while offering people an outdoor leisure space for recreation, art, science and education.

The park will not open fully until 2041, when the noxious gases from the buried landfill are expected to have completely dissipated, a process that scientists say can take 40 years. But a small portion of the park will open to the public next spring, a move that locals hope will rejuvenate the economy of Staten Island, which has been hampered by the stink and blight of having served as the dumping ground to the country’s most populated city.

But while Freshkills may offer an optimistic outcome for former dumping grounds, I have found that any such successful rehabilitation at home and around the world faces many challenges. It is a protracted, messy process that sometimes creates more problems than it aims to solve.

In Beirut, for example, before the authorities shut down the Naameh landfill in 2015, they first tried to relocate the waste to two rural communities. But protests against this endeavor prevailed, so the Lebanese authorities pushed the landfill waste into the sea, creating an artificial land extension with little or no planning for the environmental consequences.

“They didn’t even wait for the contractor to build a seawall, so much so that in the first months the waves eroded the trash platform and dispersed the trash on the coast and the beaches in a radius of several dozen kilometers,” explained Eric Verdeil, a professor of urban studies at the Sciences Po University in Paris who has written about the Beirut waste crisis.

At Costa Brava landfill, another hastily made garbage dump near Beirut’s airport by the sea, an unexpected problem arose. Seagulls started picking through the trash in droves, creating a hazard to the passenger flights that were landing and taking off from runways nearby. The government’s response in 2017 was to install “ultrasonic bird repellers,” which emit a high-pitched sound. But the birds apparently grew used to the sound and kept returning to the garbage dump. The authorities resorted to what many Lebanese later lamented as an environmental and inhumane disaster: the commissioning of bird hunters who stood watch and shot down the gulls that came to rummage through the human garbage.

It is perhaps little surprise that years later, as Verdeill put it, Beirut’s garbage woes still dominate the news, and landfills continue to grow and hamper civilian life.

Cities around the world seem eager to rid themselves of landfills by sending them elsewhere, as if desperate to unsee their own trash

Indeed, I found that cities around the world seem eager to rid themselves of landfills by sending them elsewhere, as if desperate to unsee their own trash, determined to forget about what happens to it afterward. But — perhaps a silver lining for the would-be new locations — most landfills are too large to move, and their gasses too toxic to risk contaminating the air of a populated city.

A case in point is one pastoral hamlet that the city of Mumbai acquired as a place to relocate its growing landfill. The Deonar garbage mountains had long turned a marshy swamp into mountains of trash, still growing in height and girth on the far edges of the city, bolstered by India’s economic boom since the 1990s. In 2018, the Mumbai authorities proceeded with the eviction of residents and the razing of homes to prepare the new site for the arrival of waste, only to discover that the cost of transporting all that trash was too high.

The plan remains in abeyance to this day; the hamlet sits empty and waiting for the dump, while Mumbai’s 122-year-old Deonar landfill continues to grow. The plastic, metal and organic material that is yet to disintegrate have all accumulated into heaps as tall as an 18-storey high-rise. And in 2016, the overwhelming noxious gases from Deonar erupted in several mass fires visible from space by NASA’s satellite. Some of the fires lasted for days as fire fighters struggled to keep them under control. (The municipality has since become more diligent about preventing fires by quelling sparks as soon as they ignite.)

In post-Soviet Moscow, as the economy boomed and waste ballooned, trash started arriving by truckload (and aboard trains) to rural and suburban communities, including to Timokhovo — to the west of Moscow and one of Europe’s largest landfills. Some landfills that had closed years earlier had begun to reopen, often in secret, while official landfills have more than doubled in size, releasing the tell-tale rancid stench of hydrogen sulfide that assaults the residents who live nearby.

In 2007, people living in the suburb of Balashikha, an hour’s drive east of Moscow, complained on a television show about the “Waste Everest” that had been growing near them. The town’s angry residents took to the streets and, eventually, as protests grew violent, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the landfill to shut down that year. But the city’s trash kept growing and the diverted waste has sprawled and spilled into adjacent towns. Moscow’s big plans to incinerate its waste and turn it into ash keep running into snags, with corruption and bureaucratic inefficiencies to blame.

In Beirut, a waste pickers union was dismantled, and the contract to manage one landfill went to Jihad Al Arab, a contracting company owned by the brother of then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s head of security. The company was paid $288 million for delivering waste to landfills — not for recycling or composting — in what activists decried as an artificially high contract for a service that does not even resolve the problem.

Then there is the issue of biohazardous and industrial waste, which through corruption and poor oversight can contaminate landfills, leading to otherwise unexplained cancer clusters and local health epidemics. Shrouded in secrecy and criminal activity, illegal toxic waste disposal can go unreported for decades, delaying a public and health response.

One such case unfolded in Italy’s southern town of Naples, when in 2014, residents living near a secretly buried toxic waste landfill started sending postcards of their sickly children to the country’s president — Naples native Giorgio Napolitano — before traveling to Rome to meet with him.

The landfills had first become known in 1997, when mafia informant Carmine Schiavone revealed the location of barrels of waste illegally dumped by the mafia on or near unsuspecting operational farms. There were millions of tons of toxic waste buried all over the region, according to court testimony. Cancer rates began to rise at an alarming rate, turning the region into what some call the Triangle of Death.

“You die because of industrial waste, not household waste,” said Marco Amiero, a Neapolitan and professor of environmental history at KTH Royal Institute of Technology University Stockholm, who was lamenting the infamous case of mafia-run toxic waste in his hometown.

In Mumbai, it was mostly the unsorted tangles of households that had formed Deonar’s garbage mountains. The domestic detritus included food, clothes, toys — even forgotten jewelry — as well as syringes and sharp things like shaving razors and shards of glass, which cut the hands and feet of the waste pickers who rummage through trash in search of salvageables. Police have also brought criminal cases against garbage traders for illegally dumping and reselling medical waste and construction debris. Not surprisingly, people who live around the garbage mountains suffer terrible respiratory illnesses and eye problems, with a life expectancy of 39 years, about half that of the average Indian.

How, then, are cities to accommodate the graveyards of our discarded belongings, I wondered.

I posed this question to several experts who seemed to agree on one main point: Incinerating waste to generate power and ash is generally a bad idea, because the technology does not yet deliver what it promises, and the whole scheme lends itself too well to corruption.

As Arun Sawant, a Mumbai-based chemist, put it to New Lines, burning waste must be managed through close and competent oversight or it “could be prone to high emissions of toxic gases.”

Indeed, the legal ramifications for private companies that might want to take on such a challenge may be prohibitive. “The pollution mitigation costs could be so high they could make such plants unviable,” explained Raj Kumar Sharma, who filed the case in the Bombay High Court to close down the Deonar dumping grounds.

As cities around the world continue to struggle with mounting waste and shrinking landfill space — and as we all aim to reduce our waste with varying degrees of success — the issue of what to do with the already-decaying landfills and the toxicity they generate remains unresolved.

But as I drew my research about landfills to a close, I found some solace in the success stories that offer some best practices.

In the Thameside Nature Park in Thurrock, England, for example, endangered birds have been making a comeback, and human visitors can now enjoy the nature reserve that was once a landfill known for its noxious stench before it was closed and repurposed in 2013.

A similar outcome can be found in Brooklyn, New York, where the borough’s botanic garden sits today. The site was built over a dump for ashes, collected from New York City’s incinerators in 1910.

Also in Brooklyn, the Shirley Chisholm Park that sits over a former landfill opened last year to visitors, who can bike and jog along the waterfront that overlooks Manhattan from one of the highest points in the city, an elevation created by the decommissioned garbage mountains.

At Freshkills, endangered grassland birds such as Sedge Wrens, Grasshopper Sparrows and Eastern Meadowlarks can now be spotted, along with pollinator insects and grasshoppers that have come to populate the newly grown grass fields.

As for the oysters in the ocean, I am told by the park authorities that the maritime creatures can now make use of the crushed wash basins and tiles that have been lowered to the seabed.

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