09 November 2008

Living in the Landfill

I just spent two nights in a landfill in Northeast Thailand. I slept in a community of houses no less than fifteen meters from the gigantic piles of trash, which our tour guide/home-stay mother referred to as “a different kind of mountain.” The people of this community rely on collecting recyclables and selling them to private businesses for their livelihood. The amount of trash that came in, on the one hand, looked good from the vantage point of a community that depends on lots of trash to survive. On the other hand, well I’ll just tell you a story about my only previous experience with a landfill…

I’m from Long Island, NY, which can get pretty rural in some places. About ten years ago, my father and I took down our old wooden fence from the front yard. The town had refused to pick up the old wood for whatever reason so we put it in the back of my Dad’s produce truck and were going to drive it the fifteen miles to our landfill.

I had never been there before and had no idea what a landfill would/should look like. When we got there, I remember being appalled- appalled by the smell, appalled by the site of so much indiscriminate trash, appalled by the massive machines used to lop the trash from one place to another, and, lastly, appalled by the young man’s face that came to the truck’s driver side window. I was in middle school at the time, so acne wasn’t something new. I can still vividly remember this man’s face, scarred and oily and downright monstrous. Like Rocky Dennis in “Mask.” I was ashamed at the way I had stared at him.

After we dropped off the wood and started leaving, my father (very uncharacteristically) said to me “Don’t ever work in a landfill.” He wasn’t saying that it was a condescending job. I think he was just commenting on how it was the cesspool of capitalism.

Maybe that’s a term that I’ve come up with, but this has been troubling me. The goal of capitalism is, in one way, to maximize efficiency. The ways in which it accomplishes this are highly visible- cities functioning with populations in the tens of millions, affordable technological marvels such as cell phones and IPods, spaceships traveling farther and farther out into the universe, the perpetual shrinking of the computer chip, etc. What is not so visible is the ultimate by-product of capitalism- trash.

The landfill community I stayed with in Thailand, Khambon Noi, is a perfect example. The city of Khon Kaen (just a few kilometers up the road) sends all of its trash there, yet Khambon Noi itself lies outside the jurisdiction of the mayor of Khon Kaen. The city is literally severed, politically and regionally, from its trash. How convenient.

We have completed the Human Genome Project. We have put astronauts on the moon and a robot on Mars. We’ve developed warheads that could end ninety-nine percent of life on this planet within a few days. Figure out how to use the sun’s rays to power a television? Check. The worlds largest building (Beijing Capital International Airport) built on top of earth-quake prone land? No problem. But let me get this straight- our best idea of how to dispose of trash is to bury it and/or let it pile up? What the hell is going on here? What are we, cats? I’ve stood on top of one of these landfills, worked an 8 hour day and witnessed thirty or more trucks dumping more capitalist stool. This happens every day.

Have you seen WALL-E? It’s an animated movie about the future, and humans have left our planet for a myriad of reasons. One of the most striking images is that of the barren city which at first looks to have these amazing skyscrapers, only when the camera pans in you see that they are made out of compacted trash. Our global society is growing larger and consuming more every day and there doesn’t seem to be a solution on the horizon as to where we plan on putting all of this waste. I’ll be dead in sixty, maybe eighty years. In that amount of time, I don’t see the current system causing any catastrophic problems. For the rest of you (you know, every human born after August 5th, 1986), choke dee. That’s Thai for “good luck.”

Dan Masciello - Northeastern University


Anonymous said...

What a powerful illustration of a landfill. Witnessing the abundance of trash at the Khon Kaen landfill was an overwhelming emotional and sensory experience. I am weary, however, of your readiness to blame capitalism for the world's trash quagmire. I believe that human beings’ innate propensity for material lust and competition drive problems of excess, rather than capitalism itself. Capitalism, in my opinion, is merely the mechanism in which humans maximize their desires.
It’s easy to idealize the “good ol’” pre-capitalist age as centuries of social and economic harmony, while forgetting things like feudalism, medieval warfare, and mass slavery in Egypt. It’s also easy to mentally reinvent communism as utopian while forgetting the Cuban Revolution and the KBG. Human selfishness, violence, and greed are unchanging throughout changing times and economic systems. In personifying capitalism as a live entity, we evade human responsibility for the “stools of capitalism” that fill our landfills. We, not capitalism, are responsible for demanding and consuming the items that become our trash.


Anonymous said...

Hello Dan and Alex,
I am Tannia, a student from the Crossing Borders Program in Mexico.
After reading what both of you have to say about the Khon Kaen landfills, I have to say that I'm quite dissappointed in some of your responses. I realize that it is difficult to fully grasp the intensity of such an experience based on your brief narratives. However, I do think that what you both had to say is deeply rooted in "first world" perspectives. Dan, while I do appreciate your personal reflections on your experiences with land fills back in New York, I do feel that you should take into account where you're studying. I agree that there is definately a connection between the waste that is disposed of in any part of the world. You are definately correct that it's one of the many consequences of neoliberal capitalism. But the landfills in Thailand and here in Mexico also have very specific social and economic contexts that can't be ignored. "Living in a Landfill" is not a simple problem that can only be attributed to the fact that "we" (who ever you're referring to) can't come up with better eco-friendly solutions. The destruction, extraction, and appropriation of natural resources is part of "first world" hegemonic practices that are backed by the same system of capitalism you are critiquing.
Alex, I agree with your critiques of "pre-capitalist" ages, which are really the beginnings of current forms of capitalism. I also agree that communism in Cuba has not resulted in a utopia. However, what you present is a black and white binary of economic results that don't account for current forms of economic imperialism.
What kind of living environment did Khon Kaen experience one or two hundred years ago? What global economic processes have affected the current state of those land fills?
I am asking you both these questions because I think they are vital for maintaining a socio-economic context. There are similar environmental effects here in the neighboorhood where I attend school. A lot of the poorest neighboorhoods are found in the lowest parts of Cuernavaca, where polluted water continues to collect and cause major health problems. Landfills are also a huge concern for activists who are organizing to raise awareness of better ways of disposing waste. Many of the difficulties these activists face are not because they can't find eco friendly solutions. Their biggest threats are neoliberal policies intended to benefit transnational corporations and "first world governments."

Sarah said...

I found your entry really interesting. It really is such an interesting question that hardly anyone really thinks to ask-we´ve done so much as humans in so many ways, but why haven´t we come up with a better way to take care of trash other than a landfill? One has to imagine the damage it does to the land and the people around it; I was so shocked to read that you stayed over night right next to one of these landfills! I didn´t know it was safe to do so, and I didn´t know that even happened in that proximity. Here in Morelos, Mexico, trash has been an issue as well, with people just dumping their trash into the river in the main barrancas of the town. They have more recently been taking action to make recycling collections and more trash cans for such issues, but the question still stands-can´t we come up with something better with all our technology and intelligence? I just hope for the sake of those who need to live near the polluted areas that something can be done to help this situation.

Katie said...

It was a wonderful opportunity for us to have the opportunity to spend time working in a landfill and living with villagers in that landfill community. For those villagers, the landfill is their home. This part of Thailand is lacking well-developed infrastructure for managing waste. For example, the landfill we spent time in uses an incinerator to burn toxic medical waste. However, most days the incinerator is broken, in which case the red bags of toxic medical waste are thrown in a pile next to an old incinerator that the community children use as a playground. It is interesting to see how aware children are of what is and is not safe to play with in the landfill. It is not uncommon to see the older children watching out for the younger children, and if a small child picks up something dangerous from the landfill, an older child will be right there to take it out of the small child's hand and throw it back into the landfill. Illness and work-related health problems are constant realities for the landfill villagers in Khon Kaen. Yet, despite such hardships, what I really saw in the landfill was this charming sense of community. There is this mutual understanding that certain families have the exclusive right to scavenge in certain parts of the landfill, so there is never a problem with families trying to steal "good garbage" from areas that belong to other families. The adults in the community look after not only their own kids, but also after their neighbors' kids and their neighbors' neighbors' kids. As I said above, the landfill is their home, and they seem happy there.