“So… this is my fate? Couldn’t I have been more?”
By Derek Ho
April 1st 2022
Tucked away behind the Wisconsin’s Ho-Chunk casino, lies a graveyard not full of bodies but trash. Here at Dane county’s 112 acres landfill, where we seek to hide away all that once served us, lies the trash we throw into the garbage bins daily. To put the scale of the facility into perspective, this landfill when full has an area of 85 football fields worth of trash 11-storys high. Despite the behemoth scale of this site, it is currently estimated to be about 70% at capacity and is slated to be capped off within the next 5-10 years. However, this estimate may be considered too generous. This is because of the concerning rate in which landfills are being filled at, with a huge increase in hand sanitizer bottles, disposable face masks and single use takeout containers that the pandemic has generated.
“There were once 1,600 smaller landfills scattered around Wisconsin 20 years ago, and now there are only 35 other landfills in the area”, an operator told me. This dwindling number of landfills has mainly stemmed from the “Not-in-my-backyard” mentality, requiring landfills to occupy larger swaths of undesirable land sites further away from our home. This distance from our waste has lulled us into forgetting that our trash is an issue that can and already has affected the environment.
Of the trash that lands up in this fill, 15% is plastic. These plastics are the most worrisome as they would take an estimated 450 years to degrade, compared to the 80 years of normal organic matter. This persistent quality that has made plastics so desirable, has also made it deleterious for the natural environment. Unlike, other organic matter, plastics don’t really decompose but fragments into smaller particles called, microplastics (< 5mm). These microplastics can be found around the Earth. In the deepest of trenches, and tallest of peaks, microplastics are there. It has been found in our water, food, crops and unfortunately, even in our blood. These plastics can act as vectors for nasty pollutants like heavy metals and pharmaceutical drugs, transporting their toxicity to unsuspecting victims.
Before these plastics fragment into invisible fragments, I decided to pay them a visit at the landfill with my trusty landfill guide, Roxanne, a sanitation engineer who has worked there since 2019. We had to take a 5 minute car ride around the fringes of the trash mountain, navigating mushy terrain which was previously non-existent. Soon, we reached a point where the car could not take us any further, and had to continue up the hill on foot.
My first reaction when I stepped on this soft, mushy carpet of trash, was not the sense of awe of the scale of the trash mountain in front of me, nor disorientation from the company of the thousands of seagulls surrounding us. It was in fact, a sense of inexplicably odd tranquility. The synchronized team of heavy machinery buzzed away in conducted harmony - the till spills, dozers shove, compactors compress, over and over. Coupled with the croon of the seagulls overhead and soft carpet of trash below, I felt as if I was at an artificial private beach, with tides of rubbish crashing into the land. In the sea of trash, I saw the all too familiar amazon and instant noodle packaging among other items I owned in my lifetime.
Witnessing the fate of an item at its supposed end of its life was paradoxical. We threw it away and yet here it remains, and would most probably outlive us. I always wondered what trash would say if it had a voice of its own. Though I tried real hard to listen to its whisper, inanimate object can’t talk, so I decided to ask its caretaker as a proxy on the road back down. She looked forlornly ahead, navigating the steep hillside carved around the trash mountain and gave a voice to the trash, replying: “So… this is my fate? Couldn’t I have been more?”
Narrated Version - "Whispering Waste"