New York Times - 18 Mar 01

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305
(Copied 29 Oct 09)

Dumping Ends at Fresh Kills, Symbol of Throw-Away Era

Published: Sunday, March 18, 2001

The scarred landscape of the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island is at rest.

A few cranes and front loaders paw and snuffle in the distance. The rows of barges that a decade ago would line up on the Arthur Kill -- nearly one an hour around the clock, 600 tons of trash each -- sit tethered in rows, empty and bobbing on the tide. And soon, they too will move on to other duties.

Sometime over the next week or so, the last barge will bring its load, and then, in a stunning anticlimax, the future will arrive and that will be that.

The last of the New York landfills, a place that has defined the nation's trash disposal dilemma for millions of Americans, will end its run.

Few will mourn the passing of Fresh Kills. Its name is etched on too many 10-worst lists, its stench too great a symbol of all that Staten Islanders endured. When Tom Pisculli, a ceramic tile contractor who lives nearby, visits his relatives in Florida, the world's biggest landfill is all they know of his home in New York. He said he was more than ready for that bit of tiresome family business to fade.

But the deepening silence in southern Staten Island, environmentalists, waste experts and politicians say, is also, in a strange way, revealing Fresh Kills as though for the first time. The distractions during its life -- its immense scale, its hectic activity and especially the chronic controversies of its creation and its impact on the environment -- have been muffled. The marks that it left on the New York psyche, and the imprint that millions of New Yorkers left upon it with the things they discarded, are only now emerging.

Fresh Kills (1948-2001) was a baby boomer's landfill. It opened just as the miracle plastics developed during World War II were reshaping what people used and threw away, and as the consumer culture of convenience was about to unfold. Staten Island, meanwhile, was largely rural and politically powerless -- connected to Manhattan only by a ferry line -- a reasonable place for things that were thrown away, or so decision makers said.

The landfill's life spanned what waste experts call the Age of Disposability in the 1970's and 1980's, when the use-and-toss lifestyle of butane lighters and plastic foam hamburger boxes reached its pinnacle. It ends its days as the soaring costs of disposal are forcing equally momentous changes that experts say will fundamentally alter the waste stream, and American habits, in years to come. And perhaps most important, Staten Island, for all its talk of secession, has become a part of the city as never before.

Larry Shapiro, the director of environmental enforcement for the Rockefeller Family Fund, said that over the years, the meaning of "throwing something away" had changed. "At one time, 'away' meant the end of the neighborhood, and we threw our garbage there," he said. "Then, it meant Staten Island. Now there is no 'away,' in New York. Those days are gone."

Fresh Kills was conceived in the 1940's by the city's pre-eminent bridge and highway developer, Robert Moses, who envisioned using garbage as a foundation under the approach system for the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge that he planned to build between Staten Island and Brooklyn.

The bridge, constructed in the 1960's, led to a doubling of Staten Island's population, and for a new generation of politicians like Borough President Guy V. Molinari, the closing of the landfill became a quest. He used the borough's growing political clout to help friends like Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was elected mayor in 1993 in part because of Staten Island's support, and Mr. Giuliani in turn helped forge the agreement in 1996 that Fresh Kills would at last be closed.

The landfill that had helped create Staten Island's held-apart status thus became part of the mechanism through which that perceived inferiority was finally shattered. And for the city as a whole, which as recently as the 1930's had 89 landfills, the decision to close Fresh Kills brought sanitation practices in line with those in most other major cities in the United States, which had long since stopped burying garbage within their own borders. Under a plan approved by the City Council last year, all of New York's garbage is to be carried by barge and train to landfills and incinerators out of state.

"Fresh Kills is the fulcrum of Staten Island history," said Benjamin Miller, a former Sanitation Department official. "Moses took this over and started putting garbage there as the first step in a master plan for the Verrazano Bridge, and the bridge changed everything."

Mostly, though, Fresh Kills was a giant accident, environmentalists say -- a 53-year chain reaction that became a 3,000-acre behemoth of refuse without anyone ever quite intending it. The original plans for the site, a swampy lowland of bogs and streams (the word kill, from the Dutch, means stream), called for garbage to be dumped there for just five years. Fresh Kills, in other words, would be a disposable commodity itself, and by the standards of 1940's land management, everyone would win. A seemingly unhealthy swamp (no one said wetlands then) would be filled in and ready for use.

But as the rest of New York developed and grew, and as environmental rules were tightened, landfills in the city's four other boroughs began closing. By the late 1970's, only six were left. By the mid-1980's, Fresh Kills was the city's sole option, and what kept it going then, sanitation experts say, was pure inertia -- the Amazon of garbage that arrived every day came to be seen as an unstoppable force of nature.

"If Fresh Kills had been like other landfills of the 1940's, it would have been shut down in the 60's," said William Rathje, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Arizona and the founder of the Garbage Project, which studies landfills around the world.

But if times changed the pressures on Fresh Kills, so did the arc of the trash itself. In the 1960's, the disposable diaper was introduced. In the mid-1970's, McDonald's switched to plastic foam for its clamshell hamburger boxes. In the early 1980's, plastic bags became an option in supermarkets. In 1987, the first single-use disposable cameras were offered for sale. The great waste stream shifted in its banks, and Fresh Kills took it all.

Environmentalists say that sometime in the late 1980's or early 1990's, however, the pendulum began to shift back. The health care industry began turning back to the idea of resterilizing hospital equipment and using it again. The automobile industry, under pressure to cut costs, changed the way it packaged parts and began recycling. McDonald's went back to paper wrappers.

The overall amount of trash per person in the nation and in New York City has continued to climb, according to Sanitation Department figures, but some experts say they are cautiously optimistic that a corner has been turned. Business attitudes have changed. People are aware of limits and environmental costs in a way that the planners of 1948 were not. Other groups that monitor waste disposal figures say the trends are not yet so clear or positive -- the specter of shrink-wrap and over-packaging persists, they say, because consumers have yet to demand change.

"It's like turning an ocean liner," said Eric A. Goldstein, a lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit conservation group. "The orders have come down, but it takes a long time to know whether you're really turning."

Experts like Mr. Goldstein say that the impact of Fresh Kills on New York City -- and on how New Yorkers think about their trash -- is far from over. Because transporting garbage out of state, in some cases hundreds of miles away, is so much more expensive than local dumping, many environmentalists believe that the city, which they say has had a weak commitment to recycling, will be pushed as never before to reduce the waste stream.

Staten Island residents agree that ends and beginnings are intertwined where the landfill abuts local neighborhoods. People remember the summer days when sanitation trucks would spray pine scent in a mostly futile effort to reduce the odor, and they remember the trash-fed raccoons that haunted the dump's borders. They were as big as dogs, they say.

"Who knows what it's going to be like down the road, because this stuff has been in the ground for years," said Ben Roina, who lives and works near the landfill. "But it's a start."