A municipal landfill doesn't inspire affection. At best, it's tolerated as an unfortunate choice for disposing of household waste. At worst, it's despised.
But do landfills always merit opprobrium? While they're open, they serve a necessary purpose. After they're closed, they hold a rich and jumbled account of the people who built them. Is it possible to love, or at least appreciate, a landfill?
Consider New York City. Fully a third of the island of Manhattan south of 14th Street is built on fill (as is 20 percent of the larger city). Much of that fill was once trash. Starting with the Dutch and continuing for centuries, land was built into the East and then the Hudson Rivers, while marshes and streams were buried. The most convenient material for these projects was often garbage.
Starting in the 1970s, significant archaeological discoveries have come from this made land. Colonial garbage now qualifies as artifact and teaches us details about our past. Landfills of old become inadvertent, uncatalogued museums, like accidental time capsules filled with unexpected narratives. What might future archaeologists learn from the monumental landfills of the 20th century? What might Fresh Kills landfill, one of the largest built structures in human history, teach them about contemporary New York?
Scholars exploring Fresh Kills in centuries hence may wonder why, instead of using things like coffee cups or diapers until they wear out, we shed and replace these and countless other objects over and over. It's a clue; archaeologists in 2209 will discern that we move very fast in our everyday lives. They may realize that our culture's relationship with time is innovative, even unprecedented.
Future landfill students will also see how environmental science, structural engineering and technologies of waste disposal changed across 50 years. Cranes that dug barges when Fresh Kills was opened used cables; by the time the landfill closed, they used hydraulics. Athey wagons that pulled trash up the hills were replaced with Payhaulers. The slopes of the landfill were shaped to exact specifications, with methane retrieval and leachate treatment systems built to world-class standards.
Fresh Kills is fertile with chronicles big and small, narratives global and intimate, biographies of trends and of individuals. It holds a vast inventory of a place and time that has never existed before and that will never exist again.
“If I were a sociologist anxious to study in detail the life of any community, I would go to its refuse piles,” wrote historian and novelist Wallace Stegner in 1959. “For whole civilizations we have sometimes no more of the poetry and little more of the history than this.”
Landfill as poetry?
Robin Nagle is the anthropologist-in-residence for the New York City Department of Sanitation, teaches anthropology and runs the Draper Master's Program at New York University.