What a dump! Editor Brian Clarey hangs out at one of the trashiest places in Greensboro
The trucks set out in the pre-dawn haze, rumbling like mechanical dinosaurs on their way to hunt and forage in Greensboro’s neighborhoods. Mechanical arms fill their bellies with the stuff nobody wants anymore ‘— rubbish, trash, garbage ‘— and they return to their nesting ground on White Street, just off Highway 29 and surprisingly close to the sparkle and gleam of downtown Greensboro, where they will relieve themselves and then begin the feeding cycle anew.
In a dusty white pickup, a much smaller species of beast, Scott Bost and I jounce along dirt roads that divide the 980 acres of the White Street landfill into a quilt of parcels, each with its own designated purpose. We top a rise that was once (and, I guess, still is) a pile of garbage and we can see the skyline break the horizon to the southwest. Bost, the landfill operations supervisor, is an old friend ‘— his wife, Nicole Crews, is a fellow journalist, former boss and occasional drinking partner of mine. He cackles a bit as he steers the pickup towards a steep incline and we barrel down to a mound of fresh garbage.
Everything that goes into your kitchen trash can will eventually make it here.
The windows are open and we idle perhaps 30 feet from the stuff, a steadily morphing pile of trash bags and open refuse made larger by constant offerings from the street trucks and then mashed and flattened by large vehicular compactors, giant plow-like trucks with steel, cleated wheels that use their 120,000 pounds to condense the load.
‘“We’re in the business of selling air space,’” Bost says. ‘“You don’t want air voids in the garbage.’”
Before the end of the day the trash will be covered with a six-inch layer of dirt to keep away flies and scavengers. Tomorrow they’ll start again.
We get out of the truck and though we’re in spitting distance of the pile there is nothing in the air to offend the nose.
‘“I’ve smelled bars worse than this,’” Bost says.
He’s a big, big man who once backed the defensive line at NC State: part engineer, part Bubba, part visionary (we’ll get to that in a minute). He’s also part little kid who’s amazed and delighted that he gets to drive big trucks around in the dirt and garbage all day.
He gestures towards the shifting pile, where thousands of aluminum and tin cans, cardboard boxes and plastic bottles and jugs hide among the bagged bundles.
‘“You think recycling works?’” he asks. ‘“San Francisco leads the nation at about sixty-three percent.’” His numbers jibe with those put out by that city’s environmental department. ‘“The rest of us are running at about twenty percent.’”
We get back in the truck. Nearby a cluster of black vultures drinks from a puddle of rainwater. As we approach they take to the air in twos and threes and complete lazy circles in the sky.
The vultures share the grounds with scads of other birds, including ducks, wild turkeys, assorted hawks and golden eagles, of which Bost says he has seen two pair in the last year.
Twice a year, at Christmas and in the spring, birders come out and take a head count of the various winged species. Guilford College professor and ornithologist Lynn Moseley takes part in the biannual head count for both the Audubon Society (at Christmas) and the Carolina Bird Club (in spring).
‘“On any given day I bet there are fifty species of birds out there,’” she says. ‘“Lots of birds of prey’… red-shouldered hawks, red-tailed hawks, American kestrels [a small breed of falcon]. We’ve seen Cooper’s hawks’… there are species that we get out there at the dump that we don’t find anywhere else in our territory.’”
The shore birds, Moseley says, come in the spring, and their ranks include greater and lesser yellow legs, least sandpipers, spotted sandpipers and solitary sandpipers.
‘“That’s just amazing to find those migrating coastal birds there at a landfill,’” she says.
She adds: ‘“It’s one of my favorite places.’”
In addition to the flying things, deer, raccoons, opossums, rabbits and other small mammals make their home here.
Sure, this place is a dump. It is also one of the most amazing places in town.
The place opened during World War II as a military disposal site. They used to burn garbage back then, before plastics and man-made fibers made the practice an unwise one. The city ceased incineration in 1952, and the area on White Street began a more modern way of dealing with the detritus of its citizenry: by throwing it into a hole in the ground.
The original site, called Phase I, is now a grassy hill made of garbage that is 50 or 60 years old. These days there is considerably more regulation, handed down from the federal level by the EPA. Bost says that if a state’s guidelines exceed the EPA’s, they are entitled to govern their own waste management. North Carolina, he says, is one of those states.
The landfill employs a modern liner system which begins with a wide pit dug in the ground. A shell is formed two feet thick with clay, over which is placed a plastic sheet liner, like a garbage bag but 60 millimeters thick. The liner protects the groundwater from the garbage runoff. Then comes 18 inches of fine stones which allow the garbage water, called leachate, to collect in the liner. Above the layer of stone comes another 18-inch operational layer of dirt. The garbage goes on top of that.
Bost explains that the leachate is collected in a pipe system and stored in two large blue tanks. We park the truck near them and he walks to a valve marked ‘sample.’ He turns it and it sputters for a moment. At about 30 yards away, I am hit with a wall of odor that is the most vile thing ever to assault my nostrils. Water gathers in my mouth and I dry heave with my hands on my knees. Bost thinks it’s funny.
‘“That’s leachate,’” he laughs. ‘“That’s why we treat it.’”
Indeed, the leachate is gathered and sent to a treatment plant and then eventually lands in Buffalo Creek. To be sure, someone downstream from us is drinking it, just as we are drinking treated leachate from communities upstream.
Try not to think about it.
The amassed garbage also generates another by-product: methane gas, which is formed as the trash decomposes. Here at White Street the methane is sucked from the heaps by a vacuum and collected for sale as fuel. Their sole client is Cone Mills, which uses the gas to produce steam at their White Oak plant.
‘“You remember the scene from Back to the Future?’” Bost asks, referring to the one where Christopher Lloyd’s character powers his tricked-out DeLorean with banana peels, fast food wrappers and other junk pulled from a streetside trashcan. ‘“We’re not too far from that.’” He gestures to the mounting pile of garbage. ‘“This is our renewable energy.’”
They don’t always sell all the methane. Because it is a greenhouse gas that is dangerous to the environment, the unused fuel is destroyed via open flame through two ducts on the land. At night the sight is quite lovely.
We roll in the pickup over to the compost operation, an open space that acts as a transformation stage for lawn clippings, tree limbs, stumps, dirt and other organic debris that is run through a horizontal grinder named ‘The Beast.’ It then sits in huge piles until it becomes mulch.
It smells rich and fertile out here and Bost walks over to a pile of last year’s leaves that have been decomposing in the sun. He digs below the surface and pulls out a rich, loamy handful.
‘“People have wet dreams over this stuff,’” he says.
I put my hand in the hole he’s created and yank it out quickly. It’s hot as the hood of a black Camaro in August in there.
The mulch is another product made from our garbage and another source of income for the landfill. According to the facility’s literature, no tax money is used to support the landfill ‘— it is entirely self-sufficient. In fact, Bost says, the White Street landfill does what so many public facilities in Greensboro (and some private ones) seem unable to do: turn a profit.
‘“We like to look at this place as an asset to Greensboro rather than a liability,’” Bost says.
It is also the only landfill in the state recognized by the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources. A certificate of exemplary performance from that department hangs on the office wall.
‘“That’s more or less the award for the best landfill in the state,’” Bost tells me.
Bost steers the truck to a series of bins marked either ‘residential waste’ or ‘construction waste,’ where citizens pull up in trucks to drop off things that don’t fit in their garbage cans. A glance into one residential bin reveals an unsalvageable love seat, a chain ladder, a pair of size 13 golf shoes, a large piece of wall art, a computer mouse and a workable green snow sled.
‘“Hey Tim,’” Bost says to a man nearby, spilling out of a faded blue T-shirt and wearing a sling on his arm, ‘“how many exercise machines we got in the landfill?’”
‘“Sh*t,’” Tim says. ‘“Thousands.’”
‘“Some landfills have a swap shop,’” Bost says. ‘“I don’t advertise that we have one here.’”
Yet, he says, people will still nose around the refuse, looking for treasures in the trash.
He swings the truck back to the pile of fresh garbage being spread around the lot and the tires crunch over some of the more recent droppings. He says they once found a dead body here.
‘“That was years and years ago,’” he says. ‘“They figured it was a homeless person who maybe fell asleep in a dumpster.
They also find a lot of pornographic magazines.
‘“Usually it’s the same old story,’” he says. ‘“’The porn or me.’ I’ve never found a woman up there, so’….’”
But the most interesting find was probably the batch of counterfeit money.
‘“The Secret Service knew about it,’” Bost says. ‘“They said: ‘You got one hour. If you got any of it, go home and get it.’ It all came back.’”
The compactors squash the rubbish around us and Bost squints at the far end of the pile.
‘“That’s a damn good-looking file cabinet,’” he says as we near the find. As we approach he has a change of heart. ‘“Ah, f*ck it,’” he says. ‘“Let the landfill have it.’”
He spins the steering wheel and we drive away.
To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at firstname.lastname@example.org.