Examining the Waste Stream
A CLUI Exhibit About Garbage

313 Toyon Canyon Landfill, Griffith Park, Los Angeles. CLUI photoGARBAGE IS THE EFFLUENT OF our consumption, and it flows backwards through the landscape of Los Angeles. Unlike liquid wastes, which drain downslope to the sea, the tiny tributaries of trash, from millions of homesteads, collected by a fleet of thousands of trucks circulating in constant motion, hauling to nodes of sorting, distribution, reuse, and, finally disposal, flow up the canyons and crevices to the edge of the basin.

Los Angeles’s garbage is typical, and extreme. The flood plain is bustling and filling to the brim, and the trash mounds are narrowing down. The waste stream is converging on Puente Hills, already the largest active landfill in the nation, where in the near future, trash will be boxed up into trains and sent two hundred miles to a gold mine in the desert. Away, in a sense, from one place to another. Garbage flowing backwards up and over the land.

Post Consumed: The Landscape of Waste in Los Angeles was an exhibit produced by the CLUI about the residential waste stream in the city of Los Angeles. Locating and describing how physical waste material moves around the city, the exhibit was composed of digital images, video, printed material, and material artifacts (including different types of waste). Post Consumed was on display in the Center’s Los Angeles exhibit space from May to October 2008, and a version was included in the group exhibit Into the Open: Positioning Practice, which was shown at the U.S. Pavilion of the Venice Architecture Biennale, and later at Parsons the New School for Design.

A Brief History of Trash in Los Angeles

In the old days, before World War II, the waste system as we know it in Los Angeles didn’t exist. People burned trash in their backyards, and organic waste such as food scraps was composted or picked up by hauling companies and taken to hog farmers. The City Bureau of Sanitation, formed in 1890, operated a solid waste crematory for dead animals and such, to prevent disease. During World War II, the city took over residential waste collection, and materials were heavily conserved or recycled for the war effort.

After the war, as consumerism spread, the waste stream grew. Backyard incineration was banned in 1957, to prevent fires and pollution. In the early years of the postwar garbage-era, materials were still generally sorted by type and piled on the curb or in bins, sorted by type. As garbage volume increased, this became more complicated. In 1961, to gain favor with his constituency, Mayor Sam Yorty declared that all trash could go in one bin, and the city would haul it away to a landfill. And so, landfills grew.

The Bureau of Sanitation operated several landfills on the edges of the city, and in Griffith Park and Elysian Park, until the last landfill was declared full, in the mid-1990s. Private waste companies now dispose of the city’s waste. Currently, nearly all of the city’s trash goes to the Allied Waste Company’s Sunshine Canyon landfill, next to Newhall Pass. Private companies also own and operate most of the sorting facilities for blue-bin recyclables. But the Bureau of Sanitation still picks up the trash, operating a fleet of six hundred trucks, which visit each of the 750,000 households in the city of Los Angeles once a week, three times, one for each bin.

The Black Bin
On trash day, trucks pick up the contents of the black bin. Once full, they either drive directly to a landfill, or to transfer facilities, where trash is consolidated into larger trucks, which take it to a landfill. This is how more than 2,500 tons per day of material finds its way immediately out of the lives of the citizens of the City of Los Angeles, and back to the land.

The Blue Bin
The blue bin appeared in Los Angeles in 1995, and it now handles about 15% of the total waste stream, in weight. The trucks picking up the blue bins unload at waste transfer stations or Material Recovery Facilities (“mirfs”), where the material is sorted, then moved to other places for further sorting, and to reprocessors and packers that specialize in specific materials. In the City of Los Angeles, items that can be put in this bin include glass bottles, aluminum cans, tin cans, aerosol cans, paint cans, metal hangers, plastic bottles and jugs, and all types of paper, so long as it is clean. Styrofoam was recently added to the list, though no packing peanuts are allowed. Of course whatever you put in this bin, compliant or not, has to be dealt with, at its next stop.

The Green Bin
Yard trimmings, composed mostly of leaves, prunings, and grass from the mowing of lawns, make up around 30% of the total waste stream in Los Angeles. The green bin can also be used for fruit and vegetable food scraps, and for clean wood. The material from these bins is collected at mulching facilities, operated by the city and private companies, where it is ground up and turned into mulch for use on city landscaping projects. The mulch is also made available for free to the public.

Waste collection for 75 other municipalities and unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County, outside of the City of Los Angeles, which comprise another four million people and a million more households, are handled mostly by private carriers, such as the two mega-waste companies Allied Services and Waste Management Incorporated, and coordinated by an independent agency called the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, generally referred to as the “Sanitation Districts” or “County San.”

Unlike the City of Los Angeles, which has no landfills but lots of trash trucks, County San has no trucks but takes care of the landfilling. Nearly all of the waste handled by County San heads to the largest active landfill in the United States, Puente Hills. And that is filling up, scheduled to close in five years. To replace it, and most other landfills in the region, County San is developing an intermodal transfer facility at the base of Puente Hills, where trash will be compacted and loaded on trains.

From there the waste will go to the Mesquite Landfill, which is being prepared now in the extreme southeast corner of the state, beyond the Salton Sea, 200 miles from Los Angeles. A second desert mega-fill for the region’s waste, at Eagle Mountain, a former iron mine, is still being debated, as it is next to Joshua Tree Park.

What’s in the trash?
Different types of paper and cardboard make up a third of the total disposed material, in weight, in the United States. Newspaper is among the largest category, with close to a million tons discarded in California every year.

By volume, the largest component of domestic waste is packaging. Corrugated cardboard is one of the most disposed of materials in the waste stream. Most cardboard is from packaging (cardboard boxes) used to ship products. Worth about 4 cents a pound, cardboard is also one of the most recycled materials. It is the largest export from the port of Los Angeles.

Around 62 billion bottles and cans are disposed of annually in the United States. Despite bottle bills in many states, only a third of them are recycled. Over 37 billion polyethylene plastic bottles are disposed of annually in the United States. Three quarters of them are landfilled or escape the waste stream altogether.

Because it is lightweight (98% air), expanded polystyrene packing foam is a small part of the stream in weight, but a large amount in volume. Because it is fragile, it breaks down easily and spreads throughout the waste material, appearing nearly everywhere. A few companies are recycling this ephemeral material, but due to its lightness and volume, transporting it separately by car or truck to recycling centers is hardly economical.

Food waste is another large component of the waste stream, making up 10-15% of the total disposed material. Most of this is from domestic waste bins. The aggregate of decomposing organic matter is the element that gives trash its particular odor.

Scrap wood makes up nearly 10% of the disposed waste in California. Construction and demolition materials, such as wood, concrete, and gypsum wall board, are typically landfilled separately from municipal waste, and often deposited in former gravel pits.

What’s a MRF?
Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs or “mirfs”) are key components in the waste stream. They capture and sort the recoverable resources, generally called recyclables, which come to them from commercial sources, or from the blue recycling bins of the wastesheds of the region. There are around 50 MRFs in the county, most operated by private waste companies.

Waste materials at MRFs are sorted by hand. The handling of raw waste, and not just recyclables, is known as “dirty MRFing,” and is practiced by a few businesses and cities in the county. But even the recyclables that go the MRFs are pretty unsorted and dirty.

In 1989, the state of California passed the Integrated Waste Management Act, drastically changing the waste industry in the state. This law, a response to excessive waste production and the filling of landfills, required that 25% of the state’s trash be diverted from flowing into landfills by 1995, and 50% diverted by 2000.

Meeting these goals required the implementation of recycling programs, and ushered in the era of the blue and green bins. These diversion goals were met, and future rates are now being debated, stretching towards a horizon of zero waste.

Until zero waste becomes a reality, if it ever does, there will be landfills. And even then, there will be former landfills to manage, as closed landfills will continue to settle, leak, and vent gas for the foreseeable future. The landscape of waste in Los Angeles, and other cities around the globe, is with us for longer than we care to imagine, and longer than we can possibly try to forget.

Post Consumed: The Landscape of Waste in Los Angeles was part of the Center’s ongoing series of programs about the waste stream, and was supported by a grant from the Department of Cultural Affairs, City of Los Angeles.