The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

A Trip to the Dump


LAST FALL, THE CLUI CONDUCTED a public tour, called A Trip to the Dump, as part of the exhibit Post Consumed: The Landscape of Waste in Los Angeles. Even though the tour was headed to a garbage dump, the tickets sold out in 14 minutes. Clearly there is a hunger for trash.

The tour bus left from the Center’s exhibit space next to downtown Culver City on the west side of Los Angeles, and we began our journey together down the waste stream. The main destination was Puente Hills, the largest landfill in the region. But there were a few stops to be made along the way, and lots of things to talk about.

Our first stop was the Central Los Angeles Recycling and Transfer Station. In many ways its a typical transfer station, one of dozens in the city, but unique in that it is owned by the City of Los Angeles. Most transfer stations are owned by private waste hauling companies, especially by the two titans of waste hauling in America, Allied Waste, which bought Republic Waste for $6 billion last year, and bought another large national trash company, BFI, a few years before that—and Houston-based Waste Management Incorporated, the largest waste hauling company in the country.

The City of Los Angeles purchased this transfer facility recently, as part of an effort to regain control over their waste handling needs. Before owning their own transfer facility, the city was dependent on private waste companies, who could set almost any price, as it was the city, and not them, that was ultimately responsible for getting the trash off the streets. With the closure of all the city-owned landfills over the last decade, the city was already dependent on private haulers for disposal, and the costs for transfer services seemed to be going up continuously, maybe due to the decrease in competition created by consolidation. They bought this large transfer station, centrally located south of downtown last year, from BFI, for what most considered an exorbitant sum. But they had to have it.

The nice clean white luxury tour bus drove through the gates of the transfer station, and pulled up to one of the open sides of the shed. Exiting the bus, the smell was dramatic. After we soaked it up for a while, watching the trash get pushed around in the shed, the engineer for the facility took the group upstairs to the offices, which though cramped, were more quiet, and had open space because they were gutted, with even the walls removed, due to mold. Windows from this level looked down on the transfer operations, and Gregory Carter, the equipment supervisor at the site, described the process going on below.

The big cement-floored shed was split into two levels. Trash trucks come in on the main floor, the upper level, and drop their load. Front loaders crush and consolidate the trash, then push it into open-topped haul trucks, which wait in a drive-through trench that runs along the main floor. The use of these trucks, larger than the usual garbage trucks that circulate through neighborhoods picking up trash, reduces the number of trips to the landfill. This is especially important as the landfills get further and further away from the city.

Another function of the transfer facility is to help reduce the volume of the trash, as usually it’s the volume, not the weight, that limits the amount of trash that can be moved in a haul truck. Large front-end loaders are used to smush and crush the trash as it comes in, as well as to move it around.


tour group looking at trash pile
The group is transfixed by a mound of trash at the Central Los Angeles Transfer Facility, first stop on the CLUI tour of the trashscape. CLUI photo

Most municipal trash still comes in trash bags, which is easier for the people who throw it away, but not very helpful from a waste hauling and disposal point of view. Trash bags hold air, which increases the volume of the waste. At the landfill, trash bags trap the gas emitted by decomposition occurring inside, and actually inflate, causing destabilization of the landfill, and slowing the overall decomposition of the waste. One of the functions of the loaders at the transfer station, and at the landfill, is to pierce the trash bags as much as they can.

After watching the mechanical trash ballet for a while, and getting questions answered, the group got back on the bus, and headed onward. This part of town, around Washington Boulevard and Santa Fe Avenue is a major distribution hub for the city. We pass a large Fedex building, and imagine that all the stuff being rushed around in and out of there, more or less finding its way to the front doors of the city, will go out the back door, and find its way, eventually, via another sort of delivery service, back to this neighborhood.

The bus continues through this district of waste, down 15th Street, a gauntlet of scrap handling companies and recyclers, where beat-up pickups line up piled high with metal and cardboard scavenged from the cityscape, like urban ore. Past the “gentlemen’s” clubs, which no doubt take some of the cash earned by the scrappers and truckers, like the saloons and brothels of the mining towns once did from the miners of a century ago.

Leaving the urban wastelands for a bit, the bus rises up onto the elevated freeway, and a video introducing the Puente Hills landfill is shown on the overhead monitors. It’s part of a National Geographic series called Megastructures, an episode devoted to Puente Hills, called Garbage Mountain. The hyperbolic narration and heavy metal guitar pumps up the anticipation building in the bus. Clearly we are entering epic territory.

On the 60, we soon see Puente Hills, only 20 minutes from downtown L.A. The hills are natural, though they have been recontoured considerably by the landfill. Rather than build from the flat ground up, on low terrain, such as in New Jersey’s Meadowlands, or around the shores of San Francisco Bay, where most hills are actually garbage mounds, Southern Californian landfills for the most part are formed against existing hills and mountains, by filling in canyons, and building out sideways. In the case of Puente Hills, the original geomorphology is hard to determine, as so much of the small mountain range has been extended outwards by over 30 years of landfilling.

Puente Hills is operated by the county, and is the primary destination for trash from more than 5 million people. It has one of the lowest disposal fees in the region, so commercial waste haulers in the region head there first. Puente Hills also has a daily limit of 13,000 tons, and it closes its gates when this limit is reached. The time of day this limit is reached changes depending on traffic and flow. Haulers can call or go online to receive the latest on current tonnage and estimated closing times. If the landfill closes before 5pm, other landfills and transfer stations are recommended.

tourguide in bus
Landfill engineer Ted Brodeur leads the group at Puente Hills. CLUI photo

The county operates a few other landfills and transfer stations, but none come close in size to Puente Hills. We pick up our briefer, Ted Brodeur, one of the principal field engineers designing the landfill as it grows, at County San’s headquarters on Workman Mill Road, then head towards the gates. The entrance is like a toll plaza, and each loaded trash vehicle is weighed, and scanned for radioactivity. As many as 1,600 trucks will visit the landfill that day, but only one gleaming white tour bus will visit.

To get to the active part of the landfill, we drive up the side of it, on a road of switchbacks, with a paved surface that undulates dramatically. We are actually driving on trash, on a covered and vegetated face of the landfill, and the ground is unstable as the trash is still breaking down. We crest the top, and head towards the active landfill area, a massive open field of churned earth and dozens of truck operations: waste trucks dropping trash, front-end loaders, and giant tracked bulldozers moving and packing the trash, graders moving dirt, water trucks keeping the dust down.

The group gets off the bus to soak up the site. It looks like the ground is being graded and prepared for a subdivision that never gets built. Drainage pipes, gas collection pipes, swales, and liners are engineered into the ground for each cell. Some cells take a year or more to fill. Meanwhile the next one is being prepared, on another part of the mountain. Dirt, some of it from excavations at the site, some of it clay soil brought in from construction sites in other parts of the city, and some of it mulch from the on-site greenwaste handling area, is mixed in with the trash, and provides a complete cover by the end of each day. There are no rats or stray dogs, few smells even, and the active part of the landfill is hard to see from the surrounding neighborhoods. The main way that debris moves off site and into the surrounding neighborhood is by scavenging birds, mostly seagulls. But the county employs some unique measures to keep birds away from open trash areas, such as a web of wires held aloft by movable poles, and even remote-controlled model airplanes buzzing around to scare them off.

tour group in bus
Motorcoach dump safari at Puente Hills. CLUI photo

On the way down the hill we see an angular engineered valley more than 100 feet deep, lined with black plastic—the next cell, nearly ready for use. We pass by the gas-to-energy plant which burns the methane which is collected from the decomposing waste, through 30 miles of collection pipes buried in the landfill. The plant generates as much as 50 megawatts, enough to power around 70,000 homes. Leachate, the liquid effluent from the lined portions of the landfill, is collected in another network of buried pipes, connected to a water treatment plant nearby. Before 1989, the active parts of the landfill were unlined. Groundwater wells around the landfill are monitored for contamination that migrates off site.

The bus stops in at the County’s Puente Hills Material Recovery Facility (MRF), at the bottom of the hill, the largest “mirf” in the nation. The massive shed and trash sorting facility was constructed a few years ago with the future in mind, as in the future, trash volume will need to be even further reduced as landfill space shrinks. The sorting floor, a few acres in size, is an initial sorting zone, where the piles that come out of trucks are broken down into general material categories, such as glass, plastic, cardboard, paper, and metals. What is clearly trash is pushed into trenches where waiting trucks take the material to the landfill. Recyclables end up on the conveyor, and move to the other side of the building for hand sorting.

The hand sorting area is like a factory de-assembly line. It is an elevated metal platform, a few hundred feet long, with a conveyor belt running through it. As the stream of trash moves by, one of up to thirty people working the line pull out a designated type of recyclable item, and drop it down a chute to a waiting bin or pile area. Mechanical discs and vibrating surfaces also help sort the material. What remains on the conveyor after passing through the line, is trash.

trash sorting area
The very clean "dirty MRF" hand sorting conveyor in the largest MRF in the country, at Puente Hills. CLUI photo

The tour group watches the process from a gallery that runs the length of the building, where windows look down on both the pre-sort and hand- sorting operations. It appears very clean and orderly. Open a window on the pre-sort side, and the echoing noise of machinery comes in, along with a vanilla odor: misters in the ceiling are scented to mask the smell that comes along with even this, relatively clean trash. This MRF was designed to be a “dirty MRF,” capable of taking raw trash and extracting recyclable material. It may take on that role as the pressure to reduce waste volume increases. In the meantime, the MRF accepts up to 4,000 tons of relatively clean trash from prescreened sources, known to have a high percentage of recyclable material, only around 100 trucks a day.

The expansion of the MRFs role is dependent on the politics, policies, and permitted future of Los Angeles’ trash. The Sanitation Districts, owners and operators of the Puente Hills landfill and MRF, is currently preparing a megafill in the desert 200 miles away, and hopes to have a second one available soon too. If all goes according to their plan, an intermodal facility will be built next to the MRF, packing material onto waiting railcars, for its journey to the desert dumps. If this happens, then the MRF becomes a major trash sorting site, the last chance to extract recoverable materials before the long and expensive ride by rail to the distant dumps.

Diversion of materials out of the waste stream is the key to reducing trash volume, as well as the associated, expensive, hauling. And diversion means the recovery of materials that are reusable, resaleable, or recyclable. As the cost of disposal goes up, so too does the value of recoverables, diverting more from the flow, and causing the waste stream to shrink to more manageable and reasonable levels. That’s the idea. Today, California recovers (diverts) around 50% of household wastes, an amount required by the law which created the blue and green bins for recyclables and greenwaste. The state is debating how to reasonably legislate the further reduction of waste.

We eat a late lunch at the cafeteria of the County Sanitation District headquarters, more aware than ever of the places our containers and foodscraps are going. We then visit the other side of the Puente Hills, the Rose Hills Memorial Park, whose border runs along the crest, adjacent to the landfill. The relationship is more than cartographic. Once, the county was hoping to expand the landfill, but eminent domain laws prohibit condemning cemetery land. The juxtaposition has other curious components too, such as the fact that both land uses are about burial, on a large scale, on one hand to forget, on the other to remember.

Rose Hills is a very large cemetery. Company literature claims that its mortuary serves more families than any other in the world. It began in 1914, long before the landfill, and had expanded to its present 2,500 acres by the 1950s. To stabilize and contour the rugged ground, the owners estimate that they have moved an amount of earth equivalent to 1/6 the amount that was moved to build the Panama Canal—an amount that may approach that of their earthmoving neighbors, next door.

The bus lumbers up through the segregated districts of the dead: Covenant Lawn for Jews, Trinity Lawn for Catholics, Deseret Lawn for Mormons, Cedar Crest Lawn for Islamics, Lutheran Lawn for Lutherans, Masonic Lawn for Masons, and a Buddhist columbarium built in 1999, with the largest Buddhist pagoda in USA. We head to a service area on the edge, near a former Nike Missile antenna, overlooking the landfill, the cemetery, and downtown Los Angeles in the distance. In front of us is a dumpster full of discarded wreaths and dead flowers. We roll back down the hill, ruminating on the implications of internment and decay.

landfill aerial
The CLUI tour bus heads back to town on Highway 60, passing the landfill/superfund site in Montebello. CLUI photo

Back on the 60, heading west, we pass the Operating Industries Incorporated dump site in Montebello, a mound rising abruptly next to the freeway. The dump started in the 1950s, by filling a hole in the ground, a former quarry for rock that was used to build the freeways. In the 1960s, Highway 60 was built through the dump site, which continued to accept waste until 1984, when it began its next life as a remediation site. As a landfill, it had received 30 million cubic yards of solid waste (to visualize this, a refrigerator is about one cubic yard), and 300 million gallons of waste liquids, much of which we consider now as hazardous waste. With no lining, the liquids and leachate have moved offsite through the groundwater, and the federal government put the site on the Superfund priority list for clean up, a process that has been started, but is expected to take a few decades, and cost over $1billion. Such is the fate for one poorly managed waste mound, one of dozens in the L.A. basin.

On the final stretch home, we watch a section of the ‘70s sci-fi film, Soylent Green—the part where Charlton Heston sneaks onto a garbage truck to see where it goes. His character in this dystopic film arrives at an industrial site, a big shed, where waste is treated and formed into recycled wafers along an assembly line—remarkably similar to what we saw at the MRF. (The scene was shot, suitably, at the Hyperion Treatment Plant, L.A.’s principal liquid waste treatment plant, often used as a film location for dystopic industry, as it was for Logan’s Run and The China Syndrome). Where the garbage trucks go, and what Heston’s character discovers there, is a shocking form of recycling gone mad: Soylent Green is people! 

flowers in dumpster
The dumpster at the cemetery and the disposal site for the spent, decaying, and forgotten memorial wreaths—it doesn’t get any more terminal than that. CLUI photo

A report about the trip by Matthew Brunwasser aired on National Public Radio, and can be listened to here.