Week 13: American Landscapes

Trash. We toss it into the bin, to the bag, to the curb, and then to who knows where? But we do it everyday, and I was curious to see the dumping grounds. What do they look like? Where are they? How much do they contain?

So I built a tool to help me visualize some of the country's solid waste landfills, around 2,450 of them. Using the Google Maps API and data sourced from the Landfill Methane Outreach Program (a voluntary EPA program that identifies potential sites for the recovery of methane emissions as a renewable energy source), I launched an Instagram bot on Earth Day, @americadumps, to share satellite images of each site along with its state, latitude and longitude, whether it's open or closed, and its trash by the tonnage. More on the why and the how (including the code) in last week's post here.

Instead of try to read all the images at once in an image editor like Lightroom, I choose Instagram because the platform is designed specifically for pictures with corresponding captions. Setting my own delivery pace allows me to spend a deliberate amount of time with each image and share them with others in the process.

Distortion accompanies any type of representation, especially and including visual ones, and certainly we've discussed in this class how satellite imagery is processed and stitched together. In spending considered time with these landfill views (as of this writing there are 416 posts) in conjunction with their stats, I appreciate how utterly flattening the landscape is collapsed into the picture space. After the flattening, I noticed the numbers. What does it mean to cover 500,000 tons of waste? 1,00,000 tons? or even 100,000,000 tons? These are awesome figures: how does one begin to understand solid waste management at this colossal scale? The views from Google Maps isolates the sites from the very communities they serve, and so my focus became: how are the landfills situated in the landscape in relation to their communities?

From the records with available data, I decided to make some pictures of America's ten largest landfills, again as tool to continue my learning process.* After trying Google Earth Pro and Bing, I visited Google Maps through my browser and employed the tilt feature to reveal the horizon and to try suggest some depth. Again it's a great distortion, but I do appreciate Google's atmospheric perspective qualities to help me attempt these points of view. I aimed to locate each landfill with a sightline to the nearest metropolitan area. If lucky, I found a baseball diamond or tennis court in the foreground to provide a sense of scale.

Following up on each site through YouTube videos and actual photographs impresses upon me the enormity of these structures, and I'm finding ever-more questions to explore, including how to scale the data so that it's human-relatable. For example, how many trash bags fit into a garbage truck? How many tons do trucks transport? How many tons are deposited in a day, a week, a year?

Six of the locations are closed or soon-to-be, and my next questions also include what happens next? Where does the trash go now? How are the old sites maintained--what about those methane emissions and the prevention of groundwater contamination from leachate? Of the closed sites posted so far on Instagram, I looked up a few to find conversions into parks for humans, environmental restorations for local flora and fauna, and developments into golf courses, resorts, and even an airport. The story continues...

*A reminder for future Ellen that you made this decision after revisiting the splendid works of the celebrated American landscape painter, Thomas Cole, at The Met. Some of his paintings preserve an idyllic version of the wilderness and others foretell environmental damage due to encroaching development. 

@americadumps
Code on Github
View Slides

Related References:
Mapping America's Mountains of Garbage
Land of Waste: American Landfills and Waste Production