Living Among Refuse

Posted: July 26, 2007 in Consumerism, Culture

My perspective about the excessive level of consumption we’ve established in the modern world, especially in the West, has typically been informed by collateral issues including unsustainability, demographics gone mad, ecological destruction, commodity culture, advertising (programming, actually), and the sheer absurdity of manufacturing, buying, and consuming so much stuff, much of which we don’t need. All of these things come at a not-so-hidden cost, naturally, even while our style of consumption seems to make our lives happier and more comfortable. (I say “seems” because it’s not entirely clear or agreed upon that plenitude equates to physical, spiritual, or psychic wellbeing, either as individuals or as societies.)

I recently caught wind of a few details surrounding a further issue that threatens to overwhelm us: what to do with all the refuse we create. The “dump” or regional landfill is by now so well-established in our thinking that it hardly bears comment. Still, that’s the subject of a documentary movie called Trashed. I haven’t seen the film so can’t comment knowledgeably, but I can discern its message from viewing the trailer.

I’m really more intrigued by some of the perhaps less obvious instances of the impact and scale of our material and manufacturing processes. For instance, many of us have seen pictures of the airplane graveyard outside Tucson, Arizona, known as The Boneyard:


This image (if my research is correct) dates from 1994, when the U.S. military lined up acres of decommissioned warplanes (bombers) from the Vietnam War era to demonstrate compliance with the SALT II Treaty to Russian satellites. Those particular planes have by now been chopped up, recycled, and repurposed as, among other things, soda cans.

Another startling example is the Staten Island Ship Graveyard:


At the sites from which I’ve pulled these images, there are numerous comments about the striking nature of the images, a sort of beauty even. I’m not sure I agree. It seems to me a case of mistaking wonder at excessive scale with a more traditional aesthetic.

Although the Staten Island site is only one of many such sites scattered globally, it’s a visual reminder that large, hulking vehicles inevitably pass beyond a useful age. A similar dump site located in Suisan Bay near San Francisco is the home to decommissioned military warships. This report from American Shipper says,

Aquatic life and fishers in Suisan Bay face the danger of heavy metal contamination from more than 21 tons of lead, zinc, barium, copper and other toxic metals that have sloughed off or washed away from a fleet of decommissioned government ships stored in the bay.

Clearly, we lack foresight when it comes to disposal of large wrecks. I suspect the economics of waste disposal (including nuclear waste disposal) make deferring the issue obvious, though at our peril and most likely at a higher eventual cost. Similar dump sites exist for other machinery, such as train and computer “graveyards.”

Another curiosity to me is the unexpected surplus of inbound Chinese shipping containers that never get reloaded and sent to another destination, which is a result of our current trade imbalance. This image of the shipping yards at Long Beach, California, shows the acreage devoted to receipt of all these containers:

shipping containers

Reports tell that containers are frequently stacked so high that they cast immense shadows, causing sunset to arrive artificially early in nearby residential districts. The containers are being transported to the California desert and abandoned, and in some cases, converted to modular housing of sorts, which begs all sorts of other questions I won’t address.

For a slightly more comprehensive look at pictures of similar architectural wrecks, have a look at Modern Ruins. One can’t help but wonder what the long-term effects of abandonment of buildings, vehicles, containers, etc. will be. Is there any expectation that they can possibly be anything other than awful? Is there any way to turn back from wrecking things further?

Update: For links to lots of further pics and videos of industrial wrecks and other detritus of modernity, see my later post on Post-Industrial Chic.

  1. Really awful. Sometimes I’m braced for your point of view, and decide even before I begin reading: you can’t scare me. You can, however, and sometimes do. In powerless frustration then, I lose sleep.

  2. Liza says:

    I can tell that this is not the first time you mention this topic. Why have you decided to write about it again?

    • Brutus says:

      The problem is ongoing. We haven’t solved it. In fact, it’s worsening. As information about the First World standard of living is diffused throughout the Third World (via TV, movies, the Internet, etc.), more people living on the margins wants that lifestyle, and they’re willing to incur ecological deficits to obtain it. Although by no means alone, China is the country about which we should be most alarmed, due principally to its sheer population and economic growth. Its emerging middle class wants a Western standard of living that can’t be sustained on China’s own meager environmental endowment. In his book Collapse! Jared Diamond says that China’s cities are surrounded by their own refuse, which isn’t treated and disposed of as responsibly as in the First World (at least somewhat). He states further than China’s collapse won’t be because of earthquakes, floods, and other acts of god but because it’s burying itself under its own garbage.

      So if I’ve written about this subject before and do so again, it’s because the issue hasn’t yet gone away.

      • Jon says:

        The only Issue I see here that’s wrong is Stanton Island!
        The Boneyard is an Autozone for our Armed Forces and the Ships in San Francisco Bay are Mothballed to be put back in Service, but you don’t seem to believe in this or having a a Strong Military means having a Strong Country! I have many friends at both these sites that either recycle or refurbish the ships and Planes! Where do you go to get a set of wings for a B-52?
        As far as the Containers go, they are refurbished too one way or another!
        Waste is minimal and the ships in the bay are you kidding me! Being in Commiefornia alone, especially in the water there are so many watchdog groups and EPA laws there that if it doesn’t conform it gets scrapped or turned into a reef after extensive work taking all toxic substances out.
        Most of those ships are ready for action within weeks if needed for wars or disasters.
        You take things for granted! #1 your freedom! #2 your everyday life! If you’d like me to explain more, I will

      • Brutus says:

        Responding to Jon above, thanks for your comment on this old blog post. You state a number of things as fact (but w/o evidence) and make generous assumptions regarding my attitudes. I updated the link to the American Shipper article and noticed that decommissioned warships in Suisan Bay (the “ghost fleet”) are indeed being removed as part of clean-up efforts; but they’re not being recommissioned. Perhaps clean-up diminishes additional ecological damage. Past damage obviously takes considerable time to age out.

        No doubt many abandoned shipping containers get recycled or repurposed. However, a quick search reveals plenty of videos and images of containers that are just rusting away in the sun. I found no estimates as to percentage that are reclaimed somehow. Same with abandoned train cars and vehicles. Numerous boneyards and marine graveyards all over the globe attest to huge numbers of disused vehicles decidedly not recycled or repurposed. See for example here. To say that waste is minimal simply doesn’t match with the number and/or scale of trash sites and the refuse found in them.

        None of this has much to do with support of the military or things I supposedly take for granted. Rather, I’m observing that obsolescence and and the cost and difficulty of disposal results in quite of lot of refuse all around us. We live around or among it. The number of derelict or unoccupied buildings not yet demolished attests to this as well. See the urbex tag above. I suspect we do better crushing and burying automobiles no longer in service precisely because they’re small enough to be junked and dealt with, though I have to wonder if burying them is a sound ecological practice. If you have more information and would like to school me, by all means go ahead, but you’ll need to provide some evidence.

  3. Matt says:

    The planes you show HAD to be dismanted and shown for satellite confirmation as part of the SALT treaty. This is what happens, after a war you have a surplus. Bigger and more guns wins battles.
    The Suisan Bay mothballs are nothing like the Staten Island graveyard. the Suisan Bay ships are prepped for storage, to be recomissioned at a later date if need be. They are not just sitting there half sunken. Yes while ugly they are a vital part of our U.S. fleet in case of war.
    As for the sea train graveyard. That is a refurbish yard. they are rebuilt, and repainted and recycled into service. If they are not servicable they are scrapped. Everything in life eventually becomes obsolete. I wonder what will you do with your computer, ipod, cell phone, and other such electronic devices when they too become obsolete. Put a band-aid on your heart, and walk away from the technology you so despise (I.E. you computer, which was shipped from overseas in one of those mothballed ships, in one of those refurbished sea containers).

  4. Brutus says:

    Matt, I mentioned the SALT II Treaty above, as well as the issue with computers and other electronics. I’m also aware that Suisan Bay is considered a storage site, not necessarily a permanent dump site, though I suspect it’s wishful thinking that any of those wrecks will ever be recommissioned. What you’re referring to as the “sea train graveyard” is unclear, though I suspect you mean the ocean-going shipping containers pictured at Long Beach. The information you offer is not quite the gotcha! you may believe it to be. Did you read the blog post?

    Further, to suggest that someone must be ideologically pure and relinquish electronics in order to question how we consume is both obvious and irrational. Frankly, you don’t know anything about my consumption habits and what I’ve sacrificed out of conscience. Your comments read as though you are an apologist for consumer culture, and I just don’t believe that that culture is beyond criticism.

    Nonetheless, thanks for your comment. Almost two thousand views of this post have led to only a handful of comments.

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