After our first attempt to visit the Vancouver Landfill turned up little more than bear poop, we did things Margaret’s way: we called and asked for a tour. The folks at the landfill were more than happy to accommodate us. And this time there were nice big signs to show us the way.
We rolled up to the landfill in Father Ken’s hot ride, which he had given us the use of for the day, and waited in the office until our guide arrived. Radios crackled about meeting the Super Save roll-off truck at the scales and taking this or that machine to Road 10. The receptionist was engaged in a serious phone conversation about what color pens the people at the scale needed: black or blue. A man came in wearing an orange vest with yellow reflective tape and discussed how they had recently found a woman’s ID that had been lost in 2007. Everything ends up at the landfill eventually.
When George, our tour guide, arrived he looked down at us and sighed, “Are you here to see the birds or the landfill?”
We both said we were there for the garbage, which perked him up a bit. He told us we were the first ones this year to come for a tour of the landfill. But our interest in garbage led to a cautious start.
When we asked whether we could take pictures, George said, “Um, yeah. Depends on what and why.” We said we wanted to take pictures of garbage mostly. “Ok,” said George. “And why?” We said something awkward about wanting to put them on our blog and show them to our friends, to which George responded: “Okay, not that I’m being um…it’s just that…okay, we’ll see how it goes.”
From what we’ve read and heard, visiting landfills is usually a difficult task. It seems that in most cases, the people in charge of the away to which we all throw our stuff want to keep that away as far away as possible. It is not surprising; landfills, as the dumping place for all the shit we generate in society, tend to have a thankless job. They receive all the worst that we can consume and get criticized when this stuff turns out to be toxic. They become the emblem of the mess we make and a convenient place to aim the pointed finger. So George’s hesitation was not surprising.
He took us to the residential garbage drop-off, where there were piles of wood, mattresses, junk metal, dry-wall, and compost. They had places to drop off batteries and used-oil containers and paint and other more hazardous materials. He took us past a gas conditioning facility for the methane produced at the landfill; George showed us the yard clippings piles that are turned into compost within a year, and finally he brought us to the top of the landfill.
The Vancouver Landfill has been in operation since 1966. The landfill is owned and operated by the City of Vancouver and receives garbage from Vancouver, Delta, Richmond, White Rock, the University of British Columbia Endowment Lands, and a portion of Surrey–in 2011 the total population served by the landfill was approximately 1,060,000 or 45% of Metro Vancouver.
At the top of the landfill it felt like we were on a small mountain. The land stretched out away from us flat as a pancake for miles. George pointed out the various points of interest: Burns Bog to the north, what used to be Pinelands Peat Mine to the east, the greenhouses across Highway 99 that were heated by landfill gas, and the vast expanse of the landfill itself.
Next, George drove us to the working face of the landfill, where the real action is.
Based on comments Margaret has made when I leave the bathroom and in the aftermath of a particularly legume-filled dinner, I am beginning to question whether or not my sense of smell functions properly. Some have said that the several-year long sinus infection I have been bravely battling has destroyed any ability I may have had to identify smells. These same individuals claim I am color blind. I provide these details in the interest of full disclosure, because as we neared the open face, I found it to be remarkably odorless.
Instead of strong smells, this is what you notice at the open face of the landfill: plastic, birds, and the big trucks.
The open face is where you realize that this entire hill is made of garbage. A bulldozer with very big steel wheels rolls around compacting the garbage while two smaller bulldozers on tracks push freshly dumped trash into the path of the compactor. At the end of the day the garbage is covered with a layer of dirt. Writing that this mound is almost forty meters high does not do it justice. We came up a steep roadway to get to the working face, and even at the dumping zone, the pile of garbage rears up and away. The bulldozer that is supposed to compact it all looks at times as if it might roll off the mountain of garbage and come tumbling back to where it started.
After the seeing the working face, George drove us back to where we had parked and told us that the tour was over. I have to admit I was pretty surprised by how generous the Vancouver Landfill and George were with their information. I wonder if it’s because it is in Canada or if it’s because it’s owned by the City and therefore a public entity, but I found the Vancouver Landfill to be very willing to take the time to show the mess we all make. They’ve actually hosted an annual open house since 2001 (although they didn’t have one in 2012), and are planning on another one in June of 2013.