Friday, July 18, 2014

Clean Trash, Nice Trash

Anne Khanh Van                                                  (In Vietnamese)

Last week, my cousin and I went to Virginia Beach. It was so hot that wherever there were trees, shade and especially water… there were huge crowds. As we were on Highway 264, heading to the beaches, my cousin pointed to a huge mound and said, "Hey, you always wonder how and where the American people 'store' or ‘hide’ their rubbish, in order for the country to seem so clean and beautiful all the time. We never see piles of stinking garbage, or dirty ‘trash’ along the way."

I looked at where my cousin pointed. There were no traces of debris at all, but a very beautiful park. Looking from the road, we saw only hills with vast fields of grass and green trees. Around the foot of the hills, I saw some lakes. Many adults and children were picnicking, hitting balls and running... Many colorful kites were flying in the wind, which made the whole scene even more beautiful. We could see that lots of people were already up there. From the outside roads, there were many more people continuing to queue up to get into this place that used to be called a... "Dump Site."

When we drove closer to the front entrance of the former dump site, a sign appeared. The joyful scenes we had just passed made me think that this park must have some “exuberant" name, such as… Pacific Park, or Victory Park, or even Happy Park. But no, quite candid and humble, its name was "Mount Trashmore Park - Virginia Beach."

It was clear, straightforward and transparent. One more occasion for me to admire the American culture. When it's trash, it is called trash; when something is wrong, it’s acknowledged, so that things can improve. Nothing to lie about or evade. However, it has been four, five decades ago when this site was still a dump site. Now, trash is trash no more... Yet the name remains the same.

This giant “dump site” officially became the Mount Trashmore Park of the City of Virginia Beach in 1973 and was completed in 1978. It encompasses 165 acres and comprises two man-made mountains, two lakes, two playgrounds, a skateboard path and vertical ramp, and other multi-use paths. The main mountain, Mount Trashmore, is 60 feet (18 m) in height and over 800 feet (240 m) long. Other facilities there include four large and eleven small picnic shelters, basketball courts, volleyball courts, vending machines, parking and of course numerous toilets. It also has multiple walking trails. Fishing is allowed on the lakes. We saw several security, police and ambulance teams: they rotate around the mountain to ensure that they will be there first when help is needed.

 A quite remarkable development at Mount Trashmore is the “Kids' Cove,” a playground very solid and modern, but constructed for use by children. It was designed from the children’s ideas and input. And something that made this playground even more special is that it was made possible entirely by the energy and financial contributions of volunteer citizens, with coordination by the Women's Club - City of Virginia Beach.

 Can you guess how many visitors come to Mount Trashmore Park, every year? The answer is more than a million people!

But that’s not all... If you get into the details and visit other dump sites in Virginia to learn, and to witness with your own eyes, the workings of American waste disposal systems, you will see how the American people can transform a dump site into a park, and how they can turn waste into energy.

To begin this incredible journey, I visited a dump site in the City of Lorton, Fairfax County, Virginia, to satisfy my own "curiosity" and I am now sharing with you my “discoveries” – Such a sophisticated system!

Let’s start! 

In Fairfax County, we may notice on any morning the movement of waste collecting trucks through the county streets. They are special-purpose vehicles, designed to collect domestic refuse and other compressible solid waste. Drive behind one of those trucks and be watchful, you will see that they are either back-mounted compressing garbage trucks, or trucks that have side-loader refuse collection systems. These trucks consist of an enclosed garbage container, a powerful hydraulic system and an electronic control system that allows trash that is emptied into the container’s inlet bin to be compressed and pushed into the enclosed container. One of these garbage trucks is thus a completely sealed vehicle, with self-compressing and self-discharging functions that work together to eliminate the emission of odors and trash during the course of pick-up and transportation to the dump site. They are safe and efficient.
The waste sorting facilities are often located far out in the suburbs. Refuse is sorted here. Tons of mixed wastes: municipal solid waste, non-organic materials (plastic, glass, metal, etc) and organic materials. Sorted wastes are first classified as: “hazardous, non-hazardous, inert, reactive… Then, they go through different treatment processes that are designed to address the special needs of each waste type: composting, recycling, land filling, incineration… The garbage containers used by county residents sometimes become damaged, and they are also collected and re-processed to create useful materials. They will be cleaned, pressed flat, bound into large bales and transported (and sold!) to recycling factories.

Many of the extracted waste products from the plant can be used in processes called Waste-to-Energy, or “WTE” processes, or can be used to create valuable products needed by the county in its normal operations. Some example of these include: construction of plastic “jersey barriers” (water-filled traffic barricades used for highway, traffic and construction projects) that are made from plastic magazines, PVC wastes and grocery bags … which are melted from the plastic, allowed to solidify and then cast as barricades, cones and other useful items.

You can just imagine, every Christmas, every year, how many pine trees are becoming... garbage? Branches, plants, grass, garden twigs... will all be crushed, chopped to mulch and then given back to local gardeners to take home for topping the soil. Using this organic mulch as a blanket to cover the ground will help keep the soil moist and healthy.

Taking out the trash is just the beginning. Think about the whole process right after that. And then, after all, what happens to the “spent trash”, the trash that is already at the end of its “life cycle” and can no longer be changed to energy or some other useful product? What would the “authority” or “waste consultant” do with the trash of trash? Dust goes to dust! They go to “Technical Land Fills”. Here is the image of a trash eco-center, where spent trash will be put into... a technically-designed "cemetery." Generally, after consultation with “waste authorities” certified by EPA, the county will transport these materials to a deep pit, where they will be poured into a heaping mound. It will be smoothed out, compacted and covered with clean soil/dirt, which helps to eliminate foul smells and stop the growth of insects and harmful bacteria. So on, and on, every day, spent garbage will be added to the new “garbage grave,” gradually elevated, broadened... Mounds become hills and hills become… Mount Trashmores!

One important detail: underneath the mound of this waste cemetery, is a complex system of piping ducts, which intersect, inter-connect, pump, suck, mix and control the gases and fluids that are created and trapped within the mountain of spent trash. In a miraculous way, a well-designed mechanical/chemical system (constructed to help reduce or balance the concentration of methane and other thriving biogases) manages any increase in methane gas concentrations by collecting the gas and routing it to locations where they can be used in WTE processes, as mentioned above. Methane and other combustible gases need to be controlled and their pressures must be kept low, to ensure that the new Mt Trashmore will not become a "ticking rubbish time bomb", especially when there is lightning. (You know, right in our own bellies, the biogases need to be neutralized and vented somehow!)

Five years later, ten years later, fifteen years later... when the hill of garbage reaches to the space and height limits allowed by the municipal authorities and EPA, all waste management activities are gradually moved to another location… one that has been researched, studied and calculated to support the feasibility of creating a new garbage hill. These “Mount Trashmore” hills will be nicely arranged to have plants, tree lines, water fountains and good family playgrounds.

What about the lake around these Trashmore hills? Why create such lakes? What for… aside from the aesthetic purpose of creating melancholy, beautiful sunsets? 

The answer lies in the process of creating a new Mt Trashmore. When the designers and PMs team up to begin such a project, they first test the soils and define the eco-systems around the location. Then, to establish a source of dirt that can be used to cover the trash, they bulldoze and scoop dirt from several locations and create large depressions in the earth that will be filled with garbage. Two of the depressions are selected to become lakes. There is a freshwater and a brackish water lake. The lakes work as "filters" to help remove sediment and contaminants from water that falls on the landfill (rain, minor flooding, storm water run-off), which are always occurring as the land filling process proceeds.

When it rains, water soaks into the soil. Under the top layer of soil, a huge rubber cap has been installed to make sure water will flow out, away from the buried trash, and into the lakes that have been created. (Note: In 1967, the soil below the Mt Trashmore site and waters in the lakes were tested, and it was determined that the project had created little or no effect on groundwater in that area). Chemical analysis of surface soils is now performed on a monthly basis. The water's cleanliness meets all EPA/local standards and the lake supports the growth of game fish. You can catch a good-sized catfish or bass, if your fishing skills are up to the task.

The Mt Trashmore story is one of many methods Americans use to "take out the trash” and to “hide trash in”. American’s huge garbage disposals can be something enjoyable. We know how to turn very smelly, dirty waste into energy and clean, pleasant recreational areas. We build our values from trash, convert used stuff into useful materials. Sometimes I am asking myself as a Vietnamese American, do we (Viets), educate ourselves to this level of “waste management” with regard to behavioral rehabilitation?

When I go back to Vietnam and find myself on the roads, one of the things I fear most is to have to go through the garbage dumps, or to follow behind a garbage truck. Some garbage truck operators, if they are "polite" enough, will use a thin net to cover the top of their open-to-air trash dumping truck. When the wind picks up a bit, or the driver presses the accelerator a bit more aggressively (with or without net covers), trash… solid or not, wet or slime, will bounce, flash, spray, or fly right in the faces of people behind.

Just go behind a garbage truck for a few minutes, or go across the street… trash mounds are everywhere. Everyone is upset because of the dirt and the odor. Comparing the working conditions of employees of garbage collectors in the U.S. and in Vietnam is instructive. In Vietnam, these people have to do the real dirty work, the bad work… and working conditions are terrible: no proper garments, no protective clothing (hard hats, gloves, safety glasses), no regular health checks, and of course, not being paid enough to live. Men, women and kids keep their daily work as trash sorters, burying themselves in the garbage, like burying their livelihood and their future in garbage.

In America, people turn dump sites into parks for the public’s recreation. In Vietnam, many spots along the roads are filled with garbage and some parks are more like dump sites than recreation areas!

Is trash something not clean, not nice, not fragrant, no longer used, not kept… something that must be discarded, buried right away? Or is it something that can be made better, more useful? In this sense, trash is not only what we can see and touch, but includes even things invisible, existing in the mind, in the relationship between peoples...
In American cultural, people “hide” the trash by cleaning it up wherever it is found, and by then turning it into something useful.

Vietnamese culture is... different. It seems that we do not have that habit. We make trash even worse. We open the trash out. We "push" the trash to our neighbors. We push our trash from inside out, to the street, to the society...

Trash from the heart?

Many families have disagreements and sometimes get to the extreme point that they hate each other for decades. Then, these examples of “inner trash” from the parents' generation will follow the children’s’ generation, affecting the hearts of innocent minds. "That's the people we don’t like… you should not like them. Those are the people we don’t talk with… you should not talk with them. Those are the things that we hate… you should also hate them…"

Zoom in on the size of the country - War with "French" or "American Imperialism" had ended generations before we were born… like the other time when Mt Trashmore was still a "dump site" four, five decades ago. But in school textbooks for children in their infancy, or during the national holidays of "victory", or in museums... these are still filled with "tools" and “slogans,” as the sins of "enemies" are reviewed, so that the children might remember who our enemies were. Why is all of that necessary, when the Government has already developed "diplomatic relations" with these "enemy countries" and has already received aid from them to help develop the country economically, to help improve the relationships between Vietnam and these former "enemies"?

Vietnam does not have to learn things too high or too difficult from the U.S. Just learn to be conscious of littering, of cleaning up the trash, and/or turning garbage into useful things... Otherwise, when trash continues to fill us from the inside out, and when it fills the streets, everywhere, the Government of Vietnam and the country they are dominating will always appear to be stinky, always trashy. They will never get out of their own garbage and will only with extreme difficultly catch up with other countries.

Anne Khanh Van
July 16, 2014

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