Inside the world's superdumps
From toxic trash in China to mountain-sized landfills in Michigan, the world is awash in waste
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a continent-sized constellation of discarded shoes, bottles, bags, pacifiers, plastic wrappers, toothbrushes and every other type of trash imaginable, floating in the Pacific Ocean about halfway between Hawaii and San Francisco. The ocean's swirling currents have pushed the piles of debris, accumulated detritus of sea vessels and decades of under-the-radar ocean dumping, together in loose configurations just below the water's surface.
While nobody knows for sure where it came from or how to clean it up, the sheer size of the Garbage Patch has attracted attention to the world's seldom-discussed renegade waste problem. The remains of daily life are becoming a colossal problem with increasingly global implications. Some places are running out of space to put it, and others haven't even figured out how to pick it up in the first place. From toxic trash on the streets of Guiya to the mountain-sized municipal landfills in Michigan, the world is awash in waste — but not always in the places you'd expect.
Take, for example, the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico. Fertilizer and pesticide use by farmers in the Midwest and Great Plains states has gradually raised nutrient levels in the Mississippi's muddy waters to levels so high that algal blooms have appeared in the river drainage delta. These algal blooms deplete oxygen levels in the water to the point where it can no longer sustain fish, plants and microscopic species. Ergo, the "dead zone," an area that covers nearly 7,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico.
Everybody knows chemicals dumped in the wild can cause serious problems, and keeping them stored is not necessarily much safer. For decades, Africa was a major dumping grounds for toxic wastes. Since at least the early 1970s, there have been multiple cases of illicit toxic waste disposal deals between Western companies and African countries.
In 1987, for example, two Italian waste brokers, Gianfranco Raffaeli and Renato Pent, paid a Nigerian businessman, Sunday Nana, about $100 a month to store 18,000 drums of hazardous waste on his property in Nigeria. Nigerian officials discovered a cache of the illegal toxic waste, which contained high levels of PCB and dioxins, stored at the port of Koko.
Regardless of how they got there, mountains of obsolete pesticides like DDT, aldrin and chlordane remain stockpiled in poorly maintained storage facilities across much of Africa. Mali and Botswana have reported especially large stockpiles of industrial chemicals discarded as long as 40 years ago.
While some countries address legacy problems like abandoned pesticides, other countries are busy creating new ones for future generations. China and India are no exceptions.
Guiyu is a cluster of interconnected villages located about an hour's drive away from the South China Sea in the northern province of Guangdong. In the past decade, Guiyu has grown from a rice farming community to an enormous hub for recycling and disposal of electronic waste, including everything from defunct hard drives to broken television sets. The amount of e-waste that flows through the "recycling" plants of Guiya in a single year could create an acre-wide pile taller than the Statue of Liberty, according to an investigative report by Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and the Basel Action Network.
Truckloads of printers, fax machines, hard drives and all kinds of defunct electronics arrive daily in Guiyu from warehouses in the port of Nanhai, where the imported waste comes ashore in sea-going containers. Roughly half these computers and electronic components are recycled; the rest are dumped. Nobody knows for sure, but evidence suggests most of the discarded components are dumped locally, despite the substantial risk that the waste, laden with toxic lead, mercury and cadmium, will contaminate local soil and water supplies. Although Chinese officials have recently stepped up efforts to enforce a longstanding ban on e-waste imports, there has likely been more than enough damage inflicted to last generations.
The city of Alang, which sits on the western coast of Gulf of Cambay in western India, is the largest ship-scrapping yard in the world. A ship that would cost millions to demolish in North America is worth millions in a place like Alang.
The Alang shipyards dismantle hundreds of massive vessels from all over the world every year. Old ships are run ashore during high tide on a roughly six-mile-long stretch of beach; later, when the tide recedes, thousands of low-wage workers descend on them and use crude tools to strip them apart. The industry provides 30,000 jobs in Alang and produces millions of tons of recycled steel every year.
But that isn't all it produces.
Old ships are, more often than not, chock full of toxic chemicals, like insulation with asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyls in hoses, foam insulation and paint. In addition, most ships contain huge quantities of heavy metals like lead, mercury and cadmium. If ships are not properly dismantled, they contaminate the area where they are broken down.
Although India has wrestled the shipbreaking business from yards in Europe and North America by effectively eliminating high-priced environmental safeguards, Bangladesh is now capturing more of India's business by lowering environmental standards even more dramatically.
These kinds of competing regulatory systems have reinforced a race-to-the-bottom dynamic in the waste trade, which all too often champions disposal sites with poor environmental practices.
The global trade in trash rose from 2 million tons to more than 8.5 million tons between 1993 and 2001, according to data collected by the Basel Convention. And not all of those sites are outside U.S. borders.
For example, two mega-sized landfills in Michigan — Carleton Farms in New Boston and Pine Tree Acres, slightly north of Detroit — have cornered the the waste disposal market in the Canadian province of Ontario. Michigan requires operators to maintain landfills for 30 years after they close, while Canada requires operators to monitor landfills for at least a century, and in a few cases, forever. The result: In 2006, it cost roughly $100 US to dispose of a ton of trash in Ontario, but only $10 to dispose of the same ton of trash across the border in the U.S. Michigan landfills receive enough Canadian garbage annually to fill a football stadium.
"We love Canadian garbage," Norm Folson, site manager at the Pine Tree Acres Landfill in northeast Detroit, told a reporter from Canadian Architect recently. "Tipping fees pay our salaries and pave our roads. To us, Canadian garbage is like gold."