Guadalupe: From Canyon to Sugar Loaf
May 20, 2007
Guadalupe makes a large scar on
It’s a lovely spring Sunday, with blue skies and a cool breeze, and I am attending an open house at Guadalupe Canyon landfill south of San Jose, just beyond where the houses stop and the mountains start in earnest.
Guadalupe Canyon is not by a long shot the largest landfill I have visited, but it enjoys the distinction of being the one that helped me visualize just how much garbage we produce. It's not so large you lose all sense of size, but large enough to feel dwarfed—and awed—by it.
As your drive up to Guadalupe, through the blandly suburban streets
of far south San Jose you first see a towering earthen dam with little
pipes sticking up out of it here and there. On the day I visited, I
spied a white speck moving diagonally across its face, which—like
the ruler placed, for scale, next to the trilobite in a scientific photograph—turned
out to be an oversized pickup truck. Behind the dam, imagine a gigantic
reservoir of trash. And under that, presumably, the erstwhile canyon.
Once you’re up and over, there are additional lessons in size.
There’s a garbage hill, already “filled,” a little
bit like Sugar Loaf Mountain guarding the bay of Rio de Janeiro. Maybe
not quite so solid. And then there is a garbage hole—a really
big one, deep and wide and very impressive. I can’t begin to estimate
the distance from the bottom of the hole to the tip of the hill right
next to it, but that’s not what matters. What matters to me here
is the visible enormity. I may not know how large, but it surely is
large. If all goes according to plan, then in 25 years or so, the landfill
will be finished. I imagine nothing but sugar loaves where now there
The open house is a somewhat amateurish but very pleasant affair. There are extremely friendly employees showing me where to park. There is a makeshift hot-dog stand. There is a tent, where a few tables display some desultory information about recycling. A piece of equipment is chugging away as a demonstration of something, but what I don’t know. There are free balloons and , which quietly point out that Waste Management’s landfills provide 17,000 acres of wildlife habitat. And, astonishingly, there are people, queuing up in a rather unruly line to get into one of the two vans that will take us on a tour of the garbage dump.
I almost feel like a traitor to my own cause when I say I can’t imagine what they are doing here. But there it is. I really can’t imagine what they are doing here. What came over them when they decided to pick up the children this morning and go for an outing to the dump?
In a mostly silent though impatient huddle, we board the van in the “store,” the area where the recycled materials are displayed to interested buyers—compost, wood chips in various colors, and ground concrete. Guadalupe Canyon only handles demolition debris today, and our first stop on the tour is the sorting station, a dark, overgrown shed with doors large enough to admit trucks. Assorted debris lies around in dusty piles in every direction inside and out. Here the recoverables are pulled out of the stream of stuff destined to augment the garbage reservoir. In the yard beyond, wood is chipped and dyed black or red, so it can eventually be sold as ground cover to landscapers.
Our guide explains the details with an enthusiasm that suggests a great deal of pride and also a limited awareness of what the whole thing might look like to people who don't spend their days around garbage. She steers us through the chipping yard and by the hill of trash they have already created. We swing by the row of private citizens bumping excess garbage out of pickups on the small working face set aside for them.
And then we dive down into the gigantic pit, 23 years deep and wide and high enough. At the bottom stands a clutch of machinery that receives the captured methane produced by the subterranean trash. Every day, some 1.7 million cubic feet of gas is converted to usable energy—the equivalent of 34,500 barrels of oil per year. Five thousand local households cook their dinners and dry their clothes with it. I’m too overwhelmed to ask intelligent questions while on the tour, but now I wonder whether it all comes from the putrescibles filled in the past or whether today's demolition debris produces methane too.
The main working face lies on the other side of the hole, where a synthetic liner protects the fragile earth from future contents. Trash is dumped in and then isolated by more sections of liner to create separate cells. It’s all packed in and wrapped up for the ages, carefully stowed away so the result looks like wildlife habitat. As the brochure says, it’s “one of the most beautiful landfill operations in Northern California.”
|© Marijke Rijsberman 2007. All Rights Reserved. 650-868-3432, email@example.com|