Waste Away Towns That Are Scaling a Mountain of Garbage

A puzzle that’s plagued this nation for decades is what to do with our mountains of trash. We’ve dumped it into the ocean, burned it and buried it in landfills, always playing environmental roulette. We want it as far away from our homes, parks and streams as possible.

Instead of a wall to keep people out, Van Nuys incorporated a public Japanese garden into its water treatment plans. ©  JUDITH A. STOCK

Enter Mira Engler, associate professor at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, who says, “Waste should be brought closer to our lives and our landscape.” Her 2004 book Designing America’s Waste Landscapes (Johns Hopkins University Press) looks at the culture and historical context of waste and considers theories and practices used by planners, designers and engineers involved in the industry. Engler suggests ways to make garbage dumps and sewage plants architecturally more prominent and dignified, as well as more accessible to citizens. She challenges designers to plan waste landscapes as integral and essential parts of community life.

According to Engler, three municipalities serve as examples of communities that cleaned up their environments, even earning profits in the process. First is the town of Wellesley, Massachusetts, a residential community located 13 miles west of Boston with a population of 27,000.

Located near the border with Needham, Wellesley’s municipal drop-off recycling center was started by a group of volunteers in the early 1970s. There are 8,900 homes in town, and 85 percent of the total residents bring their recyclables and trash to this facility. About 15 percent elect to hire private trash haulers to pick up their refuse at the curb.

When people approach the center, the first section is for recycled items, the second is for good reusable items, next is the hazardous waste area, followed by used clothing, yard waste and trash. “We do it this way to give our citizens the opportunity to recycle first,” Gordon Martin, superintendent of the recycling and disposal facility says. “If the first area they came to was the trash area, they might simply dump everything there and go home.”

To measure how well recycling programs do, something known as the diversion rate calculates the percentage of the total residential waste stream that’s recycled. Massachusetts” recycling diversion rate is around 25 percent. “Wellesley is at 32 percent,” explains Martin. For fiscal year 2005, this small community sold collected newspapers, cardboard, batteries and plastics for a grand total of $340,000.

“Everything we do is toward marketing collected materials at the highest sales price,” Martin says. The town purchased a $500,000 newspaper baler and sells recyclable materials directly worldwide without employing a broker. “We do it ourselves,” Martin says. “We just apply the common-sense business approach to trash. We invested money into the recycling operations and that investment is returned to the town every year.”

To increase efficiency, Martin shares news about the recycling program with the public and volunteer organizations such as the Friends of Recycling. Martin adds, “It’s my mission to educate other communities about the benefits of recycling.”

In Vancouver, Washington, the Marine Park Water Reclamation Plant serves about 200,000 people on the Columbia River. “This town was the first settlement in the northwest, where the Hudson Bay Company built a fort,” explains city engineer Victor Ehrlich.

Ehrlich was given the task of expanding the waste treatment plant, which he says was “built in the early 1970s, without odor control.” Ehrlich held public workshops, and many people, citing the smell and space concerns, said they preferred that a new, larger plant be built somewhere else.

But the city countered that moving the waste operations to another location would cost more money than building a new treatment plant in Marine Park. So, as Ehrlich explains, “We built the facilities 300 feet away from the shoreline, built a park, a regional trail and an educational community center.”

The bottom floor of the two-story educational center was designed to offer instruction on water conservation and the maintenance of a healthy aquatic environment. One exhibit appeals to the health-conscious, discussing exposure to mercury in fish. The education center also offers student tours through the water reclamation plant. The center hosted 50,000 visitors last year.

Designed to resemble a community college, the facility sports a brick faéade, swimming pool, 2,000 trees and other indigenous plants. For odor control, each building is outfitted with a sophisticated vacuum system. When doors are opened, air is sucked into the building, preventing odors from escaping into the atmosphere.

“I”m a strong advocate for getting citizens involved,” Ehrlich explains. “We heard the people’s issues. We didn’t spend our money pumping our waste to another place but made these 50 acres look good.”

Built in 1984 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in Van Nuys is located in Sepulveda Recreational Basin in the middle of California’s San Fernando Valley. The basin contains three golf courses, Balboa Park, a wildlife preserve, a radio-control model airplane field, a Japanese garden and two lakes that reap the benefits of the reclamation facility.

“[Van Nuys had] needed another water treatment plant, but initial plans included a wall to keep citizens out,” says sanitation engineer John Mays. City engineer Donald C. Tillman wanted to give something back to the community, and spearheaded construction of the Japanese Garden next door to the reclamation facility. Today, the Japanese Garden hosts cultural events and receives 22,000 annual visitors. Gene Greene, a landscape architect and garden manager, says, “We try to educate the public on what water reclamation is and what it does.”

Greene explains that since Van Nuys is located in the arid San Fernando Valley, it makes sense to reuse water. She says reclamation works to offset the demand for potable drinking water, an expensive and limited resource in Southern California.Eighty million gallons of water enter the plant daily, 23 million gallons go to three lakes, two to four million gallons are used within the plant and the rest is discharged directly into the Los Angeles River, which is usually dry during the summer months. “Our goal is to work with the Department of Water and Power, who control the sale of the water within the city, to expand the programs of reclaimed water for additional offsite uses,” Mays says.

Education holds the solution to change how society manages waste and sewage. “These public places can be resources for recreation, wildlife and community involvement,” Engler says.