Science Rules: Brad Efford on Bill Nye the Science Guy, Episode 13: "Garbage"
Things that we know and love that are garbage today will be garbage tomorrow, the science guy says. And probably garbage for a lot of tomorrows.
By the turn of the twenty-first century, Staten Island’s Fresh Kills Landfill was not just the largest dump in the world, but the world’s largest human-made structure. In some places, the piles of garbage in Fresh Kills had grown to twice the size of the Statue of Liberty. The science guy reminds us of this, just after noting that while the average forest produces twenty centimeters of waste in a year, the average individual human makes that same amount every week. He seems to startle even himself when he says it.
And how much waste does the average tragedy produce? It’s all a waste, obviously, that’s what makes tragedy tragedy. Sometimes there’s no way around invoking 9/11. Sometimes the story you think you’re telling is not the story that ends up getting told.
In October 2001, Eric Beck is working as a private contractor at Fresh Kills. His company, Taylor Recycling, has complicated, fine-tuned methods of sifting debris. The city has turned to ash. The city, the country, is still praying and angry. For weeks now, machinery guided by sullen, sorrowful city workers has been trucking into the landfill heap after heap of ground zero. By the time the cleanup has ended, nearly one-third of it will have ended up at Fresh Kills—some estimates put the final weight at two million tons. Rubble the heft of steel and stone. Materials where once there stood structure, needing to be cherished, remembered, and needing to be removed.
What was memorial quickly turns to garbage. Eric Beck is managing much of the redistribution, assigning areas of the landfill to certain bulldozers, making sure each is weighed, that the right paperwork gets filed, framing each day’s actions in the everyday actions he’s used to, avoiding any heavier implications, getting it all done, and quickly. Speed is of the essence—the city is grieving and the longer the garbage sits piled outside the city’s windows, the harder the grief will be to move past.
Sometimes he can’t avoid it, but Eric Beck tries not to think too much about what isn’t immediately obvious in the rubble. What the eye doesn’t catch right away. He tries to push from his mind the missing posters plastered across the city. He knows what the rubble is made of--how unavoidable the human element was going to be throughout this whole endeavor. How 2,753 people disappeared, but didn’t, of course.
The day after the tragedy, that night, Fresh Kills became an official crime scene. There was nothing else to call it, nothing that fit the terrible, unusual position the city was in. The garbage came rolling in. Only it wasn’t garbage—it was the city. It was trinkets and memories. It was entire lampposts and entire firetrucks. It was remnants, evidence, in need of categorization. An FBI recovery team camped out at the landfill for the next 10 months. Twenty-five different state and federal agencies followed suit. Fourteen private contractors. The NYPD, of course. How could they not. This was their city, their evidence, their garbage. Eric Beck is one of hundreds at Fresh Kills working day and night not just to clean up the mess, but to make sense of it, as much as making sense is possible.
By July 2002, 4,257 human remains are recovered at Fresh Kills. There is no way around this sentence. Its enormity is both heroic and sickening. The remains are used, over time, to identify just over 300 victims. The rest of it is buried in an on-site memorial. Fresh Kills, of course, will never serve as an operational landfill again. How could it. It is too much—there is too much to grapple with. What was once a dump is now a graveyard, the major hosting site for the most immediately devastating tragedy in the nation’s history.
But something at Fresh Kills isn’t right. Eric Beck watches as new machinery comes in with new loads of debris, same as always, but soon he starts to notice the opposite: other machinery, smaller, more dedicated to less large-scale, devastating jobs, taking piles of garbage out of the landfill. Like gravediggers returning home with the spoils of another successful night. Over time, Eric Beck asks around and is told that some of the Fresh Kills garbage is being repurposed. That they’ll melt it down and make filler for the damaged streets around ground zero, filling potholes, paving roads, beginning the long silent patchwork process of making the city the city again. The unsettling feeling returns. They’re going to fill the streets with human remains.
Eric Beck will file an affidavit as part of a lawsuit filed by grieving families left lessened by the tragedy. He will swear to what he saw. The city’s chief medical examiner will determine that remains, debris, too much of everything were “cremated by the initial conflagration and the subterranean fires that burned for months” on-site at the tragedy. The New York Times will report on this nearly five years after Fresh Kills has been shut down. The article will mention bone fragments found mixed with gravel near ground zero. Seventy-four bone fragments in the gravel. Unasked recycled life. A very wrong remembrance. A very bad memorial.
Diane Horning lost her son in the tragedy. She is one of those leading the charge in the lawsuit against the city. She is asking for Fresh Kills to be combed through again. She is looking for her son, understands she has the right to closure. The Times catches up with her just after she’s heard what Eric Beck reported seeing. “It’s quite shocking how they have been able to rely on our gullibility to do things that were atrocities,” she says. “They lied to us and they treated our loved ones as road fill and garbage.”
The point is salient: the tragedy is no longer the tragedy. The tragedy has instead become the healing. The misunderstanding of human remains as much more the latter than the former. The mishandling of grief as a feeling instead of a permanent iron piece of the soul, forged by the heat of memory, cooled by time but rightfully never gone.
Brad Efford is the founding editor of The RS 500, a project pairing each of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time with an original piece of writing. His writing can be found in Puerto del Sol, Pank, Hobart, and elsewhere. He teaches English and history in Austin, TX.