The Nation's Largest Landfill Beckons Tourists

Los Angeles County is home to the country's largest active landfill. Recently the high-tech Puente Hills Landfill also began offering tours. What is so attention-worthy about a massive pile of trash?

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand. Visitors to L.A., they can cruise Rodeo Drive. They can take a tour of Universal Studios, Disney Land, whatever, or, you know, they can just take a bus to the landfill. Really. One of the country's biggest landfills, Puente Hills, just outside L.A., was the destination for a special bus tour last Friday.

CHADWICK: Really special. This is a huge site. It's state of the art, well state of the industry, anyway. The excursion was organized by the Center for Land Use Interpretation, or CLUI.

BRAND: CLUI. That's an off beat nonprofit devoted to land use interpretation. Matthew Brunwasser caught a ride, and he has our report.

MATTHEW BRUNWASSER: Garbage is the affluence of our consumption. That's one of the messages of the exhibit, Post Consumed: A Landscape of Waste in Los Angeles at CLUI's Culver City gallery. It's 8:30 in the morning, and Heidi De Vries (ph) is waiting for the bus tour, which is part of this exhibition. She's looking at photos of different stages of the waste stream.

Ms. HEIDI DE VRIES (Land Fill Visitor): We consume so much stuff, and we don't even think of where it goes after we throw it in the garbage.

BRUNWASSER: To take this trip to the dump, De Vries took the day off work and flew here from her home in Berkley 400 miles away. She says she finds inspiration and genius in CLUI's presentations of landscape issues, but she admits she's also excited about getting up close to trash.

Ms. DE VRIES: Yeah, I'd love to see the interior of, like, how they sort through garbage. Just what goes on? So I have a lot of curiosity, and that's why I like to have some of that ceded today.

(Soundbite of crowd)

BRUNWASSER: CLUI doesn't do bus tours very often and never does one the same way twice. CLUI has offices and field stations around the country producing exhibitions and publications and compiles a land use database. Matthew Coolidge, the founder and director of CLUI, leads the tour. He wants to help people reach their own conclusions.

Mr. MATTHEW COOLIDGE (Director, CLUI): Part of the purpose of this program is to get people to look at their waste in a very - well, more than just a Freudian sense, to actually kind of consider the effects of our actions and work them into the equation.

BRUNWASSER: Like archeologists in the field, our first contact with trash is the transfer station for L.A. City Waste.

(Soundbite of trucks)

BRUNWASSER: The group gets a view of the huge space from the viewing gallery above. Equipment Supervisor Gregory Carter (ph) explains.

Mr. GREGORY CARTER (Equipment Supervisor, L.A. City Waste): We can take out 4,000 tons of scraps a day. That's all the trash in the L.A. City.

BRUNWASSER: Bulldozers push the messy piles into open pits in the middle of the floor, where 40-ton trailer trucks are waiting to take the trash to the landfill. De Vries is fascinated by the scene.

Ms. DE VRIES: This is awesome, despite the smell.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRUNWASSER: The bus then heads to Puente Hills, where Field Engineer Ted Broader (ph) gets on. He says landfills are totally different from the dumps of the past. Dumps are stinky and unregulated mountains of trash, while this landfill is covered with earth daily and monitored for pollution by seven government agencies. Vermin can't survive here, he says, due to the constant compacting of the trash.

Mr. TED BROADER (Field Engineer, Puente Hills): And so we put radio transmitters on some rats to prove that they don't last. And so we put them on, and three of them didn't make it an hour. The fourth one didn't make it a day.

(Soundbite of bulldozers)

BRUNWASSER: The group files outside, and De Vries is awed by the scale of the place. It has the capacity to take 13,000 tons of trash daily. That's a football field stacked 20 ft. high, or enough trash to fill the Rose Bowl in 13 days.

Ms. DE VRIES: I'm kind of blown away by the sheer volume of what we're standing on right now. There's a hole to our left that goes what, 100 feet down? And that's all going to be filled with garbage at some point. It kind of makes me never want to throw anything away ever again.

BRUNWASSER: De Vries is also surprised by the orderliness and the lack of smells.

Ms. DE VRIES: This is very well engineered and really impressive. There are separate areas for every little thing that goes on. The trucks all know where they're going. Yeah, it's much different than what I was expecting.

(Soundbite of trucks)

BRUNWASSER: The last stop offers a moment of rumination on the ridge above Puente Hills, overlooking both the landfill and Rose Hills, an enormous cemetery. Back in the exhibit hall at the end of the trip, De Vries says the experience has given her fresh perspective, not just about the landscape, but about her life.

Ms. DE VRIES: I work as an advertising producer, and we basically try to get people to consume things, to buy things, and while I was standing there on top of the ridge, I was thinking about wow, and it's all going to end up here, basically. It's just a lot of food for thought.

BRUNWASSER: Next month, Post Consumed will be one of several exhibits representing the United States at the International Biennale in Venice, Italy. And a new exhibit on oil will open in Houston in January. Immune to the often heated tone of environmental debate, CLUI continues on its mission, not to advocate, but to help interpret the culture of land use. For NPR News, I'm Matthew Brunwasser.

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