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Photo Essay: Bus Tour of the Dump

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Every day we make trash. We do it without thinking. Our refuse is barely a part of our lives. But all around us is a separate, secret culture, created to care for and dispose of this garbage, a world of silent signs and messages that we don't even see. But without it, our lives would be impossible. We would be surrounded by stinking refuse and vermin, able to think about nothing else.

The Center of Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) is an organization of people, who, like archaeologists, study the products of a culture and then extrapolate things about it from those things. Except that the culture they're studying is our culture.

Right now, their current exhibit is about the Puente Hills land fill. Currently, and for the next three or four years, Puente Hills is the largest landfill in the United States (since Fresh Kills in NY close in 2001). A land fill is very different than the dump that we still picture from days of yore, with the trash unloaded everywhere, rife with vermin. Puente Hills is carefully structured not to impact the environment. On the approach, it's a terraced green hill, with trees and grass, even flowers. It's full of wildlife -- deer and squirrels and coyotes (though in the landfill itself, between the methane generate and the pulverizing of the trash to compact it, no vermin can survive). The plantings get younger and younger until you reach the crest, and just over the top, it turns into dust.

Today, looking at a land fill is really looking at dirt. Smelly dirt! Because at the end of each day, the trash is covered with dirt. The basic set-up is like this. They lay down a layer of non-absorbent clay, and over it, another man-made covering to prevent foulness from seeping into the local water table. at the bottom of each terrace runs a pipe to collect the methane from the garbage. The methane goes to the on-site power plant, which generates enough energy to run the entire landfill. They sell the surplus to California Edison.

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Also on site is a MRF (pronounced like smurf, without the s), Materials Recovery Facility, where they sort through numerous waste materials to find anything that can be recycled, which they sell to China. The MRF operates at a loss, but it's not run to make money, but for the good of the planet (who knew that such beneficence existed on a governmental level?)

When Puente Hills closes, the MRF will continue its recycling work and will also function as a transfer station and the trash will be moved by train to an area near the Salton Sea called the Mesquite Land Fill. Once online, it will last 100 years.

Just over the crest of the hill from the land fill is the world's largest cemetery, Rose Hills Memorial Park. It's a flat green space, studded with picturesque homes of various religions. As you look around, you realize the samenesses of the two places. Both are smoothed over to comfort those that remain, but ultimately represent the end of the line.

Puente Hills Landfill, 1955 Workman Mill Road, Whittier
Rose Hills Cemetery, 3888 Workman Mill Rd, Whittier
CLUI, 9331 Venice Blvd. Culver City, CA 90232 (though it's technically in Palms)

Photos by Jacy for LAist