Academic journal article Journal of Ecological Anthropology

The Life and Times of Landfills

Academic journal article Journal of Ecological Anthropology

The Life and Times of Landfills

Article excerpt


Landfills are primarily defined by their relationship to space. Other names for waste disposal describe a technical procedure (recycle, compost, incinerate), whereas the American sanitary land-fill and the British equivalent closed tip, call to mind land that has been opened, filled with waste, and closed back up again. The value of a landfill is calculated in terms of abstract air space that has not yet been filled. The companies that own landfills earn capital if waste workers can squeeze more waste into less area. It is also in terms of space that landfills are contested and regulated by agents of the government. Regulations focus on potential leakage into the surrounding area. When leaks occur, landfills may face financial penalties and possible closure if the problem cannot be mitigated. People resist the proximity of landfills to their communities, hence the use of the term "Not in My Backyard" (NiMBY) to call into question the motives of anti-landfill activists. Environmental justice advocates have demonstrated that landfills and dumps are disproportionately located in spatial proximity to people of color (Pellow 2007).

While landfills are clearly spatial, I examine in this essay how they are also practically managed and politically contested in relation to time. I rely primarily on my time working for nine months as a laborer at a large landfill in Southeastern Michigan, which I call Four Corners. I discuss how landfills partake of multiple temporal scales- making them difficult to regulate and run. This polychronicity would be present, furthermore, even if a different approach to waste eventually were to replace widespread dependence on landfills in North America.

Taking into account multiple timescales reveals the constitutive role in waste management of nonhuman beings and other forces. In what follows, I combine images with text to depict how other beings and forces co-construct waste landscapes that tend to be attributed solely to humans. By describing the polyrhythms of these landscapes, following Anna Tsing (2014: 34), it becomes clear that the practical arrangements and dynamic interactions that humans set in motion give way to more-than-human processes.


There are three basic ways to dispose of waste: burn, dump (in the ground or in water), or compost. All of these forms of disposal have existed for millennia, in some form, but the sanitary movement that began in the nineteenth century profoundly changed how they were evaluated and adopted by government planners and engineers. Sanitary landfills became widespread throughout Euro-America after the World Wars because they represented a cheaper and simpler method of eliminating waste than did the existing alternatives-specifically waste reduction and incineration. With the rise of the modern environmental movement, these short-term goals now appear to come at the sacrifice of long-term goals. One need not be an environmentalist to regard the disposal of waste as a misuse of resources. My employers and coworkers at Four Corners, who made money from the disposal of other people's waste, tended to support reuse and recycling as preferable options.

The risks posed by landfills came into popular awareness with the infamous Love Canal disaster of the 1970s, where a leaky landfill created by a chemical manufacturer was held responsible for a cluster of health problems and birth defects in Niagara Falls, New York. The toxicity of landfill contents changes relative to government regulations and scientific knowledge. However, toxicity is not merely a social construction-it is a material consequence of industrial practices, one that has real impacts on human and environmental health. In the words of Rob Nixon (2011), toxicity is best understood as a form of slow violence that is disproportionately borne by the poor and disadvantaged.

In one sense, landfills are human creations that pose a risk to non-humans and humans in their vicinity. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.