The Sagamore is a luxury resort hotel in the Adirondack Mountains, located on its own island in the middle of Lake George. One of those estate-like, languidly sprawling Gilded Age compounds built as an escape from the filth and congestion of industrial urban life, the Sagamore is giant, white, and inlaid with paned windows and French doors. Behind the main building, unfurling down toward the water is a meticulously manicured garden. Uniformed clerks, maids, and groundskeepers silently cross wide corridors and freshly clipped lawns, and pilot electric golf carts bearing the hotel insignia. There is no other way of getting to the secluded Sagamore except by car, and you can’t be on the island without checking in and getting a paper to place onto the dashboard that says your presence has been paid for. In such tony environs one hardly expects to come across a crew of visitors who are in charge of waste handling in towns across the country—garbage men. The Sagamore is, perhaps surprisingly, where every year the Federation of New York Solid Waste Associations holds its Solid Waste/Recycling Conference and Trade Show.
The Federation’s annual conference is for New York State’s landfill and incineration engineers, reps from garbage hauling firms, heads of government waste and recycling programs, and private recyclers—the people who make the decisions about where and how our garbage is disposed of. The list of speakers includes outsiders like me as well as leaders in the field from around the world. The gathering takes place in May just before it’s warm enough to swim in the lake. “If you jump in this time of year, you’ll get hypothermia before you know it,” I am told by Sean Follern, a member of the Federation and the moderator of the panel I am here to speak on. He tells me the Federation has their conference in May because they get a good rate; not as many people can come, but if they held it later, in the summer, then the group couldn’t afford to have it at the swanky Sagamore.
Also among the attendees are waste companies that sell everything from landfill liner material and conveyor belts to the latest in compactor garbage trucks and mobile emergency decontamination chambers. As waste handling and disposal have been forced to be more ecologically safe, the equipment required for operating disposal sites has grown exponentially. As a result, the tradeshow aspect of the conference is major. Not only do the booths of vendors fill the windowless expanse of the Sagamore’s conference hall, but the commodities spill out onto the lawn and parking lot facing the main hotel. Clashing with the well-appointed surroundings are two hulking high-tech steel garbage trucks for city officials and landfill operators to inspect, but not to drive. There’s also a series of odor-control misting machines—the kind now ubiquitous at landfills—perched on stands, spraying a fine chemical haze into the air. Those hocking their wares at the Sagamore also, infamously, host a long evening of partying, referred to as “Hospitality Row.” It takes place later tonight, and by three o’clock everybody’s talking about it.
The panel I am speaking on is in the time slot just after the 4 p.m. cocktail mixer. At the end of my session, I am invited to dine with the board of directors and a few other guest speakers. Ten of us converge at the main hotel’s most upscale restaurant. We are seated at a long rectangular table in a private room lined on one side with a grid of old windows that mottle the evening light. I sit toward the center of the table. Across from me is Joseph Grotowski, a solid waste engineer from Monroe County, home to Rochester, a town notoriously polluted by Kodak. Grotowski, a seasoned member of the Federation board, shifts uncomfortably in his suit, an action that begins as soon as we are seated and lasts throughout the meal. One of our many waiters calmly hands Grotowski the wine list. Grotowski seems burdened by the task and turns to the woman on his right asking what she thinks. They decide on a bottle of white, but the waiter politely suggests ordering two for the table—one is not enough for ten people, he tells Grotowski. I guess Grotowski has more serious matters on his mind, he seems nervous and distracted.
I begin talking to Follern, seated to my right. He tells me about his family, his early career in journalism, which has now morphed into a patchwork of various endeavors related to environmental advocacy. Follern is graying, moustached, and a little on the plump side. He is humble, and is the knowledgeable sort who, decades ago, realized that all was not well with the environment, and so has worked around the edges of the inside to influence change. A few weeks after the dinner, I happen to meet a young man who tells me that Follern successfully devised a way for Verizon—one of the largest telephone companies in the U.S.—to profitably recycle their printed directories, a job they had previously evaded. Before Follern’s scheme, the company let all that paper go to waste, and now, years after he has left, Verizon still reaps the dividends of good PR from his work. But at the table, he mentions none of this.
Seated on the other side of Follern is Tim Paterson, an engineer who works for a large national engineering firm; he specializes in landfills and disaster debris removal. He designed and runs the city landfill in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He also orchestrated the clean up after the almost nuclear Los Alamos fire a few years ago. And he will soon be head of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), the more progressive of the two most powerful professional waste organizations in the United States. Two women who work for the New York Federation, Terry Laibach and her boss, whose name I fail to catch, are seated at the other end of the table. They are both soft-spoken at dinner, but, I imagine, less so when they are in familiar surroundings. At one point they begin talking about how the large discount stores are causing problems at some nearby landfills. Laibach’s boss tells me the outlets are dumping items that don’t sell, sending perfectly good commodities—women’s underwear most recently—to be buried. “The stores don’t want to give these things away, god knows why, it’s a real problem,” she says.
Across the table is Helene Hitzig, who will speak tomorrow. She’s German and tells us she’s finishing an engineering Ph.D. program. I ask what she thinks about the current German system. (Because of national laws passed in 1991 to reduce the amount of waste going to landfills and incinerators, Germany now has a comprehensive sorting and recycling system, popularly known as the “green dot,” which is respected globally as a successful alternative model.) Hitzig says the consensus today among rubbish treatment professionals is that this program is vastly inefficient and must be scrapped. Based on her research, the real answer is incineration. “Burning waste is so logical,” she says.
Having eaten our small portions of meat and vegetables, arranged like sculpture on our plates, we await the coffee and dessert. Grotowski, Paterson, and Follern are talking about recycling in the U.S. They all agree that real recycling rates have declined in the last decade. “But,” Grotowski says with a raised eyebrow, “do you think any elected official would let recycling numbers go down on his watch—no chance.” I ask if there are ways to inflate the numbers. “Of course there are,” he says.
While everyone is still eating dessert, with the din of forks clanging on china, Grotowski moves out of his chair. He’s sorry, he says almost inaudibly, he has to be somewhere. Tonight is Hospitality Row, Follern reminds me, and the rest of us will soon go, too.
Hospitality Row is business mixed with lots of drinking. The companies that are here selling waste and recycling goods and services, book bungalow-style suites that run along the south side of the island. To woo potential clients, the vendors stock their rooms with plenty of booze. Some rooms are decorated based on themes like “Welcome to Margaritaville,” while others have young, blond, spandex-clad female bartenders. But most suites are straightforward, with drinks poured by the vendors themselves wearing shirts embroidered with their company logo. For the guests, the idea is to go from room to room drinking for free, socializing, handing out business cards, and perhaps making deals, or beginning to make deals. The rooms are crowded mostly with men—moustaches, calloused hands, sun-worn skin, thinning hair—their shy demeanors fading with the added beer, whiskey, wine.
In one packed room Follern introduces me to a veteran of the industry, white-haired, tall and sturdy, creases delineating the bags under his eyes. The man tells me the story of how he started in the trash business. He ended up working at the Seneca Meadow Landfill, New York State’s largest, because of his wife. He was doing construction in his early twenties and decided he needed a steadier income. She helped him get a job at her family’s garbage disposal site. He’s been there ever since. A few years ago his wife’s family sold the landfill to IESI, a powerful national waste handling corporation. On the left breast of his knit shirt are the four upper case letters stitched in white. He tells me IESI paid $200 million for the rubbish dump. The property became so valuable because today it’s almost impossible to build a new landfill; the public most often succeeds in blocking it. A company can more easily expand an existing fill, however, so these older garbage graveyards have become gold mines. After the deal went through, the former owner walked around the landfill handing out $1 million each to a few of the workers that had been there forever. Not the bigwigs, not the suits in the office, but the little guys, the ones driving the bulldozers, the ones working out in the muck.
Cigars and brandy are on offer in the hazmat mobile decontamination unit, but I never make it over. I end up in a room that has wine and cheese, and find Grotowski there. He has changed clothes: khakis, a baseball cap, polo shirt, and windbreaker. “Drink this one, it’s the expensive one,” he says, boyishly holding up a bottle of white for me to inspect. “Grab a glass,” he tells me, smiling. As he pours the wine it’s clear that his discomfort has fallen away. I realize that earlier at the dinner table it was self-consciousness that hemmed him in. Even though it’s apparent he likes the good things in life, he’s not at ease in a suit at a high-end restaurant.
Grotowski offers to have the Federation pay for an extra night at the Sagamore if I can stay because Wal-Mart’s representative is addressing the conference day after tomorrow about the corporation’s new environmental direction. He says he’d really like to see me take the Wal-Mart guy to task. “You know there’s all kinds of problems with what they’re doing,” he says. His cell phone rings, he has to take the call, he says, and ducks outside just beyond the open doorway.
As the night progresses the partakers in hospitality are getting increasingly sloshed. I’ve been sticking with Follern for most of the night, and he wants to find the suite that has canoli. We work our way from room to room, and run into Paterson, who also wants canoli. It’s after midnight, and there are presentations tomorrow morning, but we keep drinking. Finally we locate the canoli, and settle in with another plastic cup of wine.
Paterson and I lean against the wall in the suite’s track-lit entry hall. He is a little younger than the others, sandy blonde hair, goatee. He has spilled wine down the front of his pleated khakis, but doesn’t seem to notice. Over dinner he had said, as if confiding a secret, that there’s something wrong with the waste treatment system we’ve got. He sees it every day: efficiencies that make sense for business but don’t make sense for the prudent use of resources and real environmental protection. Unlike many of his colleagues, Paterson seems less willing to simply accept the contradictions of his industry: sanitation engineers are supposed to be working to shield ecosystems from the harms of discarded materials, which they may do in the short term. But over the longer stretch they’re actually facilitating waste disposal expansion and intensification. Paterson has an earnestness, a naiveté that both allows him to do his job and weighs him down with uncertainties about its real impacts.
During my research on the subject, almost everyone I’ve met in the waste business says they are helping the environment, and they might feel that they are. Yet none on waste corporation payrolls, and few civil servants meaningfully engage in finding alternatives to a system that produces more waste and toxicity than any other on the planet, than any other in history.
In the hallway Paterson tells me in a hushed but urgent voice, “You know what I think the problem is—it’s the corporations.”
I’m surprised to hear this from someone in his position. I ask what he thinks about the overall economic structure we have—one that needs garbage, one that relies on wasting to keep consumption going. “It’s not just the garbage corporations, it’s the logic of our whole economic system,” I say. Paterson’s eyes bulge slightly as he pushes his chin out. “Well now, that’s something to think about,” he says.
Paterson is a committed back-end problem solver—and he’s good at it. He cleaned up the scorched town of Los Alamos in such a way as to redirect the vast majority of debris back into markets as raw materials. This was his object lesson that the system works well when managed well. But the system so often fails—in the hallway he speaks with passion and anger about the mishandling of wastes in New Orleans—that disbelief inevitably returns. Yet Paterson reigns in his critically tinged curiosity, allowing it to only go so far. He is married to a schoolteacher. Has two kids. A mortgage. He has done everything right. It’s 2 a.m. Paterson looks toward the door, “It’s late,” he says. My eyes quickly scan the room for Follern, I look back and Paterson is gone.
The revelers at Hospitality Row have on-the-ground experience that leads some to seriously doubt the safety and wisdom of how much wasting we do today. On a drunken night, in the company of someone new, in a setting where they speak more frankly, they might articulate things they would not otherwise say. They might entertain criticisms they would not otherwise permit. Grotowski, Gerke, Laibach, Paterson are individuals who, at various times, experience hesitations about what they do. But these people are components of a much larger process and set of politics over which they have little direct control; organized waste disposal has existed before them and will be there once they have gone. Yet these individuals are also participants in key decisions on whether we have serious waste reduction policies, viable reuse methods, and meaningful recycling programs. In reality, the machine they help comprise continues its waste-encouraging ways thanks, in part, to their quiet compliance.
Three months after the Federation conference, Paterson and I talk on the phone. By now he has taken over as head of SWANA. It is a Wednesday afternoon, and we are both sober. He has read my book and has comments. He tells me I’m unduly hard on Waste Management Incorporated, the largest rubbish corporation in the U.S. He tells me WMI does care about the environment; they are working hard, doing more than most to protect ecosystems. I ask him about one of the most contentious issues in waste disposal safety—whether or not landfill liners will leak. “I don’t know,” he says. “Liners are supposedly designed to last 200 years, but will they?” I ask. “Don’t ask me that in public,” he says.
I ask him what should be done to reduce the amount of waste we make in the US. “We all need to reduce, reuse, and recycle as much as possible,” he says. Attempting to cut through the rhetoric, I ask what he means. His response could be insightful; Paterson is one of the country’s top waste engineers. But it’s not. “I’m doing aluminum cans, making a better effort at pulling out the plastic,” he says, narrowly focusing on his own behavior. “I’m just not prepared to change the way I consume, I’m not willing to do that right now. I just buy what I want because I want it,” he says.
The names in this story were changed.
Heather Rogers is a Bay Area writer and photographer.