Orion Blog

Concrete Progress: From Waste to Watts at One of the World’s Biggest Automobile Plants

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Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project. Above: a landfill flare burns off excess methane, a potent greenhouse gas and a potential source of energy.

 

The BMW factory in Spartanburg, South Carolina loomed above my van, immense, impassive, absolute. It was one of the biggest buildings I’d ever seen, blotting out the horizon and stretching off into the distance. I felt like a Game of Thrones peasant riding a horse-drawn cart up to a castle.

In actuality, I was taking my students on a field trip. We were learning about globalization, and there are few better examples of globalization than a German car company making X4 coupes in upstate South Carolina. It was a truly fascinating tour—the windshield robots alone were worth the price of admission—but the whole time, as I looked through my safety glasses at cars being hoisted up and whisked through the air, I thought, “This place must devour fossil fuel.” But I was wrong. When I asked our tour guide how BMW powers its operation, I found that the factory runs not on coal from strip mines or oil from offshore wells, but on gas from the local landfill. BMW churns out 1,200 cars a day mostly on trash.

The process starts with municipal solid waste. This is the technical term for household trash, the plastic wrappers and takeout containers and appliance cases that you cannot recycle or compost. Most people bag it up and leave it for pickup; a few cart it off to the dump (as we used to call it), where it’s thrown into a lined pit and left to decompose. When full, the landfill is capped, typically with clay or some other impermeable layer.

This cap is meant to keep waste products from leaking out, but it also keeps oxygen from getting in. The stuff inside, therefore, decomposes anaerobically, with little organisms consuming the material in a process similar to fermentation. As a result, all of the stuff in your trash bags goes through several forms before ending its solid life as landfill gas (or LFG), which consists of roughly half methane (CH4) and half CO2 and water.

In about a quarter of landfills, LFG is flared (which is to say, burned) as it rises out of the ground. In others, it simply drifts off into the atmosphere to join the rest of our greenhouse gases as they warm up the earth. Landfills are the third-largest source of human-produced methane in the United States, and methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 (a pound of it captures twenty times as much heat as a pound of CO2). The waste is also unstable—LFG can be the cause of fires and explosions at landfill sites.

But while it’s a troublesome waste in some contexts, it’s a powerful fuel in others. Methane is essentially what you’re using if you heat your house with natural gas. It’s an increasingly important part of the American economy, and it’s tremendously controversial. As readers of Sandra Steingraber’s columns in Orion will be aware, natural gas is what fracking is for. In the case of landfills, however, methane is wafting into the air not from fossil fuel deposits but from our own waste. The key is using it.

In 1999, the EPA’s Landfill Methane Outreach Program suggested that BMW consider the Palmetto Landfill, ten miles east of its Spartanburg plant, as a means of supplying its huge energy needs. An enormous operation on the lookout for efficiencies, BMW soon had a pipeline sending gas from the trash to the factory and producing 25 percent of its power. The system works the way a coal mine would—the LFG is processed to remove impurities, then sent along for use—but without degrading new landscapes, creating new waste, or depleting a nonrenewable resource. LFG can be turned into electricity, or burned directly for heating. Its waste products are water and CO2. After upgrading its generators in 2009, BMW’s Spartanburg plan uses the Palmetto landfill for over 60 percent of its energy, saving the company an estimated $5 million a year.

Around the country, there are 621 landfill gas projects under operation right now, supplying hospitals in Wisconsin and prisons in Pennsylvania and dump trucks in Louisiana. The sad thing is, this is less than a third of the landfills in the country. By my calculation, about half of our nation’s landfills neither flare their gas nor put it to use, but simply let it continue to pollute the atmosphere. Still, it’s an industry that’s growing quickly: LFG use has quadrupled in less than twenty years. To date, the EPA has found 450 candidate landfills, all of which generate methane. Hopefully they’ll be turned into sources of heat and power in the near future.

Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. A professor of environmental studies at Wofford College, he is devoted to understanding how people decide to restore and remake their environments.

5 Questions for Elizabeth Rush, Author of Still Lifes from a Vanishing City

Photographs by Elizabeth Rush.

Photographs by Elizabeth Rush.

In 2010, as Myanmar’s military junta prepared to transition to a parliamentary system, it auctioned off 80 percent of the country’s state-owned assets, including many historic buildings in the city of Yangon. A year later, writer and photographer Elizabeth Rush visited Yangon, where she shot more than 2,000 photographs and conducted hundreds of interviews— all before the city’s landscape was changed forever. The result is Still Lifes from a Vanishing City, a book of photographs and essays just out from Things Asian Press. 

 

What’s your connection to this story? What made you want to document Yangon before its transformation?

I lived for a while in Hanoi, Vietnam, and I remember reading an article in a small Thai newspaper that said that the Junta was selling off Myanmar’s state-owned assets in closed-door auctions as the country prepared for its first democratic elections in decades. I knew, instantly, that downtown Yangon was destined to change. Downtown Yangon had the most intact colonial capital in all of the South East, but it wasn’t the architecture that attracted me to it so much as the lives lead within that architecture.

When the military took control in the 1960s, foreign investment pretty much ceased as they implemented a socialist system. They took ownership over much of the property in downtown Yangon, and when they took over the colonial gems they subdivided them and moved in all different races and classes of people to try to create a unified Burmese identity. Which meant that you had street sellers living alongside lawyers in these once-regal buildings. A remarkably egalitarian city emerged, and that was what I loved about Yangon, and I figured the character of that city would be lost as the buildings were auctioned and redeveloped.

Soon after I arrived in Yangon, I was able to get a clandestine list of the auction sites through a Burmese reporter friend. The list was of course written in Burmese, so I had a different person translate it and off I went. I walked every single street in downtown Yangon, trying to identify which of the buildings on the list were residential. Once I knew which buildings were colonial-era and residential I started knocking on doors and asking residents if I could photograph their living rooms. Much to my surprise, pretty much everyone let me in. In many cases I was cooked for and treated like a long-lost friend.

What did it feel like to move through a place that was on the verge of such dramatic change? How did residents seem to feel about the upheaval?

That is a complicated question. There were a lot of extraordinary things taking place while I was in Yangon. I was in Yangon the day that President Thein Sein first released political prisoners, and the reaction was extraordinary. I don’t think I have ever felt a joy quite so profound and on such a large scale in my entire life. I was also there for the first Buddhist holiday—the Festival of Lights—and it was the first time in over a decade that residents were allowed to gather in the street in groups larger than six. No one could believe it. The elation was palpable. I even saw people getting tattoos to commemorate the event. It was one of the best nights of my life.

That said, about half of the people who I worked with knew that they were on the brink of losing their homes. And those that did know were really quite sad and sentimental. It is understandable—they were losing not just the physical structures that sheltered but also some of their memories. But I returned to every home that I photographed with a physical copy of the image that I took, and residents were so happy to receive them as they helped them to remember.

In some cases, though, I returned and the home had already been demolished and the people were gone. In many ways I think I was trying to document what was being lost, and by whom, as the country transitioned to a parliamentary system.

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Are there any stories or images that didn’t make it into the book that you’d like to share?

So many. I was often followed by secret police. I had what we call “a minder,” or a person assigned specifically to watch me. When my minder got the sense that I had seen him, he would often drop back and take off his hat, as if that was enough to fool me! It was both funny and frightening. When I had my minder with me I did not interview anyone. I just walked and looked and stopped at street stands for milk tea. It was really a gift to get to spend two years on and off walking the streets of Yangon, getting to know its residents.

I had a Burmese monk friend who advised me, before starting this project, to simply walk into it with a kind and open heart, and I took that advice very seriously. I think that we are taught to live in fear in general, especially when visiting a foreign place, and even more so when visiting a place like Myanmar that has gotten basically only bad press. This project really demanded that I put myself at the mercy of complete strangers and vice versa. And the results were so heartening: I passed so many wonderful mornings in complete strangers’ homes. I wish that I could share the simple joy of those mornings, sipping tea, getting to know a new person whom I knew nothing of before knocking on her door. The lives that everyday people lead in these contentious countries are in no way chronicled in the twenty-four-hour news cycle, and I wanted to draw my readers’ attention to those hidden stories.

Did you learn anything surprising via the taking of these photographs? What emerged for you that you didn’t expect to find?

Ha! I think I might have veered into this question with my last answer, but let’s see. I asked every person I interviewed if they thought about the colonial history of their building and home, and, much to my surprise, the answer was a pretty resounding “no.” Sometimes, someone would say something like, “oh, yes, this building is nice and cool because of the thick colonial-era brick walls,” and then go back to describing whatever important life event took place in the living room. That surprised me: I thought, for all the British may have stolen from Myanmar, perhaps an unmediated experience of the present wasn’t on the list.

What does the new Yangon look like, and what kind of future does it likely hold for its people?

I’ve not been back since concluding my work on this book. Sometimes I receive e-mails from old friends telling me of the demolition of a certain building that I had grown to love. Other times I receive news that one of the buildings I photographed has been put on a heritage list, which makes it illegal to knock down. They say the prices in Yangon are currently equal to Bangkok, which sounds crazy, but I believe it. Yangon is such a beautiful city and for so long it was held at an arm’s distance from the world.

The good news is that there is certainly a growing preservation movement around downtown Yangon. The Yangon Heritage Trust—run by the fantastic writer Thant Myint U—has been doing great work to preserve both the buildings of downtown Yangon and also the truly unique and equitable nature of the city’s character. My publisher has offered to send me back so I can do a follow up book, so hopefully I will make it to Yangon again soon. I miss so much about the city: the smell of jasmine, my fantastic friends and the friendliness of the Burmese, mohinga soup. The list is endless.

Elizabeth Rush’s essay “Elegant Remains,” an account of a canoe trip through New York City’s largest landfill, appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of Orion. 

Introducing the July/August 2015 Issue

JulAug_336 x 407“I want to belong to my body, my house, my life,” writes Gina Warren in her essay in the new issue of Orion. “I want to eat intelligible food and feel satiated, not consume blindly and feel empty.” It’s a sentiment familiar to many these days, with the rise of the local and organic food movements and an increasing awareness of the distant relationships that serve our basic needs. But in the pursuit of connection, how far are we willing to go?

Gina Warren, whose piece “The Chicken Project” appears in the July/August issue, decided to go all the way, from raising chickens to slaughtering and butchering them, in an effort to involve herself fully in the food chain. Other pieces in the issue look at our relationship with food in different ways: read a report on a new model for investing in farmland that’s good for farmers and investors, and consider the surprising ways in which seeds have given rise to civilization.

Also in the issue is a visual tour of the infrastructure of the future (the final installment in Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure series); a journey back in time to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; an essay on finding ways to commune with desecrated landscapes; plus new poems from Chris Dombrowski and Camille Dungy.

As usual, there’s even more in the print edition of the magazine. Pick up a copy of the July/August issue (or subscribe!) to take an ocean journey to meet the elusive beaked whale, read an essay on the meaning of national identity, explore new visual art, and discover much more.

Enjoy, and don’t hesitate to send us a letter—we’d love to hear from you.

3 Questions for George Monbiot, Winner of the 2015 Orion Book Award

George Monbiot

The winner of this year’s Orion Book Award, in the nonfiction category, is George Monbiot’s Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life (University of Chicago Press). A deeply researched book of narrative storytelling and bold imagination, Feral invites readers to envision a wilder, less stifled and more primal world—one in which we humans can come to recognize our animal selves once again. A conversation between Monbiot and Orion editor Jennifer Sahn appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of the magazine, and is excerpted below.

 

Jennifer Sahn: It’s sort of an obvious starting place, but I think it makes sense to begin by asking how you define rewilding.

George Monbiot: Actually, there are two definitions of rewilding that appeal to me. One is the mass restoration of ecosystems. By restoration, I really mean bringing back their trophic function.

Trophic function involves feeding. It’s about eating and being eaten. Trophic function is the interactions between animals and plants in the food chain. Most of our ecosystems are very impoverished as far as those interactions are concerned. They’re missing the top predators and the big herbivores, and so they’re missing a lot of their ecological dynamism. That, above all, is what I want to restore.

I see the mass restoration of ecosystems, meaning taking down the fences, blocking up the drainage ditches, enabling wildlife to spread. Reintroducing missing species, and particularly missing species which are keystone species, or ecosystem engineers. These are species which have impacts greater than their biomass alone would suggest. They create habitats, and create opportunities for many other species. Good examples would be beavers, wolves, wild boar, elephants, whales—all of which have huge ramifying effects on the ecosystem, including parts of the ecosystem with which they have no direct contact.

Otherwise, I see humans having very little continuing management role in the ecosystem. Having brought back the elements which can restore that dynamism, we then step back and stop trying to interfere. That, in a way, is the hardest thing of all—to stop believing that, without our help, everything’s going to go horribly wrong. I think in many ways we still suffer from the biblical myth of dominion where we see ourselves as the guardians or the stewards of the planet, whereas I think it does best when we have as little influence as we can get away with.

The other definition of rewilding that interests me is the rewilding of our own lives. I believe the two processes are closely intertwined—if we have spaces on our doorsteps in which nature is allowed to do its own thing, in which it can be to some extent self willed, driven by its own dynamic processes, that, I feel, is a much more exciting and thrilling ecosystem to explore and discover, and it enables us to enrich our lives, to fill them with wonder and enchantment.

Feral cover image_largerJennifer: Your book seems to have captured the imagination of readers, whether they agree with what you are saying or not. Why do you think the notion of rewilding has been so provocative?

George: My sense is that people like me are ecologically bored, that we possess the psychological equipment required to navigate a world that is far more challenging than our own—a world of horns and tusks and fangs and claws. Yet our lives have been reduced to the point at which loading the dishwasher seems to present an interesting challenge.

Having lived for some time with people who are much closer to the living planet—indigenous people in South America, in East Africa, and in West Papua—I’ve found my own life by comparison to seem quite a small and shuffling thing. I think all of us have a sense that we’re not quite fulfilling our potential as the human beings who evolved in this really quite thrilling and exciting and dangerous environment, and that our lives are a bit too small and too constrained.

I think rewilding, or certainly the version of it that I’ve been suggesting, has appealed to people both because it gives hope, in that we can reverse some of the horrible destructive processes of which we’re all aware, but also because it introduces into our lives this element of wonder and delight which is too often missing.

Jennifer: While researching this book you must have learned about so many fantastic things happening around the world. What are the most exciting examples of rewilding that are already under way?

George: There’s one in Patagonia, where a future Patagonia national park is being created out of land which was bought by Doug and Kris Tompkins and other people with whom they got together. They’re reintroducing puma and jaguar and the indigenous deer of the region while at the same time helping with local community development, bringing people into the process, giving them jobs and opportunities which they didn’t previously have.

There’s the restoration of the southern marshes in Iraq, the great Basra Marshes, which Saddam Hussein drained and destroyed. They’re now being reflooded, and the wildlife has been returning. It’s really a remarkable project. Apparently, the restoration is taking place very rapidly indeed.

We’re seeing large areas in the mountains of Croatia, and in the forests of Romania, which are being rewilded. In 2012, the first five bison, which had been extinct in Romania for 160 years, were released into the Vân atori Neamt reserve. In the dehesas of Spain and Portugal, the Iberian lynx, extinct across much of its former range, is slowly recovering as a result of reintroduction of animals bred in zoos. The governments of the two countries have set aside over a million hectares of land in this area to protect the lynx, the Spanish imperial eagles, the vultures, Iberian ibex, and other rare wildlife that lives there. The creation of marine reserves in New Zealand and the Philippines are also good examples. We’ve seen a very rapid restoration, not only of the fish and the crustacea, but also of the sedentary life forms, be they corals, or anemones, or sponges, which were previously trashed by bottom trawling.

There’s a lot already happening. But I would love to see it increased by orders of magnitude.

Read more about the Orion Book Award and this year’s finalists, here.

3 Questions for Laline Paull, Winner of the 2015 Orion Book Award

Photograph courtesy of Adrian Peacock.

Photograph courtesy of Adrian Peacock.

The winner of this year’s Orion Book Award, in the fiction category, is Laline Paull’s The Bees (Ecco Press). Surprising, imaginative, and riveting, Paull’s ambitious novel, written from the perspective of a lowly worker bee, takes you deep into the hive in a gripping story that will leave you daydreaming about these creatures and their incredible lives.

 

The Bees, it’s safe to say, is one of the most imaginative books we’ve read all year. Where did the writing begin for you? It’s easy to imagine a bee buzzing near your writing space one morning, sparking your imagination…

I was primed to write; I’d written one unsuccessful novel (thereby clearing the semi-autobiographical effort out of the way) and had almost finished a six-month creative writing course—but I didn’t have a subject. And then I remembered how interested in bees I’d become, following the untimely death of a friend who kept them. She had died the previous year, and in an attempt to stay close to her in spirit, I had immediately following her death immersed myself in reading about them. I’d developed a collection of bee books, both biological and poetic, but I hadn’t any plan for them. I had just been reading with growing fascination, and also a sense that I might be—I don’t know—spending my time on something that had no purpose in my life.

Yet I was gripped by the drama of the secret life of the honeybee—the massacre of the males, the raising of rival princesses in their separate queen cells, decided by who knew which bees, and why? When I got bored to tears with the original idea I was trying to write about, I thought about the bees: the bees, the queen, the sterile workers who sublimate their libido in order to give reproductive privilege. I went back to the bee books, and read about the phenomenon of the laying worker. Even the most sober biologists referred to the laying worker and her sister bees—the sisters who hunt her down amidst their thousands—as “the fertility police.” And I had my territory, my mood, and my protagonist.

Bees cover image_largerWhile a work of fiction, this book reflects what must have been a long and involved research process. The life of a bee and the social structure of a hive must have been topics you spent a long time thinking about. What did it take to research a book like this?

Once I knew I was writing this novel, I hired myself as the best research assistant I have never ever been, and pretended I was working for someone extremely important, for whom I must be diligent and brilliant. I would find out everything about honeybees, until the wall of higher math and statistics drove me back. I spent three months, at least, in full-time intensive research, both academic and field, and I have to say the world of bee biology is incredibly generous, as are beekeepers, with their knowledge (and their honey). I learned far more than I could find story to tell, but all of it fascinating.

Now, working on my second novel in the same garden shed in which I wrote The Bees, when I gaze out at the unkempt tangle I like to keep as my view, full of pollinator-friendly flowers, I see a huge variety of friends going about their business. Bees will always be totemic, magical, and precious to me. I think this is the way with the natural world, though—as you begin to notice, and respect, you begin to love and feel a responsibility to care for it.

The Orion Book Award is given to books that, among other things, “deepen the readers’ connection to the natural world.” But when you began writing this book, I’m sure your aim was simply to tell a good story. Now that the book is finished and out in the world, does the Award make you think about the book in a new way?

I am so very honored by this award, because the idea that my novel can do what the award describes is really wonderful to me. It means that I have managed to create something that not only entertains—and that was certainly my aim, to tell a good story and reward the precious time of the reader—but that can change the reader’s perception of the world, to the point where they might feel moved to join in the growing movement to protect nature.

I was moderately concerned about the environment and conservation before I wrote The Bees, but it’s impossible to stay neutral in the face of the facts. I have reclaimed that idealistic part of myself that somehow went underground for so long, and I intend to tell good stories for their own sake. Winning the Orion Book Award gives me hope that I might be able to twine these two strands again.

Read more about the Orion Book Award, including this year’s finalists, here.