Orion Blog

Concrete Progress: The Charlotte Airport’s 8,000 Square Feet of Worms

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.


Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, in Charlotte, North Carolina, saw 44 million passengers last year. That’s about twenty-three people per worm.

The worms in question, 1.9 million of them, live south of the airport, at CLT’s waste facility – the ragged legions of travelers making their way across the world do not see them. What those travelers do do is create trash. A big airport—Charlotte’s is one of the busiest in the world—produces a mountain of waste, from single-use water bottles to dirty tissues and much in between. At an average of 120,000 passengers a day, the airport represents the population of a city the size of Hartford, Connecticut, all eating takeout and wadding up paper towels.

I’ve been one of those passengers—Charlotte’s my closest big airport – and when I make my way between car and plane, I see a lot of public relations posters about how sustainable the airport is. I must say that I’ve suspected greenwashing. But when I looked into what CLT is really doing, I felt sheepish. It’s true: Charlotte uses a wide range of sustainable features, from low-flow water fixtures to a LEED-certified fire station. But the most impressive thing, to me, is that they use worms to turn their compost into soil.

Worm bins, as many readers probably know, are an increasingly popular means of home composting. Vermiposting, it’s called. You make a bin, give the worms some humidity, feed them waste, and wait as they turn food into what are known as castings (fresh, nutrient-rich dirt, essentially), which are much in demand from gardeners. Worm bins are efficient: you can use them in an apartment easily enough, and, if properly cared for, they do not smell.

Vermiposting at home is one thing, but employing worms to transform airport-scale waste is another. CLT churns out twenty-seven tons of waste a day, 70 percent of which is recyclable. The remaining portion that’s compostable—not just food, but bathroom waste and paper and leaves from potted plants—is broken down to manageable sizes and sent to the worms. CLT’s worm bin is 8,000 square feet and kept indoors, so as not to attract predators. The castings go to fertilize the airport’s landscaping. Nearly two-thirds of the airport’s waste is now diverted from the landfill.

I should note, though, that the business side of keeping worms has not been without difficulty. The airport has had some conflicts with the company that started running the facility, and there have been cost and machinery problems. But this does not change the system, or its benefits, which include using castings instead of landscape fertilizer and saving on landfill costs.

Driving by CLT not long ago, I thought of how amazing flying is—if our ancestors saw a 747 roar across the sky, it would have blown their minds. It is an eternal dream of humanity realized, and a crucial part of our infrastructure. But it’s easy to forget the ecological impact of airports, and hard to know how to take individual responsibility for it. As a result, it’s often up to airports themselves to address the issue.

There’s great reading available on Charlotte’s innovations: from the company that runs the worm program, from the airport itself, and from the local business journal. Information on worm bins are all over the web.

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.


Ana Maria Spagna on Her New Book, 100 Skills You’ll Need for the End of the World (as We Know It)

100SkillsCvrWhen Orion’s Enumeration department made its debut in 2013, one of the first contributions was from Ana Maria Spagna, whose writing has appeared frequently in the magazine. Her piece, “10 Skills to Hone for a Post-Oil Future,” was a surprising mix of the familiar and the nearly forgotten—from rigging and grafting, to houseguest hosting and handwriting. A new book that expands on Spagna’s Enumeration, with illustrations by Brian Cronin, is just out from Storey Publishing.


As a kid, I sat at a manual typewriter transcribing the Top 40 as Kasey Kasem counted it down on AM radio: Rod Stewart, Donna Summer, the Pointer Sisters, Billy Joel. As an adult, working on trail crew, week in and week out, I’d handwrite a list of everything that needed to go in my pack, even if it was the same as the week before: rain gear, bug net, work gloves, paperback novel, chocolate. So when Orion invited me to make a list for the magazine’s Enumeration department, I jumped right aboard, pitching a handful of ideas, and the one that stuck was “10 Skills to Hone for the Post-Oil World.”

The list was as serious and not-as-serious as the items in my trail pack were crucial and not-as-crucial. Navigating by the stars? Depends on how lost you are or how cloudy it is. Sharpening a crosscut? Depends on how many logs you need to cut. Sleeping? Well…

Work on a trail crew long enough or live in a very small place and you learn to take a perverse kind of pride in skills that aren’t universally necessary—at least not yet (hoarding, knot tying, rigging, blacksmithing).

So when Storey Publishing asked me to come up with a list of 100 skills, I was both excited and a little daunted. The challenge wasn’t coming up with 100 skills. That was a snap. I asked people in person and via e-mail and on social media and had way more than 100 skills in no time. (Several stemmed from comments in response to the original Orion piece.) The problem was the whole idea of the end of the world—“I’m no doomsdayer,” I explained to the editors. They said they got it. They said they liked the slantways sense of possibility in the original list. So it began.

Some of the skills I already had: stone working, composting, home brewing. Some I’ll likely never master: knitting (I have no fine motor skills), horse and mule handling (animals that large terrify me), cobbling (unless you count the second definition: cobbling together a living). I fought hard to keep hiding, but gave in when editors insisted upon including financial literacy. I let go of crosscut saw sharpening, as perhaps too esoteric, and accepted barbering grudgingly, knowing how poorly it goes when someone tries to cut hair with a mirror and a Swiss army knife. I practiced making cheese, researched foraging medicinal herbs, and watched a friend spinning wool. I wrote up a draft and awaited the illustrations. Anxiously.


Illustrations by Brian Cronin, used with permission of Storey Publishing.

I’ve read recent novels that describe every version of a changed world from The Year of the Flood to Station Eleven to Our Endless Numbered Days. The list could go on and on, and the survival skills they presume lie everywhere on the spectrum from Schwarzenegger to Shakespeare.

My own list leans neither Maxwell Smart-tricky (unless you count tinkering) nor Tom Brown-hardcore (unless you count dowsing). The truth is, whether you’re talking about the four horsemen or nuclear winter or climate change, thinking about the apocalypse has always been a means to changing our behavior now. What can we do to stave off the end? What can we do to make the most of the time we’ve got?

So I worried: what if the illustrator didn’t get it? What if the illustrations were too literal, too dark, too earnest, or too wacky? But as soon as I saw Brian Cronin’s sketches, I knew he got it. They’re all whimsy and speculation, imagination without grimness.

Everyone I talk to has more skills to add to the next list from soap making to sending smoke signals, from yodeling to burying the dead. That’s the whole point. Make your own list. Compare it with your friends’ lists. Conversing. Negotiating. Revising. Skills for now, skills for later.

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


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.




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.