At todays landfills dubbed Resource Recovery Facilities or Convenience Centers some stories end while others begin.
story by Louis Llovio ~ photogaphs by Thomas Long
You can see it before you smell it not like in the old days before managing trash became a science, when the stench of rotting garbage floated through the countryside.
Back then, you could see the turkey buzzards circling overhead, looking for scraps. Theyre gone, too, except on those exceptionally hot summer days when the garbage bakes. Now theyre more interested in road kill a mile up the road.
A lot has changed at the dump.
For one, its not called the dump anymore; say that word and youll get scolded. Its called a Resource Recovery Facility or a Convenience Center. And these days, trash and recyclables are hauled off to other landfills for processing, incinerating or burying.
What hasnt changed are the people.
They still flock here, almost double since Hurricane Isabel last September.
Many days, trucks, cars and vans stretch down rural Sudley-Nutwell Road waiting to enter the Sudley Convenience Center, one of Anne Arundel Countys three recycling and drop-off centers. Sudley is the southernmost of the three; the others are in Millersville and Glen Burnie. Calvert County operates its own three centers.
Saturdays, especially in early spring, the line of cars and trucks stretches out of each of the centers. At Sudley, the line runs along a chainlink fence and down past farms and big new homes. A vendor has even been know to set up his cart and sell hot dogs.
On Mayday, 2004, a Saturday, 1,023 people visited Sudley Convenience Center.
Their destination is an elaborate scene with enormous compactors lining the one-time landfill, now capped, fenced, gated and transformed into a grassy hill complete with occasional deer. Nowadays, you dont drive up a dirt track and toss your garbage into piles. You sort your trash into seperated bins huge metal compactors for household garbage and non-recyclables; containers, ready to be hauled elsewhere on the back of tractor trailers, for everything from metal to wood to old tires to construction debris. Theres a pile behind an outbuilding for brush and a steel container for rubble. There are seperated recylcing containers for metals, plastics and glass, another for paper and another for corrugated cardboard. There are even tanks, housed in a shed, for oil and antifreeze along with a drop-off for old batteries.
And there are eyes everywhere.
From the moment you pull in full until you drive away empty, you are watched. You are scrutinized lest you dump your plastics with your metal.
As in a prison, nobody gets in or out without their knowing.
Bobby Haley guards the entrance gate, but today hes multitasking, also explaining how he started at Sudley.
Thats private, says the five-year veteran, whose eyes are shaded by a baseball cap littered with pins supporting the troops and a handful of other causes. Bobby moves so fast you cant read them all. His eyes dart up the long drive, anticipating the lines that are sure to come. His head swivels to monitor whats happening at the bins.
There are others there too, in their bright orange Department of Public Works T-shirts, watching the bins, but Bobby has to see for himself and make sure all goes smoothly.
A friend told me they were hiring and so I just came down, he says without any further prompting. I dont mind it. Its a job.
An old pick-up truck from the early 1950s, loaded with scrap metal and underbrush, pulls in and makes its way toward the small guard shack where Bobby stands. His eyes light up as he says hello to the old-timer behind the wheel.
Still, Bobby is not taking any chances.
The driver, Richard Raskhodoff, hands over his drivers license and registration by rote. Im here all the time. All the neighbors know I have a truck and they load me up, he shrugs. Sometimes, I come out and theres already stuff in the bed.
Bobby laughs and waves the truck through.
The people are really nice, he says. But they still try and sneak things through, so I gotta be careful.
As if on cue, he spots a van hed let through a few minutes earlier heading to the wrong bin. That guys supposed to be on eight, he growls into a walkie-talkie attached to his shirt, addressing one of the two attendants watching the bins.
Bobby shakes his head.
Titans of Trash
The people that come here are great, says Glen Lamboy, who tells this story to illustrate why the place he works at means so much to him. My father passed away April 26, and 50 or 60 people have come up to me and told me how much they care and have given me hugs. Its been nice.
He points to the jacket hanging on a chair, his name stenciled over the heart. People I didnt even know saw my name and knew my dad.
Glen is a compact and powerful man, laid back and quiet as he goes about the rituals of his day. Unshaven, he sports a duck tail, a rear lock of hair a few inches longer than the rest of his close-cropped hair. Around his neck, he wears a long chain dangling a large object he believes to be a walrus tooth; a tiny cross is branded on the tooth.
|The people that come here are great, says Glen Lamboy. My father passed away, and 50 or 60 people have told me how much they care and have given me hugs. Its been nice.
This is a good job, he says. Theres always something new going on.
His partner overseeing the compactors, an equally unshaven man in a baseball cap and mirrored wrap-around sunglasses, is his son.
We are the Tag Team Trash Titans, says Rick, whos been here for three weeks to his fathers five years. Rick has the intensity that comes with a new job before it becomes dull. He likes working here, he says with a satisfied smile.
Rick had worked for a mechanic who ran into money troubles and had to close his shop. I figured Id do this, he says. The money is good, and its county work so you have stability, something to build on.
A common link here is that, as in a small town, everybody knows everybody else. Glen was hired by Kenny Sheckells; their grandfathers went to church together. Both have known Bobby, who mans the gate, for years.
The Lamboys watch over the compactors, watching the cars and trucks back in, making sure the wrong garbage doesnt go in the wrong bin. Thats a major crime at this modern-day dump. They spend their days under the large awning that divides two sections of bins. They stand near a small office overlooking the bins with a cockpit-like panel with alarms, sensors and knobs to control the million-dollar machines all around them.
Thats when they arent reprimanding someone trying to sneak a plastic jug past their ever-watchful eyes.
Most people dont give us any problem, says Rick. But I heard about one lady who refused to listen. She got mad and tried to chase somebody.
He nods at a baseball bat leaning up against a post, Thats how we got that. Shes not allowed back here. She has to go to Millersville.
Millersville makes Sudley seem like minimum security. There are no stories at Millersville.
But here, they all have their stories and legends; some of them are even true.
Its a small group, says Rick, watching people slide bags of garbage down the slide into the compactors. Everybody knows everybody, and we all get along well.
That feeling spreads beyond the staff.
Cars back up to the compactors, and people unload everything from televisions to diapers but always with a quick smile and a hello.
Ive seen folks, says Glen, come out, throw out their garbage and then go park and have coffee and talk over by the gate.
Youll see some park next to each other, says Rick, and start going through each others things and end up not throwing anything out.
He grabs a long grappling hook and pushes garbage stuck halfway down the chute to the compactor, which crushes the garbage into undetectable matter that will be hauled to Annapolis Junction. Then its transferred to its permanent resting place, in Prince George, Virginia.
Virginia is the most economical destination, cheaper even than Anne Arundels own landfill in Millersville, so thats where our trash goes, saving our own capacity for a rainy day. The contract stands until 2013.
Kenny Sheckells is a clean-cut guy with short hair, a trimmed goatee and, rare around here, a spotless orange Public Works T-shirt. He looks as if he belongs in a boardroom with his business-like demeanor, not in the middle of the storm of garbage.
Garbage in and garbage out is pretty much the adage at most jobs; its Kennys actual job description. He makes sure that every scrap of garbage that comes into Sudley is separated, crushed, packaged, bundled and shipped out.
And he does it with the detached calm of a professional.
The Saturday after Isabel, we had 2,123 people come through the gates, he says, standing outside on a spring day that feels more like summer, looking out over the action at the bins and the landfill. Kenny is the numbers man.
In 2003, he says matter-of-factly, we received over 10,058 tons of garbage. We took it in, separated it and loaded it onto trucks that hauled it all out of here.
As the manager at Sudley, he tracks everything and watches the watchers, running a tight ship from his office in an aluminum outbuilding off to the side, away from the hustle and bustle of the bins. But hes never far away; a golf cart and the ever-present walkie-talkie clipped to his shirt keep him in touch with everything thats happening.
Kenny, a nine-year veteran at Sudley, is reserved about his personal life at the dump; he prefers to talk about the work.
And thats where Kenny is misunderstood.
Some might see him as just a manager, a bureaucrat pushing papers across a desk, but Kenny gets his hands dirty, too. You can see him driving the 20-ton rubber-wheeled loader out behind the bins, catching the overflow and making sure the machines run right.
He oversees the day-to-day operations of the facility, reporting an endless stream of data to his superiors at Department of Public Works.
But Kenny also sweeps up around the brush pile and helps out with whatever is needed. He is a force to be counted on, calling down to the gate to make sure the guy wandering around with the notebook belongs here.
Like everyone elses, his job demands keeping an ever-vigilant eye, making sure things run the way theyre supposed to. That means watching the watchers.
But hes not too concerned, for he knows the men up front are good at what they do, and that makes his life, and life at Sudley, easier.
We have a really good crew here, he says as he climbs back onto the monster loader. They really care about what goes on. What more can you ask for?
The Jurassic Park of Garbage
Kenny Sheckells counterpart at Millersville is Bob DeMarco, a thin man with too much energy for an early Wednesday morning. Youd like to chalk that energy up to too much caffeine, but something says that Bob is pretty much always like this.
As opposed to the orange shirts and walkie-talkies at Sudley, Bob wears a white polo shirt and jeans and carries a cell phone.
If I get a call, he says, driving up a long dirt track of the Millersville Landfill, Im going to have to turn around and go back.
Bob is waiting for a call that will send him back to the offices of the 586-acre flagship facility off of Route 32. Hes agreed to take a group of kids on a tour of the landfill.
I stopped doing tours a while ago, he says, because there were just too many requests and I couldnt keep up. But Ill do them on special occasions or for kids who can really benefit.
Todays group are developmentally disabled kids from an Anne Arundel County school.
DeMarco will follow the same trail with the kids as he now follows, up the side of the current landfill in use, Cell 8, a 58-acre mountain of garbage.
As opposed to the other seven cells that are now filled and capped, Cell 8 is the landfill of the future. When filled, it will hold 51.6 million yards of garbage.
You dont just dig a hole and bury trash anymore, he says. The mountain of garbage is lined with what can best be described as four-ply trash bags. Spread out along the bottom, they catch liquids, preventing them from seeping into the ground as happened in earlier, less environmentally enlightened times. Now the liquid waste is pumped out and filtered clean.
Pumps have been built into the older cells to remove liquids as they accumulate, but, like the landfill at Sudley, they are capped so not much gets in.
What goes into the landfills these days is different, also.
The older seven cells are loaded with plastics, metals and glass that Bob says will take generations to decompose. Like Sudley and Glen Burnie Convenience Center, Cell 8 receives only trash that cant be recycled in todays sophisticated recycling system.
|photo by Louis Llovio
The Sudley Convenience Center crew: Bobby Haley, Rick Lamboy, Glen Lamboy and Kenny Sheckells .
Out of the 89,717 tons of garbage that came through Millersvilles gates in 2003, 22,197 tons were recycled. At Anne Arundels three sites combined, 42 percent of the 113,745 tons of incoming garbage was recycled.
Its whats done with the recycling that is the true ingenuity of the place.
As Bob drives his departments Jeep Cherokee deeper into the complex, past the old cells with tubes running out of them like IVs in a patients arm, he explains that this road is covered with mulch made from brush brought in and recycled. The brush covers a lining of gravel made from shingles and concrete. Plastic, cardboard, oils, metals and glass are resold to help pay for the cost of operating the site.
Millersville is all about second chances. Many of the workers cleaning up and helping around the place are Anne Arundel County inmates whove earned the right to come out here and work for a few hours.
As he drives through the vast complex, Bob proudly points out pumping stations, massive storage containers, monster bulldozers on spiked steel wheels and, finally, the compost pile, heat steaming off it in the blazing sun of an unseasonably warm spring day. A subdivision is rising along the fence, and Bob has sold the new homeowners on how a modern-day landfill is no bad neighbor.
Cells 5, 6 and 7 rise to a peak of 243 feet, the highest spot in Anne Arundel county. On this clear day, you can see past planes making their long descent into BWI and all the way to Key Bridge and the tips of buildings in downtown Baltimore. In the other direction, the vast complex that is the Millersville landfill spreads out below you.
Its not just a dump anymore, says DeMarco.
The Things Weve Seen
Whats the most commonly asked question at the dump? Whats the strangest thing youve ever seen thrown away?
Back at Sudley, Bobby answers with the shrug of a grizzled veteran. Ive seen everything.
Short-timer Rick says hes seen, more than once, all of a newly departed persons possessions hauled in as garbage.
Glen remembers the day a man came in with a 36-inch television still in a box.
I asked the guy why he was throwing it away, he says. He looks at me and says his company is moving him to Los Angeles and theyre buying him everything new when he settles there. He didnt have time for a yard sale or anything, so he brought it here.
The answers vary, but one takes the cake.
Kenny received a call one day a few months after Isabel from a man in Shady Side whose home was wrecked by the storm. How many trips could he make to the dump in one day, he wanted to know.
The caller had a little bit of money to start over, and he was starting over somewhere else. But there wasnt enough money to have his old house torn down.
So he tore it down himself.
And he brought it all here. The whole house, says Kenny. I dont know how many trips he made, but all day long that Mercury with the attached trailer kept coming.
Not every story is entertaining.
I see a lot of waste, says Bobby, shaking his head. There are kids all around here that are going without, and perfectly good toys and furniture are getting thrown in the compactor every day. Its sad.
Watching a mattress that seems in perfectly good shape slide under the crushing weight of the compactor, Rick agrees. Im sure somebody sleeping on the floor somewhere would kill for that.
Turg Brown of Loch Haven underscores their concern as he unloads his car. Energy re-use is going to make or break this country, Brown says. They ought to have a big warehouse for things people dont use but other people can take as a freebie. Were missing that one big step.
Life at the Dump
The smell is mostly gone, and the turkey buzzards know that there isnt much for them anymore.
A lot has changed. Still more changes are likely coming to the dump, as energy technology grows and social consciousness advances.
Maybe even the names Convenience Center and Resource Recovery Facility will go the way of dump.
But one thing will remain the same, and that is the need for people to renew themselves, to throw out the old and bring in the new. As long as that happens, there is a place in the world for the dump and a need for men like Glen, Rick, Bobby and Kenny to make sure its run right.
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