The Time of Landfills

By Joshua Reno, Binghamton University

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.

While the practice and politics of landfills are clearly spatial, I want to argue that landfills are also practically managed as a result of their relationship to time. For this, I rely primarily on my time working for nine months as a common laborer at one large landfill in Southeastern Michigan, which I call Four Corners. Based on my experiences I argue that landfills partake of multiple temporal scales, making them difficult to regulate and run. Taking into account multiple timescapes, or polychronicity, reveals the constitutive role of non-human beings and forces in waste management generally.

Landfill as commonly perceived

At minimum, landfills can be described as products of human labor that accumulate other products of human labor and thereby create a problem for non-humans and humans alike. If this is all that landfills are, then the process of repeatedly adding to them can be graphically depicted like in the diagram above.

The mound shape of a typical sanitary landfill is a familiar one. The cross-section depicted on the left side is what is known in North America as the open-face: the section temporarily exposed so that more waste can be added. The number signifies that this is only one kind of temporality, though one that is strongly associated with landfilling as a method of waste disposal. This temporal cycle (depicted by the familiar circular arrow) involves the disposal of waste that is continually collected, transported and repeatedly added to the landfill, over and over again, making landfills grow in size over time and eventually close when there is no more room. To the extent that human waste producers and workers are considered the sole agents involved in the creation of landfills, this image is complete. But there is much that this depiction of landfilling leaves out.

Landfill with microbes

Landfills never belong exclusively to our species anymore than do the diverse biomes of our guts. Inside each of us are invisible colonies of microbial “messmates” (Haraway 2008), some of whom help our digestion and improve our health. But this multispecies feast continues when that co-digested food passes through intestinal tracts and indoor plumbing and leaves for wastewater treatment facilities and landfills, where the hungry cousins of our gut microbes lie in wait.

Four Corners was an experimental landfill that invested in the bio-reactivity of the wastes they buried, meaning that they siphoned methane biogas as it was excreted by methanogenic microbes (depicted in the center of the landfill under temporal cycle 2). The methane was moved via underground pipes to gas plants where it was converted into electricity and sold on the grid as “renewable” power. It was necessary to maintain the gas field, because methanogenesis never ceases: in theory, though not always in practice, biodegradable garbage will decompose whether or not there are operational wells to extract the biogas. Attending to the microbes means being aware of their distinct temporal rhythms. One of the gas plant technicians, Leon, told me that the landfill managers were placing too much stress on certain areas in the way they were constructing the gas extraction field. Leon worried that this was speeding up decomposition but making the flow of methane to the plant irregular and unsustainable in the long term. Some wells were “drying up” before they ought to while others were overburdened. Leon believed that the landfill company took for granted the activity of the archae, or his “spacebugs” as he affectionately called them (in possible reference to claims that Earth’s original archae may have hitched a ride on a meteorite). According to him, the landfill’s managers believed they could exploit the gas field indefinitely without taking into consideration the timescales at which “spacebugs” operate.

When it came to the production of soil from composted green waste, landfill workers were much more sensitive to the temporal rhythms of microbial life (depicted in microbial cycle 3). My supervisor spoke proudly about his understanding of the bacterial process involved in the compost pile which, on account of the aerobic microbes they involve, need to be turned with machines to produce usable soil. Leon’s criticism suggests that the same sensitivity to microbial temporalities was not applied within the landfill. Possible evidence in support of this claim came after I concluded working there, when a portion of the southwestern slope unexpectedly caved in and sludge began bleeding out from the open wound. Settlement typically happens gradually in most landfill bodies as the applied skin of soil and grass gradually wrinkles and sags. If Leon is right, unstable settlement could result from overstressing the microscopic denizens of the landfill’s gut.

Landfill w life cycles

Besides odors, visitors to landfills often notice the birds—of great enough volume and variety to attract the occasional avid birder, hoping to see a rare specimen. Over the course of a year, landfills in Michigan are visited by flocks of seagulls, Canadian geese, starlings and crows. The transition from seagulls to starlings, in particular, would occur with the change in seasons in keeping with migratory patterns (temporal cycle 5).

The seagulls, in particular, were notoriously difficult to control. They are such an accepted part of landfilling that most sites are limited in terms of how high they can grow based on the risk that birds might interfere with planes taking off and landing from nearby airports.

A bald eagle dead from unknown causes. Photo by the author.

A bald eagle dead from unknown causes. Photo by the author.

In other ways, the landfill’s production relied upon seasonal rhythms, which were involved in the growth of grass (cycle 4) using the composted soil they grew on site. The landfill supervisor (and our boss) Big Daddy hated the seagulls as much as he loved growing a good crop of grass. He did not like how they defecated on his expensive machines and worried that they might cause an accident by obscuring an operator’s vision at the wrong moment. Big Daddy received permission to shoot them for this reason. But attempting to influence one organism in this way reverberates across other multispecies relations. Big Daddy’s strategy encouraged scavenging birds to visit the site when he would begin shooting, most notably bald eagles from the nearby nature preserve.

The eagles learned to fly over the landfill when he began shooting, as if Big Daddy’s shots were the ring of a dinner bell. The appearance of this endangered and symbolically venerated bird made him visibly anxious. When we laborers came across a bald eagle corpse on the site—and rushed to tell him—he was clearly alarmed: “was it shot?” he demanded to know. The remains we’d found were not, but this was the risk he took—which all land fillers take—by combining waste and bird management.

Landfill wo glacial

Life forms may operate on short-term temporal scales (like the volatile microbial populations), or on more seasonal ones (like the grass and birds), but the forces of nature they all rely on are slower, more recursive, and therefore difficult to observe directly. The hydrological cycle (see temporal cycle 6) is part of the regulation of landfills insofar as retention ponds, ditches and leachate tanks are often constructed to control the movement of water on and off site. But like the soils, the aquifers underground and the oxygenated atmosphere above it are not fixed but finite and in need of constant regeneration. Landfills interfere with these longer-term processes through their release of leachates and greenhouse gases.


More difficult to conceptualize, arguably, are the even older glacial depositions that generated the soils upon which landfills rest and which they mold into useful shape. Four Corners Landfill was located in a small rural, Michigan township that I call Harrison. The landfill managers would routinely reference the naturally thick and impermeable clay soils underneath the site to provide extra assurances to members of the public and regulators that leakage is less likely, as if the landscape were destined for discards. These glacial deposits are part of the Niagara Escarpment that stretches from Southeastern Michigan through Southern Ontario (temporal cycle 7) . As a result, Harrison possessed an irresistible tendency toward containment long before the intrusion of mass waste or even white colonization into the midwest. The thick clay soils in the southeastern portion of the township contained water at surface level, which in the form of “wetland” was better also at containing life, allowing for the proliferation of more ecologically dense webs than are common for the area.

As an emergent worldly habit, this formal character of containment could be harnessed effortlessly or resisted with great effort (see Kohn 2013). The presence of swampland was a deterrent that directly shaped the relative absence of people in southeastern Michigan. The same irresistible containment of non-human orderliness one finds in wetland biomes negatively informed patterns of human occupation. Harrison’s resulting “emptiness” also made it more attractive for landfill developers, who typically seek cheap land and a politically ineffectual population.

The durable habit of soil containment that is harnessed for landfilling today also complicates efforts to control the landfill’s growth. It is as if the land around Four Corners is trying to return to wetland. Water begins to pool after hard rains and cattails—and indicator species for wetland—begin to sprout. When I worked there, our managers tried to conceal this from regulators, for fear that the wetland would take away profitable air space and that they would be fined for damaging a protected multispecies landscape. Like protected bird species, cattails can get in the way of growing a landfill.

Decades of environmental critique and mitigation have established the sanitary landfill as a hateful symbol of anthropocentric arrogance. As the unfinished product of cumulative actions inscribed upon the earth’s ever-changing surface, landscapes are a material realization of the past as well as a prepared stage for brand new labors. The politics of landfilled waste exert a creative influence on nonhuman lives and relations, and not only as a source of destruction and distortion.

Landfills are not just landscapes, but timescapes. As a result, political challenges to landfills are limited if they fail to recognize landfill landscapes as a polychronic and multi-species affair. It is possible to eliminate landfilling entirely, but it will still be necessary to attend to the open-ended transformation of legacy sites across multiple scales. Increasingly, capped landfills are mined for rare minerals or methane. The eco-socialities involved include not only potentially overburdened or underserved spacebugs, but the trans-local (re)production of atmospheres, aquifers, and soils and their invisible and legible impacts on humans and non-humans alike. As Myra Hird argues, “Landfilling appears as a story of relational materiality, with human and non-human actants in shifting assemblages” (2012: 458). Moreover, the technical replacements for landfill are no less of this world, despite their apparent decontextualization from specific ‘lands’. Lest all recycling, burning, and composting practices be lumped together as comparatively ‘low-impact’, detached and land-less processes, their relationship to specific corporeal, ecological, and global relationships requires equal attention.   Regardless of what becomes of what we discard, there are nonhuman understories worth telling that transform our understanding of waste management in turn.

Joshua Reno is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Binghamton University.  He has published extensively on the subject of discard studies and his forthcoming book, Waste Away: Working and Living with a North American Landfill, is scheduled to appear in 2016 with University of California Press.

This post is part of a series on Emergent Socialities of Waste that includes:
Dumpsters, difference, and illiberal embodiment by David Boarder Giles
The Value of Time and the  Temporality of Value in Socialities of Waste by Britt Halvorson
The Time of Landfills by Joshua Reno
Trading on Obsolescence on the Streets of Hong Kong by Trang X. Ta

Works Cited

Haraway, Donna. 2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hird, Myra. 2012. Knowing Waste: Towards an Inhuman Epistemology. Social Epistemology 26 (3-4): 453-469.

Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.