Today’s column is about mysterious trash fires.
Americans did not used to bury their garbage, much like I haven’t always buried my feelings and white people haven’t always buried their awareness of systemic racial injustice, but here we are.
Whereas we previously engaged in a more laissez faire open-burning technique for waste disposal, today the method used most frequently in the United States is the sanitary landfill. Developed as a means to sequester human waste from the environment until it has been degraded enough to be considered safe and sanitary, landfills are big, fancy parfaits of garbage and dirt that are dug right into sweet Mother Earth. The basic concept is that of cramming an endless deluge of feelings deep, deep inside your own personal garbage hole, a topic upon which I am expertly qualified to comment and will continue to do so with earnest.
Called “controlled tipping” in its native England, where burying trash was invented in 1912 and burying feelings was invented in time immemoriam, the process requires mind be paid to toxic trash juice. As garbage degrades, it produces a lovely sounding elixir called leachate, which will leak out the ass of a landfill if not properly quarantined and periodically removed. It’s one of the reasons why sanitary landfills need to be as isolated as possible from underground water supplies, and why places like Florida and Japan still burn lots of their trash. Garbage juice must be kept out of the water supply, and though it’s standard practice to make sure the landfill has a liner, even good liners can rupture.
One of the other hazards of sanitary landfills is “landfill gas” or LFG. These are dangerous landfill farts, and while it sounds like I am making a joke (I am, as the gas is often methane), it’s a serious problem (see: methane). On the one hand, you need to cover daily additions to the landfill with soil to pack it down and keep the critters from feasting, but the layer-cake approach traps heat and gases which, much like the leachate of decomposition, must be dealt with. Methane, a simple molecule of one carbon atom attended to by four hydrogen atoms, is a serious greenhouse gas, which is as flammable and combustible as a sharp jab into the weeping scab she gave you when she left you. In well-kept landfills, the gas is collected and used, sometimes burned in controlled flares; other times it’s gathered and treated to be turned into helpful things like electricity and heat.
But sometimes, things go wrong. Sometimes, despite the most careful burying of each used diaper and plastic bag and sad feeling, the trash deep inside the landfill can spontaneously ignite.
It is as alarming to know that landfills can catch fire deep underground as it is to accept that perhaps I’m still hurt by nonsense spewed at my face by the ballet teachers of my youth. Our waste is not a thing we cradle at the forefront of our minds; its distance from our attention does not mean that it will dissolve without recourse. Accounting for around 5 percent of all landfill fires, factors for the ignition of a deep landfill fire include the specific types of waste and moisture content of the trash involved, the amount of oxygen available to the physicality of combustion, and the ambient pressure in the area in question. But the premise is simple: the ignition of combustible materials will occur as soon as it’s hot enough to ignite, the heat provided by the warming of biological decomposition or chemical oxidation. And once lit, these deep fires will continue until the material in question is consumed, or the available oxygen that seeps through the cracks in the landfill is squelched, or the heat of the whole process is pumped out faster than it is produced.
Here’s how it works: the decomposition of organic (carbon-containing) materials release heat as it progresses. This style of decomposition is slow for most materials, but regardless, it does generate a warm zone underground. And if the heat cannot be adequately dissipated, either because it is generated too quickly or is merely trapped by layers and layers of soil and garbage, then the heat begins to build. And when it gets hot enough, surpassing the heat of combustion for the materials nearby, now suddenly there you are, sobbing in some ruthless hipster coffee shop because even after six months you still sometimes order for the both of you. This is subterranean smolder.
The word “fire” in the context of these deep landfill disasters is a bit misleading. They are like regular, flamed fires in that they happen when heat and combustibles combine, but without much (if any) oxygen, these deep smolders never burn hot enough for flames. Despite existing where fires seemingly should not—that is, in the wet bowels of a landfill—these flameless smolders are difficult to put out and largely mysterious. We know there is combustion, but the way the heat is transferred into the environment is different than that of flamed fires, and the chemistry, without fire’s beloved oxygen, is different too. These deep smolders do not burn to completion, rather they leave a trail of partially combusted material, damaging landfill liners, making the leachate harder to treat, and venting noxious gases that cooler trash does not.
It’s important that oxygen does not creep down to these fires, lest the resulting kiss of air and smolder bolster the damaging heat below. However, hot spots deep in the earth, be it in a landfill or snaking along a coal seam, can cause collapse at the surface, leaving cracks that beckon air into the earth.
There is a moment, when the earth at the surface faintly shifts, or a wisp of smoke begins to crawl towards the sky, or you answer a lover’s question just a hair too quickly, as if the answer was already held between your teeth. It’s in this moment that you know: Somewhere in the body of the landfill there’s a fire. An errant emotion with a twinge of combustibility is smoldering somewhere low inside, buried under unreciprocated affections and stunted longing, underneath that time you accidentally bought two doses of Plan B because the cashier was cute and you got flustered, smothered by every other dumb fuck thing you’ve ever said, regretted, and tried to let go of. Unfortunately, now that there is fire, you must do something about it, which is in strict opposition to the ol’ stuff ‘n go policy, but it’s okay. I will hold your hand and we will sink a cooling radiator into your depths to draw out the heat. Hand me a spade and we will dig through tons of seemingly unmovable waste to sequester your pain and let it burn through its fuel.
I will rub your back while we flood your already wet fires with 50 percent more water than flamed conflagrations require, calling to action all the tears you’ve never cried but should have. Science may not know exactly how these fires work and I may not know exactly how to absolve you of that tender bruise that never healed on your poor, poor, ever-trying heart, but I do know that fires must be tended. And I know that we can tend them together. Just as a landfill fire can burn toxins into the atmosphere at an alarming rate, affecting people unlucky enough to be in the vicinity, the pain of embers burning in a soul unchecked can harm the hearts closest to the flames.
Talk about your feelings, kids. And recycle when you can.