Landscape architect wants society to re-think waste disposal

Rubbish, refuse, garbage, scrap, waste. No matter what you call it, Americans want nothing to do with the messy leftovers of life. Take it away and forget about it.

Not so fast, says an Iowa State University landscape architect.

"Waste should be brought closer to our lives and our landscapes," said Mira Engler, associate professor and author of the book, "Designing America's Waste Landscapes."

Engler's book looks at the cultural and historical context of waste landscapes and considers theories and practices used by planners, designers, engineers and others involved in waste management.

Traditionally, planners and designers have looked at waste landscapes as problems that need fixed; nuisances that should be buried, hidden and pushed to the margins.

That attitude inhibits creative responses to the growing problem of waste disposal, she says. Engler believes we need a pragmatic re-thinking of how we deal with garbage in this country. She challenges designers to design waste landscapes as integral, essential parts of life.

"We need to look with fresh eyes at our set of taboos and begin to introduce a new set of measures or values based on good management," she said.

Over time, America has turned its waste into contemptible and harmful matter and declared war on it. Battles against waste only create new front lines for the fight. Solid waste incinerators spew emissions. Dumps release toxins. Sanitary landfills excrete methane. Chemically treated sewage breeds sludge. Sludge needs cleansed. Radioactive waste is buried like "ticking time capsules," Engler said.

"We're not only harming valuable resources like land and water, we're wasting other resources, like wood or aluminum," she said. "We need to find a way to facilitate the cycle of re-using discarded material and returning it to the production system."

Technology alone cannot win the war, Engler said.

"Design and art can normalize and integrate places of waste into private, communal and public spaces in the everyday landscape. Designers need to create a space that gives something of value to the community and becomes an asset and source of pride," she said.

While researching her book, Engler traveled throughout the United States and Europe to visit landfills, recycling and waste transfer centers and sewage treatment plants. She found examples of facilities that are innovative in concept, siting, design or function.

"The town of Wellesley, Mass. has turned its dump into an amazing re-use, recycling park. There are drop-off stations along a circular drive for plastics, papers, tires, car oil, etc. There's a drop off for donations to Salvation Army and a library for used books. On Saturdays, it's packed with people," she said.

Engler also cites a Vancouver, B.C., sewage plant that is next to a river and has been turned into a park with nature paths, a gallery and environmental education center. In Arcata, Calif., the sewage plant has been designed to be a marshland environmental center for bird watching. Other towns have turned their public waste facilities into wastewater gardens or community centers.

For keeping solid waste out of the dump, nothing works better than garage sales, flea markets and junkyards, Engler said.

All are examples of how garbage can be treated in an orderly way as material and as an integral part of life.

"Whatever waste we generate ought to continue to be part of our lives and our responsibility," Engler said.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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