There's a lot at our disposal

There's an unexpected beauty to this pile of junk as a troupe of heavy equipment performs its daily dance. Dump trucks cough up their contents and glide away. Bulldozers swoop in from behind, and piles of lumber, cardboard, plastic and half-eaten food roll off their blades like sets of ocean waves.

The noise at the Puente Hills Landfill, one of the nation's largest garbage heaps, is unrelenting. The air is slightly sweet with decay. The ground pulses like an earthquake.

Big Mike wades into the mess.

Mike Speiser is 6 feet 2, 400 pounds and sports a shaved head that resembles a dinosaur egg, with devil's horns dangling from each earlobe. Big Mike's job is to compact the garbage. He is a craftsman, among the best in his trade, and his tool is a 60-ton bulldozer with steel-spiked wheels that looks as intimidating as he does and purees everything it touches.

"It's kind of like laying concrete. You've got to work it to get the proper grade," said Speiser, 45, a genial man who has been squeezing himself into the cab of this machine for nearly 20 years. "For some people, it's like they're born to do it. To have the blade at just the right angle. . . . Piles of trash don't have wheels on it, you know?"

This graveyard of our wants and needs sits hidden in plain sight along a truck-choked stretch of the 60 Freeway in the San Gabriel Valley. Here, the verdant Puente Hills, the result of eons of seismic uplift and erosion, have been reshaped by half a century of consumption and waste. Nearly 4 million tons of junk and muck, one-third of Los Angeles County's trash, is added to this man-made mountain each year.

Beginning before dawn, a parade of trucks bounces up a sinuous roller coaster of a road that's constantly burping from the digestion below. They deposit their loads on the day's "cell" -- an acre that will rise 20 feet in the next few hours before it's entombed beneath a layer of dirt.

Rest in pieces.

We've become programmed to separate our trash into the properly colored bins. But once the garbage man hauls our detritus away, most people don't give much thought to its next stop. We come home from work and -- abracadabra!abracadabra! -- the bins are empty and ready to be filled again.

The week after Christmas is a good time to consider where the stuff goes. These are the days when our bingeing and purging of consumer goods reaches a crescendo and workers at the Puente Hills Landfill are as busy as Santa's elves were last week. Mounds of wrapping paper and packaging. The remnants of holiday hams and untouched fruitcakes. More than 380,000 Christmas trees.

"People drive right by it and fly over it all the time without giving it much thought. It's only when you get on the ground that you fully appreciate the enormity and scope of the place," said Matthew Coolidge, director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, a Culver City-based think tank that combines art with conventional research.

"Seen up close, there's a sense of awe, a percussive awakening to the scale of the waste material that most people think just magically goes away," he said.

The center sponsored a tour of Puente Hills last year as part of an exhibit titled "Post Consumed: The Landscape of Waste in Los Angeles." Tickets sold out in minutes.

Participants rode in a white luxury motor coach and got an introduction to solid waste engineering, as well as a lesson in the philosophy and behavioral psychology of garbage.

"We wanted people to reconnect with their things . . . and follow their trajectory to the landfill," Coolidge said. "The world is composed of two equal forces, construction and destruction. That's the full cycle of life. For everything that is created, there's an end."

After lunch, the motor coach lumbered over a ridgeline and finished the tour in Rose Hills Memorial Park & Mortuary.

The cherished and the forgotten buried side by side for eternity.

In the way that layers of sedimentary rock in the Grand Canyon tell the Earth's story, a core sample of the Puente Hills Landfill, 500 feet deep in places, would reveal a post-World War II cultural history of Los Angeles.

Shards of Thighmasters and unused bread makers stacked upon scraps of Members Only jackets and pink Princess telephones. A stratum of compressed eight-track tapes, disco records and avocado-colored dishware. A layer of tie-dyed shirts and shattered black-and-white console televisions resting upon a foundation of steel beer cans, remains of Swanson TV dinners and ashtrays the size of dinner plates.

"Underneath our feet, there's a snapshot of our society at any given point," said Bob Asgian, chief engineer for the landfill, which is run by the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County. "We get everything that you can imagine dumped here -- and some you can't."

Police occasionally visit Puente Hills in search of missing people. Bodies have been found rolled up in a carpet. A skull was discovered in a carry-on flight bag.

Even the most prosaic of garbage has a back story. When Bill Rathje was a young archaeology professor, he hit upon the idea that the best way for students to learn the science was by sifting through trash.

In 1973, the Harvard-trained archaeologist started the Garbage Project, an endeavor that sought to place a 15-year-old steak excavated from an Illinois landfill in the same company as corn cobs unearthed in a Mayan midden.

"Everyone thought I was nuts," he said.

Rathje is known today as "The Indiana Jones of Solid Waste," a scientist and author who helped popularize the field of "garbology." His love affair with litter has led him to landfills around the world and to some conclusions about human nature.

We waste a lot of food; 10% of fresh garbage by weight is edible food, with little variation between rich and poor folks, Rathje says. People understate the amount of alcohol they drink by as much as 40%. People also lie about what they eat. Unhealthy food is under-reported; food that's good for you is over-reported.

Though many believe that fast-food packaging, polystyrene foam and disposable diapers make up the majority of the garbage in landfills, the fact is they do not, Rathje found. Puente Hills, like most modern landfills, receives roughly equal amounts of household garbage, construction debris and industrial and commercial waste.

"Archaeologists are always looking for tombs and riches, but 98% of what they study in the field is old garbage," said Rathje, 64, who has taught at the University of Arizona and Stanford. "The best time capsule in the world is a landfill."

A century ago, what is now the Puente Hills Landfill was part of a sprawling dairy operation run by Frank Pellissier, who arrived from France in 1888 and followed in the footsteps of his brother Germain, one of early Los Angeles' biggest land barons.

In the 1950s, this part of the San Gabriel Valley turned from agriculture to industry as well as a place to accommodate the region's burgeoning garbage. The Valley of the Dumps, some called it. The Puente Hills facility was acquired by the sanitation districts in 1970.

Just don't call it a dump.

"That would be both rude and incorrect," Asgian said.

Garbage isn't simply dumped here. Dirt is excavated from hillsides that are then sealed with liners and barriers. The trash is graded with precision using laser-equipped surveying devices to mimic the surrounding terrain. Green waste is recycled and used as cover. Recycled asphalt is used to build roads. Trees grown from seed at the facility's nursery are planted on finished slopes and nurtured by sprinklers shooting treated wastewater. Methane from below is collected in 30 miles of pipe and converted to electricity on-site. The battle against sea gulls is won through superior air power -- tiny screeching rockets and, on occasion, a remote-controlled airplane.

Like any large construction site, the landfill is a dangerous place. The unguarded have been buried alive under tons of trash, the unlucky crushed to death by trucks that toppled over.

"This thing isn't easy to stop. There's lots of blind spots. You don't want to tag somebody with it," said Steve Utley, who drops dirt onto finished cells using a 50-foot-long vehicle that pivots near its midsection and weighs some 250,000 pounds. "But I can control it. I can make this thing talk. How many people get to go to work on toys? It's like a big Tonka toy to me."

It's also a good-paying blue-collar job. Many of the landfill's heavy-equipment operators are veterans who earn $6,700 a month, and more than a few sons have followed in their fathers' smelly footsteps.

"Once you get in, you don't walk away because this is a killer job," said Utley, 52, who has worked here half his life. "We've got good benefits, good retirement, deferred comp, longevity -- which is like a bonus they give you the longer you stay."

Utley will be among the last of his breed. The Puente Hills Landfill is scheduled to reach capacity in 2013. Large parts of it will be managed by the county Parks and Recreation Department as open space.

A new "megafill" 200 miles away in Imperial County will take its place. Up to 20,000 tons of garbage a day will be hauled by train to the desert. Over the next 100 years, a mountain of L.A. County's trash three miles long and 500 feet high will rise on the horizon. Meantime, jobs here will be lost.

"We're telling some of the younger guys working here that they should be looking at the sewage side of things," said Randy Gudmundson, the landfill's superintendent. "There's more job security there. We'll always have sewage."

mike.anton@latimes.com

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