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Elizabeth Royte
where does it all go?

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Less than Barren
Friday, Mar 5, 2004 (11:11 AM)

While researching my book about garbage I've been continually drawn to Brooklyn's Barren Island, which used to be surrounded by the waters of New York's Jamaica Bay but is now connected to the mainland by fill, or buried trash. New York began dumping its refuse here in the middle of the nineteenth century and didn't stop till about sixty years ago. Most of this garbage is buried beneath asphalt and scrubby vegetation: you'd never know it's there. But walk the island's western beach at very low tide and you'll get a selective eyeful.

Jamaica Bay and Barren Island, off the southeastern tip of Brooklyn

What you'll mostly see on the mudflats is glass, followed by small bits of rusted metal, and a scattering of poignantly twisted leather shoes. The glass glitters in the afternoon sun, and its broken shards tinkle delightfully at every crest of wavelet upon the shore. Here and there, nests of nylon stockings with seams up the back emerge from the eroding uplands. I've asked a dozen people where the stockings came from, but no one seems to know. There are zones of cold-cream pots and bathroom fixtures, and I've found odd bits of beautifully painted ceramic tiles and figurines, but the predominant material, as I said, is glass: green, brown, clear, and blue.

Glass Refuse on Barren Island

Barren Island, which appears on few modern maps, holds a special place in the city's garbage history. In the late 1850s, the first of many factories opened on this previously uninhabited island and began turning menhaden, an oily herring-like fish caught in local waters, into fertilizer. Scheming city politicians soon arranged to send household garbage this way, too. In the busy season, laborers unloaded seven or eight scows -- large, flat-bottomed boats with square ends -- a day, a total of 3,000 tons of refuse from Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, in addition to the daily horse boat, which held as many as fifty dead horses, plus cows, cats, dogs and pigs. Workers picked through the garbage for valuables, then boiled or steamed the rest in fifteen-foot-high steel cylinders. By 1860, writes Benjamin Miller in Fat of the Land, the island had "the largest concentration of offal industries in the world," producing 50,000 tons of oils, and tens of thousands of tons of grease, fertilizer and other products (bone black, hides, iron and tin) worth more than $10 million a year.

Starting in 1909, the city began to fill the north side of the island with refuse, and numerous small islands were connected for the construction of houses and a naval air station, which would later be expanded to create Floyd Bennett Field, the city's first municipal airport. Politics and economics closed manufacturing plants through the 1920s, and by 1935 the single remaining factory on Barren Island was dismantled. In 1936, the city planner Robert Moses evicted the last residents of Barren Island in order to build his Marine Park Bridge, which brought motorists over the Bay to the Rockaway Peninsula.

Toy Horse from Barren Island

Anthropologists have done limited digging on the island, but a collection of their artifacts resides in a storage room at the headquarters of Gateway National Recreation Area, at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island (Barren Island is part of the Recreation Area's Jamaica Bay unit). I visited the Fort to see what the anthropologists - who'd been digging inland, where the oldest stuff was dumped - had considered worth saving. Among the items bagged in Ziplocs were a brass ring, glass and wooden beads, marbles, a porcelain bottle stopper, silver-plated beard-trimming scissors, an ironstone butter plate, an elaborately decorated silver spoon, a dog license from 1912, and a toy horse made of brass. According to a former park anthropologist, many of the artifacts date from the 18th and 19th centuries.

In a separate box, carefully swaddled in packing paper, were a dozen intact milk, medicine, and beer bottles. Why was glass so ubiquitous on the island? Because glass is what remains. It doesn't currently have value for recyclers or scavengers in this city (though making new glass from old glass is far simpler, cleaner, and energy efficient than doing the same with plastic containers), and it doesn't break down over human-scale time. Across the nation, many municipalities have dropped glass from their curbside recycling programs. The material is heavy to transport, it shatters easily, and it contaminates other recyclable materials. Even if beverage bottles could be kept intact, the infrastructure for refilling them no longer exists. It was discouraging to think so many modern cities could find no outlet for their Everests of household glass. Then again, neither had the waste brokers, intent on squeezing every last bit of value from the city's garbage, of Barren Island.

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Past Entries
03/02 Rising from the Dead
03/05 Less than Barren
03/08 New York's Strongest
03/11 Scrapping over Nickels
03/15 Let it Burn?