King of the Dump: From Trash to Treasure
November 16, 2005
A miracle occurs daily somewhere in Aspen: A covered truck drives up, a few men jump out and perform some lifting and maneuvering actions, the truck disappears. Poof! Your trash Dumpster is empty. We don’t generally give it another thought, but where the heck does the trash go? Where did it used to go? Dump lore is buried in Aspen’s history, but the undeniable king of the topic is Freddie “the Fixit” Fisher. In the 1950s and ’60s, Freddie often frequented the old city dump, a place that now is home to Iselin Field, tennis courts and the Aspen Recreation Center.
To promote his passion for fixing, tinkering and creating, Freddie ran ads in The Aspen Times, like one in 1952 that implored: “DON’T take your things to the city dump – bring them here direct. Fisher the Fixit.”Another ad, which harbors Freddie’s wit, read:Though silence is a golden thing-Ingredient to peace- The wheel that does the squeeking [sicIs the wheel that gets the grease!For expert lubrication service visit Louie’s Liquor Store. For mechanical collapse see Fisher the Fixit.
Freddie arrived in Aspen in the 1950s with his family and clarinet. He had retired from a busy career as a musician, where he was known as the “King of Korn” for his funky band arrangements and style.Once in Aspen, Freddie quickly settled into multiple roles, including inventor, pundit, fixer and entertainer. He opened his fixit shop on Main Street, right about where the restaurant Gusto is today. The shop had a flair for clutter. In one account from “Fisher the Fixer” (the essential book about Freddie, edited by Su Lum and Barbara Lewis), Deane Billings reminisces how, after welding something, Freddie would quickly lift his goggles to make sure nothing was on fire. Thus he went from King of Korn to King of the Dump.
Freddie’s unique approach of bringing trash back to the community would have startled Aspen’s forefathers. By the 1890s, the city had instituted procedures for trash clearing. A section contained in the “Ordinances of the City of Aspen,” printed in 1895, describes the job of city scavenger. According to the ordinance, among other duties, the city scavenger “shall see that all dead animals are promptly removed from the city to the dumping ground. He shall see that no swill, slops, offal, garbage, litter of any unsound putrid or offensive matter, or other matter deleterious to health or deposited or suffered to remain in or upon any street, alley, avenue, lot or upon any public or private ground in the city.” For a time, the scavenger hauled refuse to a locale other than the city dumping ground. In fact, the City Council didn’t even know where the dumping ground was – a solid example of dump disconnect. The city finally sorted out the mystery, and the scavenger started taking trash to the correct place. Even today, though, questions remain about this original dump’s actual location somewhere in the Maroon Creek canyon. Aspen-area residents have thrown their waste into many dumps over the years. Like Iselin Park, several have been reclaimed and beautified. The present-day Paepcke Park has a midden past, rediscovered when the 1990 gazebo reconstruction unearthed classic dump fare such as bottles and shoes. Glory Hole Park hides another historic glimpse into the earth. The park’s pond fills part of the infamous “glory hole,” the enormous crater left from the collapse of a stope in the A.J. Mine. During the collapse, two railroad cars fell into the hole, foretelling the crater’s future as a convenient, informal dumping place. Freddie likely visited this dump, too.
As consummate scavenger and fixer, Freddie connected the trash stream to the community’s needs; he was ahead of his time. As Terese David put it in one of her “Fisher the Fixer” recollections: “He was the one who started making things over instead of throwing them away. He was the first recycler we had.”He shared the fun, too. Susan Fox, Freddie’s daughter, remembers accompanying her dad to the city dump as a kid. She pursued her own treasures – McCall’s magazines and their paper cut-out dolls.Since Freddie’s time, the development explosion in and around Aspen has generated unimaginable amounts of waste. This trend suggests the need for a bottomless pit to swallow all we toss in. More realistically, though, there might be a “Fisher the Fixer” approach to recycling and homegrown reuse. So, how are we doing?
One indicator of how we treat trash dumping is the terminology we use. What was once called a “dumping ground” is now called the Pitkin County Resource Recovery Facility and Landfill (also known as the landfill). The city scavengers have transformed into waste haulers. And while Freddie reused, fixed and recycled as a matter of course, the term “recycling” has burrowed into our lexicon and our body politic. Most recently, the city of Aspen passed a recycling ordinance, due to take effect Nov. 25. The ordinance will require waste haulers to include recycling in the fees they charge residents and businesses. The thought is that those who don’t already recycle will be encouraged to do so, since they will be paying for it in their trash service. Recycling newsprint, cardboard, plastic, glass, aluminum, office paper and magazines means these materials are “diverted” from the landfill. The ordinance highlights the key goal of extending the landfill’s life. The local landfill sits between Aspen Village and Wildcat Ranch, among the folds of sagebrush hills dotted with piñon pines. Managed by Pitkin County, the landfill accepts loads from any waste hauler, with a majority of loads originating in the upper and midvalley. It charges a “tipping fee” for all trash ($21/cubic yard), much lower amounts for recoverable materials, and accepts recyclables for free. The operation deals in air space, with a total permitted volume of 5 million cubic yards. Picture a dome, 300 feet high at its center, spreading across about 35 acres, and you’ve got a grasp of its capacity. The landfill first opened in the early 1960s. Since then we have filled about half the air space. Every two years an aerial photo is taken and compared with a detailed topographic map of the site. This determines how much more space the landfill has consumed, and by extension, what capacity remains. At the current volume of what is buried and what is diverted, the landfill can remain open for another 15 to 20 years.
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In running the numbers, consider that each year we haul about 265,000 cubic yards (26,500 dump-truck loads) of stuff to the landfill; 43 percent actually gets buried there. Alluding to the landfill’s multipurpose and opportunistic philosophy, Chris Hoofnagle, the county’s Solid Waste Operations Manager, simply states: “Everything that comes in here is not waste.” The 57 percent that skips the landfill enters the resource recovery and recycling programs. The scrap-metal pile represents an unintentional but perfect tribute to Freddie. He would revel in the car bodies and parts, appliances, kegs, trash cans, box springs and random other pieces of metal. A tire pile stands near the metal smorgasbord; the landfill ships the tires to a facility on the Front Range that removes the steel belts and shreds the rubber, which is then converted into a soft surface often used for playgrounds. The Roaring Fork Valley’s largest composting operation is at the landfill. The many piles of wood chips and leaves look like a fibrous tented compound. Compost emerges after the full process of wood chipping, leaf gathering, adding bio-solids from the wastewater treatment plant, and letting some time pass. The landfill sells its home-concocted compost for $20/cubic yard and its mulch for $15/cubic yard. The most significant material diverted from the air space is soil and rock, lumped together into the term “aggregate.” Aggregate makes up about 100,000 cubic yards annually, or 40 percent of what comes into the landfill. Before aggregate recycling started in 2001, the landfill’s life expectancy looked far less rosy – with only 10 years left. Diverting the aggregate definitely saves space. It also saves one’s sanity, for the mere idea of burying soil in a landfill is bizarre. The aggregate area is one rollicking production line. Mounds of earthen material shake while a jaw crusher hammers rocks into smaller pieces. Rock and soil screening creates products for sale such as road base, topsoil, landscaping boulders and gravel. In its largest reuse contract so far, the landfill sold 60,000 cubic yards of road base to the Colorado Department of Transportation for the Highway 82 expansion in Snowmass Canyon. With enormous construction projects on-line, the landfill’s strange role as purveyor of aggregate is growing.
Photos show one major difference between the old city dump and the current landfill. Freddie could easily locate and extract his finds from the city dump because it wasn’t covered. At the Pitkin County landfill, 60,000-pound compactors with spiked wheels ploddingly crush and cover the waste. Once buried, that’s it – no dump-diving. The landfill, in survival mode, has an obsession with minimizing what gets buried and maximizing its resource recovery and recycling activities. As Hoofnagle explains: “We want to keep this place open as long as we can, so we can manage our trash here.” I think Freddie would agree with this sentiment, especially with the scrap-metal pile as part of the operation. Amazingly, more than half of what the compactors knead into the rising dome of trash is demolition and construction debris. Is there another diet we should be contemplating? What irony that Aspen’s hum of building and rebuilding, a direct stimulant of escalating real estate values, simultaneously chases our landfill to its extinction and out-prices the possibility of a new landfill site. Freddie could have fixed a village and built another with today’s buried building remnants. A large question looms for the time when the landfill closes. In a likely scenario, we will truck our waste to some other landfill that has the air space. This will be a sad day, for then we really will suffer from the “Poof, it’s gone!” mentality. And unless we keep alive a place and means for sorting reusable materials upfront, we no longer will have the ability to complete the full cycle. While we can, we should appreciate the surprises that lurk within the trash. Along with the toaster part, rare muffler, topsoil and compost, Freddie’s legacy of thoughtful, homegrown recycling is a real treasure. Kristine Crandall is a freelance writer living in Basalt. While growing up in Aspen, she remembers the guy jumping off the garbage truck to empty her family’s three banged-up metal trash cans, and now wonders what contents might have had a future with Freddie.