Nature Fights Back — An Environmentalist’s Observations on Life from Trash

When trees can grow from waste — shouldn’t we be inspired to do better?

Image by Ria Sopala from Pixabay

I read a fantastic article in the New York Times today by author and arborist William Bryant Logan about the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island. The title of the article is “The Lessons of a Hideous Forest: The insistence of wild growth at Fresh Kills Landfill should make us rethink nature.” (Referenced at the end of this article.)

This remarkable glimpse of what nature is doing at this landfill site was like a walk through a post-apocalyptic forest or something from a nature-sci-fi, if that is such a genre. (If so, I must read it.)

What is going on at the Fresh Kills Landfill?

Upon visiting the landfill, the seasoned arborist was stunned by the stages of growth, decomposition, renewal, and wildlife he found there. Trees were growing out of trash. Vines, both native and invasive were climbing some of these trees to the point of bringing them down. The downed trees sprouted new trees right out of their decaying trunks. Upturned trees had glass bottles, plastics, and other detritus intermingled within the root systems.

Some hollowed trees that were still standing sprouted root filaments inside their cavities so that when they finally fell the new generation was already formed and had taken toot, a process that ecologists aptly label the “phoenix generation.”

Logan described in his article the various trees, vines, and wildlife he saw or saw evidence of, and also the waste that he witnessed. He described the streams running through the area as “pus green.”

I am not sure that image will ever leave me.

Ecologically speaking

Disturbed habitats from an ecological perspective do not refer to areas that are pollution-fed. This is an important distinction to make. Pollution is man-made and not ecologically natural.

Some things grow best when the environment is challenging. Disturbed areas, or disturbed habitats, are areas where the natural succession of plant communities is interrupted on a regular or frequent basis. This could be weather-induced (an area that frequently floods or is disturbed by natural erosion processes, for example) or caused by other environmental or human factors. Roadsides are considered disturbed habitat.

Logan discovered on his visit to the landfill that despite the level of pollution, life emerged and wildly so. The area is thriving with species that prefer disturbed areas including the thorny Smilax, poison ivy, Maples, Pin oaks, Royal paulownia, and pear trees. Although the “natural” environment there looked very different from the natural succession of species in less polluted areas, the magnitude of growth in such adversity was surprising.

What is the lesson here?

Logan provided some valuable information on the “life-span” of some of our garbage, which was useful, yet disturbing. How much of this my family produces in a single day! Knowing these numbers may influence your buying habits and consumption.

The time it takes for landfill materials to decay:

  • Organic material such as cardboard boxes and paper items: 3 months
  • Wood: up to 3 years
  • A pair of wool socks: up to 5 years
  • A plastic shopping bag: up to 20 years
  • A plastic cup: up to 50 years
  • An aluminum can: 200 years
  • A glass bottle: 500 years
  • A plastic bottle: 700 years
  • A Styrofoam container: a millennium.

What you can do

Reduce waste!

Yes, recycling helps but how about buying fewer products that have plastic wrappings or come in plastic bottles? As an environmentalist, I can recommend a few very easy things you can do to make things better. These tips get so repetitive that we almost don’t hear them anymore — but they are important!

Pack your Anti-Waste Kit in your car or have a bag waiting by the door for when you leave the house.

Anti-Waste Kit

Reuseable bottle for drinking. This one item can help you to avoid purchasing bottled drinks and drinks that come in Styrofoam cups.

Reuseable container for bringing home food to save when you eat out. Those Styrofoam take-home boxes are convenient if you want to save the last part of your meal — but at what cost? At least that container can get more mileage for you and you won’t be tossing one more Styrofoam item that will be here longer than humanity. Most businesses are happy to accommodate you if you express your concerns about waste materials.

Reuseable shopping bags are a MUST. If you don’t have them with you just ask the clerk for paper bags instead of plastic. Store clerks are trained to quickly grab plastic bags so stop them before they pull off a bag. You don’t want them trashing that bag if they grabbed it off too quickly. Some stores offer recycling of these plastic bags but it is best not to use them at all.

Avoid plastic. Avoid Styrofoam at all costs. And purchase items that are not wrapped in excess non-renewable materials such as individually plastic-wrapped items. Buying in bulk can also help to cut down on waste.

We can all do better.

The Fresh Kills Landfill serves as a reminder of the incredible damage we do to our lands by our waste-production, but also as a lesson that life will find some way of taking root. Our forests are a microcosm of humanity; the quest for resources, the fight for a space in the sunlight, or the reckless predation of others.

As much as we depend on a healthy relationship with our environment, and as hard as nature fights back to survive, we owe our best efforts as well.


Christina Ward is a nature writer and poet from North Carolina. A previous version of this article will be published in the Observer News Enterprise newspaper.

𝘐 𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘯𝘦𝘥 𝘮𝘺 𝘸𝘳𝘪𝘵𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘱𝘢𝘴𝘴𝘪𝘰𝘯 𝘪𝘯𝘵𝘰 𝘢 𝘧𝘶𝘭𝘭-𝘵𝘪𝘮𝘦 𝘤𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘦𝘳. 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘳𝘰𝘢𝘥 𝘭𝘦𝘴𝘴 𝘵𝘳𝘢𝘷𝘦𝘭𝘦𝘥 𝘪𝘴 𝘮𝘺 𝘫𝘢𝘮.

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