I live on the west side of Tucson near the section of Shannon Road that dead ends not far from a steep hill. Hiking websites say that the Jack and George Mountain Trail begins there, though I don't know who Jack and George are and the elevation makes this area more hilly than mountainous. But because of the listings, people from outside the neighborhood come to park in a very small dirt lot near the dead end and then hike that trail. These hikers have to be sure to go up the hill rather than along the flat trail that leads due west because the owner of some of that property has posted no trespassing signs which he intends to enforce. But the view from the hilltop is impressive, and there's beautiful desert here, so the hike is worthwhile. Unfortunately, when that small parking space isn't filled with cars, people sometimes come and dump yard waste and construction rubble there. It's an eyesore until someone complains and a city truck comes to haul the mess away. Greg and I, along with our neighbor, once caught a couple in a pickup truck trying to leave a box springs and mattress there. When the couple realized that we had seen them, they apologized and took their shabby mattress set away. More recently, someone dumped a ruined sofa and chair to molder in the rain because no one was there to reproach them. You would think that people don't have any alternative, but they do. Once they had it in a truck, these scofflaws could easily have taken their refuse to the Los Reales Landfill on the southeast side and ditched it there for free.
|Edifice for the Unwanted by Troy Neiman
at Los Reales Sustainability Campus; photo by Greg Evans
To be accurate, it's no longer the Los Reales Landfill. In 2021, Tucson City Council voted to change the name of our only municipal landfill to the Los Reales Sustainability Campus, with the ambitious goals of moving toward carbon neutrality by 2030 and becoming a zero-waste city by 2050. Local environmental activists at Sustainable Tucson soon critiqued the plans that went with that name change. They liked the idea of the proposed tree nursery, the composting facility, and the site for "boutique" reuse/recycling businesses, but they didn’t care for the notion that one or more “waste-to-energy” facilities might be part of the campus (more about that later). However, as TucsonSentinel.com reported last summer, not a lot has changed at Los Reales since 2021. It's still mainly a landfill dump, where huge amounts of garbage and the dirt used to cover it are augmented each day by 2,300 more tons of solid waste, resulting in landforms that seem to rival in size the hill at the end of Shannon Road. The City is still not entirely clear about what will happen there next.
Greg and I stopped at Los Reales on the last Saturday of 2023, and we stood for a while near the administration building, watching an orderly procession of vehicles -- pickup trucks with loaded trailers, more pickups with tarps over their debris-filled beds, and larger trucks from waste disposal companies – all headed toward the place where they could deposit their unwanted burdens. But unlike the people in the procession of trucks, we weren’t there to drop off some yard waste or an old sofa. Instead, we wanted to look at a sculpture that is a commentary on what Los Reales is and may someday be. The sculpture is "Edifice for the Unwanted" by Troy Neiman, and it adds an artfully whimsical aspect to an otherwise very practical and businesslike place.
|Looking through the "window" from the back of
the sculpture, we could see the trucks go by on the road
Neiman, who has been working in Tucson since 2003,
calls himself a public artist and fabricator, and in an interview with Eva Romero at KXCI, he said he has had a lifelong attraction to old bicycles, scrap metal, and found
objects. He was trained as a welder, and when he came to Tucson, his welding skill and interest in reusing discarded items led him to working with BICAS, a local group whose art
program salvages bike parts from the waste stream and encourages people to make them into sculptures and jewelry. But
Neiman’s “Edifice for the Unwanted” takes this kind of repurposing to a new
level. The sculpture is made from an array of discarded materials and invites
the viewer to think about the vast number of unwanted objects in the nearby
landfill. The sculpture is surprisingly dynamic and lively, considering that it's made of unwanted items. Metal birds soar above it, just as ravens and
pigeons do over Los Reales.
|Metal birds are part of Edifice for the Unwanted:
photo by Greg Evans
The pillars holding up the structure are made of bricks and found materials from historic buildings in Tucson, and there’s a central panel with a curved upper edge that connects the pillars. The panel is embellished with an off-center window and is pierced by an arrangement of glass bottles that glow in warm colors in the desert sun. The curve is repeated in the main body of the sculpture, which has a coherent and flowing shape. According to Neiman: “The items used on the left represent more raw versions of materials and as they cycle over to the right side your eye can begin to pick out more and more items from our daily lives and they again get ‘buried’ to the far right.”
“Recycling is almost a cop-out,” Neiman once told
the Tucson Citizen, implying that we should have the imagination to repurpose old and interesting
things that others might discard, and we should take objects that were destined to
go to the landfill and give them another life. All parts of the sculpture are made
of items that won’t degrade – especially bricks, glass, and metal -- and they have varied shapes and colors. But
though most of them are recycled, they aren’t from Los Reales, according to
Neiman.  They include a battered golf club, a small children’s wagon filled
with scuffed golf balls, a flattened colander, gazing balls, fan blades,
springs, a dish rack, and a few items that aren’t metal like a wooden table leg
and a large piece of curved, clear plastic.
|Some of the repurposed items that make up
Edifice for the Unwanted
Though it was commissioned and installed in 2018
before Los Reales became a Sustainability Campus, the
sculpture functions as an introduction to the landfill. In the future, it will
contribute a cheerful and welcoming note as more Tucsonans will hopefully be
drawn to Los Reales for options like the composting facility and boutique
businesses. But Edifice for the Unwanted, because of its composition, also has something to say about the nature of recycling and waste management.
While looking at Neiman’s sculpture and the trucks heading toward the landfill at Los Reales, I started to think about the processes of waste disposal and recycling more clearly than I ever had before. I had often seen the waste hierarchy diagram (see one version below), but it seemed so much more obvious to me while I was standing in a place that exemplified the notion of disposal and looking at a sculpture that was all about reuse. In the first place, much of what was coming to the landfill could actually have been reused, keeping these items out of the landfill. In the beds of pickup trucks we could see branches and pieces of wood that could of course have been made into mulch, and there were loads of construction debris, pieces of brick and lumps of cement. The bricks could easily be reused, since there are many creative and attractive ways to use old brick. They could even be part of the base of a sculpture such as Neiman’s.
A version of the Waste Hierarchy diagram; New Zealand Trade
and Enterprise, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Though we could clearly see yard and construction
debris and garbage bags filled with trash headed to the landfill (and I'm sure there was lots of food waste that could have been composted), we couldn’t
see much else that was in the trucks. But I imagine that many more of those abandoned items could have had a useful second life, particularly if they were made of metal. And as I noted earlier, most of the
items in the main body of Neiman’s sculpture are metal and can be recycled if not reused. Steel and aluminum cans, for example, are 100% recyclable, and though other metal items are not accepted in
our blue recycling bins, they are much sought after by recyclers. For example, the Daily Star recently reported that W. Silver Recycling will soon open a yard in Tucson where it will collect scraps of brass and copper, in addition to steel and aluminum, and later ship them to mills where they will be melted down and reused. Unfortunately, recycling many of
the other items in the waste stream isn’t quite so straightforward, and
cities in the United States have recently been forced to look at new ways to
recycle paper, glass, and plastic. This has caused a crisis for waste
management systems, including Tucson's.
Glass bottles and other glass items, including a
couple of gazing balls, are reused in Neiman’s sculpture, and because of
the way they reflect and refract the light, they add color and sparkle to its
appearance. Glass can be recycled, and until 2021, Tucsonans were able to put glass jars and bottles into our blue bins, too, but
that is no longer the case. According to Council member Steve Kozachik, the glass that was collected was
often shipped to Phoenix where it might end up in a landfill anyway. Now, there are
drop-off sites around the city where people can take their clean glass bottles
and jars, which are crushed and used for construction locally. Some of the glass is also used by small businesses like Bottle Rocket Design, but many residents are not motivated to take their used glass items to another
location now that it is no longer picked up at the curb.
|Glass bottles seen from the other
side of Edifice for the Unwanted
Paper, because it’s fragile and doesn’t stand up well to the elements, isn’t part of Edifice for the Unwanted, though it is 100% recyclable. Unfortunately, it’s not being recycled in Arizona as it once was, a problem with causes that are global as well as local. The People's Republic of China is the largest consumer of recyclables in the world, but beginning in 2017, China changed its standards regarding the waste materials they were willing to accept. In addition to banning 24 kinds of waste products, including some kinds of paper, they also required that the items being sent to them should be less contaminated with food and other substances. In 2019, Tony Davis at the Arizona Daily Star reported on changes in local paper recycling, noting that China's policies over time have had a major effect in Arizona. He said that the U.S. used to have many paper-recycling mills, including one in Snowflake in Navajo County, Arizona. In 2012, that mill, along with others in the country, was closed due to foreign competition, notably from China. But because of later changes in China’s standards, we now have neither an option for local recycling of paper nor an assured way to send our paper waste overseas. Paper is still accepted in our recycling bins here in Tucson, but there is some question about where it ends up, especially since it is so often contaminated with food.
Finally, there’s plastic, which represents only a small amount of the Edifice for the Unwanted. It's the most difficult of items in the waste stream to recycle, though you wouldn’t know that based on all the hype we
hear about advanced recycling, also called chemical recycling. Whatever you choose to call it, the focus on these attempts to recycle plastic contributes to the notion that
plastic can just be produced and recycled endlessly, thereby reducing its
impact on the planet. But the idea of recycling plastic comes with many caveats, and in regard to plastic, prevention and reduction are the most eco-friendly options. Unfortunately, many corporations refuse to cut back on plastic production and instead extol the virtues and the benefits of chemical recycling.
During their June meeting last year, Sustainable Tucson hosted a presentation by Veena Singla from Natural Resources Defense Council on this issue. She spoke at length on the reasons the processes known as chemical recycling, which include pyrolysis and gasification, are not real solutions to the problem of plastic waste. Plastic is a complex substance, made of many different additives and molecules, and heating it to produce gas for fuel or to recover valuable compounds it is a risky business. Though the process is inefficient and unlikely to produce much energy or usable substances, it is likely to have the unwanted side effect of releasing toxins into the environment.
Of course, I already knew something about the
problematic nature of pyrolysis because of my visit to Youngstown, Ohio, last year. There, many people oppose the proposed SOBE plant, which would superheat tire chips and plastic to produce synthetic
gas and other byproducts. (Tires, it turns out, also contain a significant
amount of plastic.) It would also be likely to spew many toxic chemicals into the air in an already vulnerable neighborhood. The fight against the proposed facility in Youngstown has continued to
proceed apace, and few locals express support for it, other than the people who
stand to benefit from it financially. Most recently, the Youngstown City Council voted to put a one-year moratorium on the establishment of the plant so
that the city can examine the environmental risks more carefully.
|Stop Sobe signs in Youngstown, Ohio, not far
from the proposed plant; picture taken in July of 2023
As with the future of the SOBE plant in Youngstown, the future of chemical recycling in Tucson is also unknown. The city says it will no longer consider this option, and Councilmember Kevin Dahl says, “We don’t need a tech hub where we’re experimenting with our
garbage. Burning garbage is last century’s technology.” Sustainable Tucson and other environmental
activists must stay vigilant, however, because there is a newer draft of the
city's proposal to the federal Economic Development Administration, which seems to hold open the possibility of using so-called "waste-to-energy" options at some point.
|The landscape at Los Reales
 In his KXCI interview, Troy Neiman said, “In the
case of the public art that I did at the Los Reales landfill here in Tucson,
one of the stipulations for it was that they wanted to use as many recycled
materials as possible, which really made a lot of sense for it being at the
landfill to go in that direction. But it's actually illegal to pull things out
of the landfill, so I had to source all the recycled materials from other
places. And it's almost entirely made of recycled materials, but they had to come
from different sources besides the landfill where the piece was going to be.” [minutes 15-16]
 Glass can also be reused on a larger scale. When soda and beer came in glass containers, people paid a small deposit that they would get back when the bottle was returned to the store. These bottles were sterilized and reused by beverage manufacturers.