Could Ariel Sharon's most enduring legacy be Tel Aviv's massive landfill?

Notes from different corners of the world.
July 29 2010 6:50 AM

What a Dump

Could Ariel Sharon's most enduring legacy be Tel Aviv's massive landfill?

Launch slide show.

TEL AVIV, Israel—Have you ever wondered why you've never met a Jew named Junior? Or why there are no Herschel Goldstein IIIs running around? An old relative once filled me in: In Judaism, apparently, the Angel of Death isn't the sharpest scythe in the tool shed, and people worry that he might accidentally reclaim the soul of a baby instead of the senior citizen whose time has come.

In Israel, this modest taboo extends even to naming buildings after living people, although there are a few notable exceptions, such as the gleaming new Shimon Peres Peace House, an architectural jewel built in the mixed Arab Israeli-Jewish Israeli town of Jaffa. * (Americans of all religious persuasions—and politicians in particular—have no such fear of the evil eye: Witness Janet and Mike Huckabee Lake, or the Arlen Specter Library.)

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon presents an interesting naming problem, since he's only alive in a technical sense, having been in a persistent vegetative state since a stroke in 2006. A few years ago, the northern Samaria town of Ariel declared that it would keep its name but change the rationale behind it to honor Sharon, who forced Israeli settlers out of Gaza and into—you guessed it—the town of Ariel. Years earlier, Sharon's name generated controversy when Egyptians boycotted a Procter & Gamble washing powder called Ariel in the mistaken belief that it had been named after the pugnacious politician.

But now comes news of an even stranger honorary title. Israel's largest garbage dump—almost 600 million cubic feet of festering waste—has been renamed in honor of the country's favorite comatose warrior: Welcome to Ariel Sharon Park. But this isn't a slam, like San Francisco's ballot measure to rename a sewage treatment plant in "tribute" to George W. Bush. To the contrary, the landfill fulfills one of Sharon's fondest dreams.

If you're a stickler for waste management terminology, the place isn't actually a dump but a waste transfer station, a gathering point on the road to other landfills. In 1999, this particular landfill had to be closed when the mountain of accumulated waste reached 200 feet tall, and its height—plus the seagulls who scavenged there—became an aviation hazard. Israel needed a new waste solution, and Tel Aviv residents wanted something other than a steaming mound of their own filth on the horizon.

Enter Ariel Sharon: soldier, statesman, and ... recycling-program guru? A plan was hatched to turn the mound and its surrounding flatlands into an urban park. And not just any park: At 2,000 acres, it would be more than twice the size of New York's Central Park. The site would continue to process Tel Aviv's waste, but it would become a high-tech model of recycling prowess, using robots and other innovative technologies to separate the waste into dozens of categories. The plan had many opponents, including developers who wanted to build 10,000 new homes there. Into the breach stepped Sharon, who had once served as minister of agriculture and still maintained a sprawling citrus farm. On the eve of the vote, Sharon personally called up members of the Knesset and jawboned them into submission. (It must be noted, of course, that the old general wasn't always a fervent opponent of new housing developments on disputed lands elsewhere in the region.)

One recent morning, I breathed deeply of the still-stinky air and stood atop the mound, which is now covered with dirt and budding plants. Tel Aviv glimmered in the distance; heat waves rose off the blue Mediterranean. My guide noted that Ariel Sharon could see this mountain from the window of his hospital room. If he could stand up, that is. Or see. The planned trails, lawns, ponds, and amphitheaters are still a few years away, and the final cost could be as high as $100 million.

And while soccer and sun-tanning aren't yet available, the transfer station center is in full swing. Garbage trucks thunder past, 1,200 of them every day except for Yom Kippur, a day of fasting when even household waste takes the day off. Dumps are dumps, though, and at first glance this one looks like any other, with airborne plastic bags and the occasional lonely, mangled stuffed animal covered in spaghetti. But this dump is a hub of recycling frenzy as Rube Goldberg-style robots separate the trash into narrow categories. First, everything is dumped into a giant pool—no public swimming here, please—where the organic material turns instantly to mush, leaving any plastic floating on top. The sodden mess is transferred to a giant metal barrel with holes in the side. The organic soup falls through and is gathered into large anaerobic digestion containers, where it is converted into usable methane gas. Finally, the remaining plastic is subjected to several more levels of rigorous sorting: magnets, wind tunnels, and sharp knives on the ends of robot arms—this is your garbage can's version of one of those Saw movies.

But the results are indisputable. Discarded food is pulverized into fertilizer; old lumber and tree trunks magically become custom benches in the on-site carpentry shop; a bacteria-rich swamp turns sewage into irrigation water and habitats for water lilies and croaking bullfrogs. Proposed wetlands promise to be the solution to Tel Aviv's persistent flooding.

At the nearby environmental education center, kids sit on chairs made from tractor tires; old rear-view mirrors are mounted above the bathroom sinks. Seventy wells drilled into the base of the mound collect gas from the rotting garbage, generating all the electricity the site needs and sending power back into the national grid. The amount of trash going into landfill has been reduced by a staggering 90 percent. And while aggressive recycling probably wasn't what David Ben Gurion had in mind when he dreamed of making the desert bloom, it's a signature victory in this small and increasingly urbanized country.

Before it was called Ariel Sharon Park, the site was known as Hiriya, from the name of the Arab village that used to sit here. As a young platoon commander in 1948, Ariel Sharon was involved in the military operations that claimed the land for Israel. And although the word Hiriya in Hebrew is uncomfortably close to a slang term for feces—"go to Hiriya" is a common insult—the site is quickly shedding its negative connotations. Ariel Sharon himself has also been known by other names, including The Bulldozer. It's now beginning to seem possible that his most enduring legacy won't be razing Arab villages but building one of the world's largest and most peaceful urban oases.

Correction, Aug. 4, 2010:This piece originally and incorrectly described Jaffa as a "mixed Arab-Israeli town." (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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Zac Unger is an Oakland, Calif.-based freelance writer, firefighter, and paramedic. His book Working Fire began as an article for Slate.