The Waste Landfill: Up Close and Personal – Gisèle Trudel

Garbage dumps began to appear in a more massive way alongside the demographic explosion on the margins of urban centres, shortly after the industrial revolution. The dedication of a precise location to the burying of waste begins at the same time as increased urbanization and augments in proportion to the shortened the life cycle of consumption goods and their increased packaging (De Silguy, 2009). Landfill reforms initiated after WWII led into today’s technological waste management systems or waste landfills, which are very different from the open-air dumping sites of Asia and Africa that resemble the pre-1950 sites of North America and Europe..

The Waste Landfill of Lachenaie, Québec

The technological waste management system does not resemble a garbage dump anymore. Situated in Terrebonne (an ironic name, because the land is not drained properly, which makes it unfavourable to agriculture), the waste landfill of Lachenaie was first chosen because of the composition of its soil. As explained on the website of the BFI company that operates the waste landfill, the soil is composed of 15 to 20 metres of clay because it was covered by the Champlain sea for 2500 years (13 100-10 600 B.C.).[1] In this particular instance, digging through the clay causes the formation of a hydraulic trap-door as a result of the upward pressure of subterranean water, which ensures the protection of ground water. In other landfills, a geomembrane is installed to seal up the area, but in both cases, engineers, mathematicians, and land surveyors actively participate in the creation of what is called the landfill cell; a vast area can contain many of them.

600 times a day, waste is dumped at the front of the active cell in operation and flattened by compactor trucks that grind and crush it in order to remove the oxygen in its layers. Manufactured by the Terex company, the TrashMaster TC580 is the  compactor truck invented specifically for landfills to contain “more refuse in less space.” Because of its weight and specific mechanism, this three-wheel truck exerts a greater and more continuous pressure on the waste, while its jagged and serrated wheels simultaneously crush and pierce everything in its path. It is as efficient as Wall-e (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class), the main character in DisneyPixar’s eponymous animation film by Andrew Stanton (2008). In the movie, humans have left Earth to colonize outer space because the planet is covered in waste. Wall-e relentlessly continues compacting waste into gigantic structures, as an extreme example of the operation of technological waste management systems.

The waste landfill is no longer a subterranean burying but a terracing – the layers of waste create hills that can reach up to 40 metres high, and getting taller. Increased consumerism has meant that the cells Lachenaie site are much bigger than the closed ones that date back to the first years of operation. Mierle Laderman-Ukeles, a feminist artist, explains that “the life cycle of an object now is about 2 months… A landfill exists because both you and I put out a little too much trash […] Buy, buy, buy, becomes throw out, throw out, throw out” (Laderman 1997).

From this perspective, the media installation Metacity – Datatown (1999),[2] a mixture of 3D animation and computer generated particle sequences created by the Dutch architect cabinet MVRDV, is indicative of consumption patterns. The premise is simple: if we lived in a self-sustaining environment, how would we manage lodging, food, energy, and waste? Behavioural choices such as vegetarianism and recycling are directly interrelated through their impact on the constructed landscape. They help to prevent the formation of the equivalent of a Mont Blanc of waste every thirty years – a timescale that highlights the physical and temporal disparities between this human construction and the geophysical formation of a mountain over millions of years. What is being built?[3]

Seemingly paradoxical, the waste landfill engenders “lives.” Drains and pipes are installed to collect the leachate (“waste discharge”) and landfill gases. Leachate, a mixture of rainwater, snow, and liquids already present in the site soil, is channelled and stored in cisterns until it is treated in water treatment plants. Methane gas that results from the digestion of organic matter by micro-organisms in an anaerobic environment can supply about 2500 houses with energy over a ten-year cycle. The biogas is transformed into electricity, and the leftover gas is burned. It is transformed into carbon dioxide and steam, less damageable to the environment in terms of greenhouse gas. The waste landfill thus generates what we could call “leaks,” topological matter in the shape of liquid, gas, or invisible dispersions (called VOCs, volatile organic compounds). David Gissen’s conception of today’s so-called “green” architecture, which mostly favours the circulation of “noble” elements such as air and water, argues that architects could focus on models of lodging based on diverse natural processes, instead of trying to eliminate relations between matter and beings that make up reality. For him, this can include the contribution of dust, smoke, insects, and micro-organisms.

While the waste landfill creates lives in this way, it also constructs our present relation to waste, to what is thrown away, as situated in the meticulous and regulated management of operations on this colossal area that spans a surface as large as 45 football fields. Its processes exist in order to preserve its operation with a minimum of disruption in a hyper-controlled system, it cancels out all difference. Objects are unloaded, then ripped apart, atomized, crushed, compacted, and finally covered up with soil or clay. Falcons are let loose and almost entirely prevent the presence of gulls who would feed there. Hence, the cycle of the lack of differentiation begins anew. The waste landfill offers another homogenizing mirror of capitalism.

These landfills have a limited operating time, a direct consequence of lifestyle choices and practices. A landfill can be in operation for approximately 40 years. The site could even stay active for up to 100 years if practices changed significantly and if proper legislation was put in place for industry. Lachenaie was opened in 1968, which means that the site should have been closed down in 2008. In this respect, the recent Quebec government policy concerning the management of residual material will certainly bring about important changes to the waste landfill in the near future.[4] It could become something else, a park perhaps,.[5] But is it a process of becoming if this reality already exists in the logic of layering the waste landfill?[6] The Quebec government has granted a reprieve to the expansion of the waste landfill, pending other solutions.

New alliances with community and organisations can generate new relations for contemporary art, to associate environmental, scientific, and cultural practices. As Mierle Laderman-Ukeles explains her role as an artist in residence at the New York Department of Sanitation and at the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, “the place changes, so how we see the place changes, so we change too” (Laderman 1997).

The long version of this essay was written in French by Gisèle Trudel and translated by Claudine Gélinas-Faucher. Trudel thanks BFI-Lachenaie for the ability to do her research there. 

Photo by: Gisèle Trudel at BFI-Lachenaie.

End Notes: 


[2]  Maas, W. (1999). MetaCity, Datatown. The Netherlands, MVRDV10:00. See also: for a description of the work. “DataTown is only based upon data. It is a city that wants to be described only by information. A city that does not know any given typography, no prescribed ideology, no representation, no context. Purely huge, only data. To what implications does this city lead to? What assumptions can be identified? What ‘agenda’ would appear due to this numerical approach? ”

[3] According to the data in the Bilan 2006 de la gestion des matières résiduelles au Québec, “every year in Quebec, great quantities of waste are produced, close to 25 tons per minute, close to 13 million tons a year, an average of 1.69 tons per inhabitant … and it continues increasing year after year.” A disconcerting “weight ”. Another article argues that the trend is changing, See: Moreault, E. Première historique : plus de récupération que de déchets, Journal Le Soleil, 10 novembre 2009.

[4] According to the statement made by Line Beauchamp, the Minister of the Environment of Quebec. (2009). “Québec veut bannir l’enfouissement.” Journal Métro. Montréal, Presse canadienne.

[5] Similar to the environmental complex of St-Michel (CESM), 182 acres, situated north of Crémazie boulevard, between Papineau street and St-Michel boulevard, a former quarry and later a landfill. It has now reached a new stage and is been transformed into a cultural, athletic, and natural centre. The Botanical Garden of Montreal was also built on an former landfill. Without doubt, the beneficial effects of these types of spaces in the urban environment is desirable. In the State of New York, Fresh Kills, the largest landfill in North America, active from 1948 to 2001 and stretching over 2200 acres, will be transformed into an enormous ecological park over the next thirty years. Mierle Laderman is artist in residence there since 1989. See:


Journal Métro. (2009). Québec veut bannir l’enfouissement. Journal Métro. Montréal, Presse canadienne.

De Silguy, C. (2009). Histoire des hommes et de leurs ordures. Du Moyen Âge à nos jours. Paris, le cherche midi.

Gissen, D. (2009). Subnature. Architecture’s Other Environments. New York, Princeton Architectural Press.

Moreault, E. (2009). Première historique : plus de récupération que de déchets. Le Soleil. Québec.


Laderman Ukeles, M. (1997). Video on Demand. A World of Art: Works in Progress. Oregon, Annenberg Media, 30:00.

Maas, W. (1999). MetaCity, Datatown. The Netherlands, MVRDV: 10:00.

BFI Canada.

Jardin des Glaciers.

Freshkills Park.

Gisèle Trudel is an artist. In 1996 she founded Ælab, an artist research unit with Stéphane Claude, who is an electroacoustic musician and audio engineer. She is also a Professor at the École des arts visuels et médiatiques, Université du Québec à Montréal, Acting Director of HexagramUQAM, the Centre for Research/Creation in Media Arts and Technologies, and a PhD candidate in Communication Studies at Université de Montréal. Ælab’s commitment to collaboration, creative dissemination, innovative use of technologies are ways of thinking and doing that try to bridge the arts and sciences. Their process-oriented investigations creatively engage art and technology as intertwined in the development of ecological awareness. Their work is presented regularly on the international art scene.

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