Coworkout is like the Guerilla Drive-In, except with cubicles. We pack our laptops and an EvDO-to-WiFi repeater, put a catenary shade tarp in the sidecar, and go do our programming work at interesting locations outdoors around Philadelphia, like Fort Mifflin and Shofuso.
Last Friday, we held Coworkout at the Lanchester Scenic Overlook, which is a beautiful, grassy hill eleven hundred feet above the Conestoga and Brandywine valleys. The breezes blow, the hawks soar past at eye level and the windmill above our heads spins, generating the electricity that we used to power our computers:
Ahh, what a beautiful spot! What a pastoral idyll! Did I mention that sheep gambol across the grass, cropping it neatly? That birds sing in the undergrowth? That on the other hill, giant machines frolic, pushing hills of waste into position, then crushing those hills mercilessly underneath inexorable spiked steel wheels?
The Scenic Overlook is a finished landfill. Below the grass is six feet of soil, which covers an impermeable clay cap. Below that is years of solid waste, decomposing deep underneath the ground as anaerobic bacteria works on it. Every few hundred feet, perforated pipes are driven deep into the hill, through the cap, and methane gas is collected and sent down the hill. There, some of the gas is used to fuel an enormous natural-gas generator and turned into electricity, which is then pushed into the grid.
Some of the gas is sold directly to factories, who use it for power. For instance, when we were there, we saw on a display screen exactly how many BTUs of methane gas were currently being piped to the generator at a plant that makes Taco Bell cheese.
We learned all this from Lanchester’s executive director Bob Watts, who took us in his big, black hybrid SUV all around the operation. During the VIP tour, we learned all sorts of amazing things, like:
- The twenty-foot tall fences surrounding the active landfill that look like electrified zombie-incursion barriers are actually to catch plastic shopping bags before they can blow away down to the farms below. The fences are made from commercial fishing nets strung on tall poles.
- Regulations require that the active bit of the landfill (where the trash is actually dumped each day) must be covered every night. A big part of a landfill director’s job is finding stuff to cover the area. Soil is too precious and expensive. Chemical foam doesn’t last. Giant, bulldozer-deployed tarps are often used. However, if you happen to have ten thousand tons of kiln ash or even (get this!) a hill of shredded cars, that’s like catnip to landfill operators. They love finding that stuff to spread on their hills.
- Everything is money to a landfill. Trucks pay tipping fees to drop off their trash — we saw a big compression truck dumping a load, for which they’d pay maybe six hundred dollars. Then the landfill is capped and used to generate electritity. Shipping pallets are shredded, dyed, and sold as hardwood mulch. Everything that comes in to the landfill is turned into (at least a little bit) of money
- Many counties pay to operate their landfill, but Lanchester actually pays the county. Bob wanted me to be sure to mention that they just wrote a check for half a million dollars to Chester County!
During the tour of the active hill, a garbage truck backed up, lifted its tail, revved its hydraulics, and started pushing out its load. The driver rolled down the window, leaned out, and threw his Dunkin Donuts bag directly on the ground. “Hey!” we all looked at each other for a moment: “That dude is totally litter-… oh.”
My favorite part of the day was when Chris Young brought and hooked up his Commodore 64 — not an emulator, an actual, by-God Commodore 64 that’s been in his mom’s closet for years and years — to the windmill power supply and fired it up, loading Summer Games from the 1541 floppy-disk drive. IT WORKED!
Back in the eighties, before becoming a producer, Chris played Bryce Lynch, the teenage-nerd inventor of Max Headroom, which as far as I’m concerned is one of the most important seminal cyberpunk roles out there. So having Bryce Lynch up there, hacking on his antique computer and CRT, USING METHANE POWER, OUTDOORS, in something that’s arguably close to an APOCALYPTIC WASTELAND? That’s about as close as it’s possible to get to cyberpunk in real life. Sheesh! I’m amazed we didn’t all come home with spiky mohawks, laser goggles, and motorcycle-tire epaulets.
I’m grateful to Bob Watts for the tour. Lanchester is an interesting and amazing place, and if you want to learn about the waste chain, which is pretty damn short (your trash bag -> a truck -> the top of a hill in Honeybrook), and you want to see all sorts of amazing ways that Lanchester is trying to extract value from their waste, then by all means give them a call!