The Big Business of Scavenging in Postindustrial America - The New York Times

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The U.S. produces more waste per capita than any other country in the world. This is how scrappers turn this waste into a $32 billion business.


Adrian Paisley spent a lot of time searching for scrap metal: aluminum, brass and (sacred) copper. Paisley is only 42 pounds, weighs only 135 pounds, is tall and muscular. I once saw him carrying an old refrigerator by himself and throwing it on his pickup truck, as if it were made of Styrofoam. He lives for this kind of thing. Just like when he found an abandoned car, he saw it in half and then hoisted it to the truck with pulleys. "That's masculinity," he recalled. "Which guy wouldn't like to cut a car in half?"

Last summer, I spent a few days on Paisley because he drove through the streets of Buffalo, New York and its surrounding areas, dragging the curbside to pick up scrap metal. During our time together, Paisley found a dishwasher, several microwaves, a metal trash can, a refrigerator and an air conditioner. The last one is a good find because it includes copper tubes and can be sold at a premium. But Paisley's favorite discovery is the lawn mower, which he calls "treasure." He has been waiting for such a lawn mower, because the lawn mower does not require gasoline, so it is environmentally friendly and cheap. "Come on, man, there is nothing better than this!" He told me excitedly. He found something, such as a lawn mower, which he kept. The rest is sold in the local junkyard.

Paisley eventually took us to the Broadway-Fillmore area of ​​the city, where we encountered an abandoned 17-story building: Buffalo's old main train station. It has been vacant for decades, and apart from its ghostly gray exterior wall, I can recognize the dense fields where the Buffalo Steel Works once stood from a dim distance.

Paisley survived the destruction of civilization. Most of his belongings-from the barbecue grill to the sewing machine to the 20-foot motorboat-have been rescued from the rubbish. He sometimes uses collected waste to make things. For example, he built a furnace from scraps and then forged hunting knives. Yes, he hunts-not with a gun, but with a bow and arrow. The arrow is recyclable. Unlike bullets, there is no need to purchase bullets.

Usually, Paisley doesn't believe in voting, the government, Wal-Mart or banks. Having said that, he respects private property. He always asked the homeowner to remove the rubbish from the curb, he would never remove the waste from the main train station: "I will not go to jail for this," he said. "Are you crazy?"

I told Paisley that his work and his existence seemed to be the end of the world. "That's true, buddy!" Paisley said. "But I am not looking for water, but for metal."

In fact, Paisley is not a survivalist, but an entrepreneur, a small participant in a huge industry. IBISWorld's data shows that in the United States, scrap metal recycling is a $32 billion business. As the mining of virgin materials becomes more and more difficult-and the global demand for metals soars-scrap is more important than ever. When he found a good discovery, such as a piece of copper wire, he immediately checked the current price using an app called iScrap on his phone, which listed the prices of all scrap metals. In terms of copper wire, there are "bright", "tinned copper", "insulated copper wire", "computer wire" and so on. Depending on the price, he may choose to cash out or hoard immediately until the price rises.

Later that day, when we were towed back to Paisley’s house with a lot of trash, he told me: “I live on my street with two other people, three black people, but we are all people with families. , You know what I mean? It seems like we are not alone, we live here alone." Paisley lives in Tonawanda (a neat middle class, mainly white suburbs) and we quickly passed a local school , The parents there gathered together with sandals and matching lawn chairs, watching the children play football. Paisley gesticulated vaguely and said: "Everyone sees high-end cars, everywhere in the suburbs." "Then you will see me riding this trailer and an old truck full of scrap metal, they just Like:

Many people don't think I live in this area. They think I am just a guy trying to get old scraps. No, I live here. "

A flood of garbage enters the American middle class. It may sound strange, but this is not surprising. One thing that we reliably produce as a country-more output per capita than any other country in the world-is rubbish. Americans account for only 4% of the world’s population, but we account for 12% of the earth’s waste every year. According to EPA data, we landfill 840,000 tons of plastic plates and cups, 3.4 million tons of diapers, 8.2 million tons of clothing and footwear, and 910,000 tons of towels, sheets and pillowcases every year. Or think about it another way: if you take away all the rubbish we generate in a year and make it huge, it will weigh 700 times higher than the Empire State Building.

We will also produce larger types of waste. Many products are now produced overseas, countless factories are empty, and many shopping malls and retail stores we once visited have also been closed. In short, there is a lot of garbage in the objects we discard, but the infrastructure we used to discard has also manufactured and sold these things.

All this waste presents opportunities for recyclers, ranging from expectant mothers to multinational companies. According to statistics from the Waste Recycling Industry Association (ISRI), the world's leading recyclers association, the entire waste industry (including processors of plastic, paper, glass, rubber and textiles) has 531,500 employees. This number exceeds the sum of computer programmers, web developers, chemical engineers, and biomedical engineers.

Of all the recyclable waste, metals are the most valuable, which is why many entrepreneurs like Paisley are looking for them instead of plastic bottles or old newspapers. In the scrap world, copper is king, because almost all electrical products need copper, from the national grid to Tesla cars, everything is covered.

Moreover, this copper is becoming increasingly difficult to mine. Experts speculate that we will reach the highest output in the next ten years or so. The demand has been growing all the time. With the development of China's industrialization, it has swallowed almost all the scrap materials available on the world market: copper for power grids, steel for skyscrapers and nickel for electrical appliances. For more than a decade, this has created unprecedented prosperity in the American waste industry and greatly stimulated the erosion of all curbstones, especially in "rust belt" cities like Buffalo.

Paisley first set foot in the scrap business in 2011 during the heyday of the copper market. That year, he found the biggest discovery of his life in a barren land behind an old dance studio. Several large metal poles (about 60 feet high) protruded from the bushes, like totems in a forgotten residence. This is very curious and very promising. Through a friend who knew the landowner, Paisley obtained permission to search the area and keep the items found. His first discovery was a huge metal tray, rusted in the weeds, which confirmed his intuition. This is the shadow of a set of stadium lights. Once there was a baseball diamond back here. That means there may be a transformer-this means copper.

Paisley began digging around in the dirt and found six transformers in time. He hacked them to death. Inside is the largest copper coil he has ever seen. Extracting them proved to be a difficult task, and he invited a friend to help him. "This is crazy," he recalled. "We just sit down and ignore it." He continued: "It's weird, buddy. I have never seen so much copper in my life." These are Paisley's exciting days: busy, some detective work and prosperous profits.

When he finds such a discovery, Paisley checks his iScrap app, which is very valuable because most scrapyards do not share their prices publicly. Moreover, there is no centralized pricing index for scrap. For example, if a metal trader wants to buy solid copper ingots, he or she can simply check the price on the London Metal Exchange (LME) or the Commercial Exchange (COMEX). But how do you price a 10-foot copper wire coated with rubber insulation? Questions such as this are the inspiration for Tom Buechel, the creator of the app.

Buechel owns a junkyard in Rockaway, New Jersey, which he took over from his father in 2007. Soon after, he started posting the scrap prices of his yard (Rockaway Recycling) on ​​his website. His sister Virginia, who helped run the company, recalled that their father was a mystery: He was worried that this would make competitors bid higher than them and eventually lure customers. "He thought my brother was crazy!" she recalled.

Historically, there has always been a sense of mistrust between the scrappers and the yard where they sell their goods. Scrappers worry about the scale being manipulated or the price is unfair. At the same time, the yard is worried about their stolen materials or filling items, such as copper pipes filled with sand. Boucher believes that greater openness will help build trust. After Rockaway started publishing prices, its business improved, which in turn inspired Buechel to create an app where scrappers from all over the country could report the prices paid. He started receiving hundreds of updates every week. In 2016, this helped him create a national average for scrap prices.

In this way, people like Paisley can not only become scavengers, but also follow trends and bet on the market, becoming small commodity traders. As he told me: "Every day before I get up, before I leave home, I drink coffee, smoke and check prices every day."

There are two types of garbage economy: one is as an entrepreneur, and the second is (possibly more important) idealists. In fact, he refused to call himself a "recycler" and insisted that he was a "recycler". For him, this is more than just semantics. It reflects a spiritual calling. When he showed me a huge landfill just a few blocks away from his home, he knew it very well to me. He insisted that the landfill has been leaking green sludge. "We only have one planet, man," Paisley said, staring at the hills of the earth in disgust.

When I told him I totally agree with him, he gave me a suspicious look.

"You may be one of these people. What will you do when the soap bar becomes too small?"

The creepy thing is that I admit to throwing it away.

He explained mockingly that what I should do is collect a few small pieces of soap, put them in a homemade "towel bag" and use it to lather.

I asked him what he did.

No, he answered. "I found a pair of socks-a sock in their hole-I said,

. He continued: "I stuffed it with soap, rolled it up and knotted it." There you go: that's it. "

After visiting the landfill, we came to a pristine ranch where Paisley lived with his wife Lori and their 4-year-old son Adrian III. They called it Peanut Butter . The white Lori works as a receptionist in a local hotel. Lori told me that at first she had certain doubts about her husband's job. "I'm a little trapped, and I'm like: I didn't touch the trash, are you kidding me?" But as time passed, the idea that Paisley was actually a recycler helping the earth made her surpass. She became his navigator, shot the bullet gun with him, and planned the route so that they could reach the side of the road before the garbage truck. Together they embraced what she called "urban home life"-collecting rainwater, growing their own food, and finding many things they needed in the trash can. Lori said that some of her family members still don't understand. Her sister married a dentist, who retired early. They now live in Puget Sound and take a long walk there to watch whales. She said: "I'm a bit simple."

Unlike his wife who grew up in Tonawanda, Paisley spent his childhood in public housing in the city. He was raised by single mother Althea Goree, who worked three jobs to raise Paisley and his siblings. They barely passed until Goree hurt her. Sometimes she can barely get out of bed, but she works as much as possible. In November 1989, "Buffalo News" (Buffalo News) introduced her. The article talked about how difficult life is in the city and explained that Goree's average food budget was only $40 a week. In the article, Goree lamented that she had no money to spend, and wondered aloud what they would tell the children when she gave them nothing on Christmas morning.

According to Paisley, there are some fond memories. He recalled going to an old landfill, which had been turned into a park, and fishing with his best friend Antoine. But at home, he started fighting with his mother and finally decided to run away. Paisley was homeless for a while and slept on a playground inside a tubular slide. When he was in his 20s, he was charged twice with theft. He stayed in prison for more than eight years, determined to never return.

When he got out of the car, Paisley worked as a chef, truck driver and framer until a friend suggested scrapping. Paisley likes the idea of ​​becoming a self-employed "hawker", he can set his own time and roam the city as he pleases. One day, he found that he could make $100 in cash. For him, work and the industry that created it are salvation.

On any given day, Paisley measures his wealth according to the size of the "pile", which is a pile of twisted waste metal. Lori is not completely obsessed with these things. In fact, Paisley sometimes affectionately refers to Lori as the "caretaker" because although she accepts scrapping, she still imposes some restrictions. For example, he must put his pile behind a fence and keep it out of sight so that neighbors do not complain.

Paisley usually removes the waste from the stack and moves it to the garage for disposal. Paisley makes money by extracting the most valuable gold nuggets. For example, he found this air conditioner very promising because it contains copper tubes, copper wires and ACR (aluminum copper radiator). The scrapyard may only pay him $4 to $6 for air conditioners at the current price, but if he processes and removes the copper wires, his income may triple. Therefore, Paisley spends most of the day surgically removing the most valuable metals. He even removed each screw and sold it in bulk. The scrap yard is willing to pay a high price for this kind of waste because it saves them the trouble of handling it themselves.

After Paisley disposed of some of the waste he found (such as copper in air conditioners), he threw the trophies and some larger untreated items (such as snow blowers and refrigerators) into the pickup truck without precious metals. Peanut Butter often watches YouTube videos about recycling and is proud of his father's assistant, who insists on helping. Paisley also has an adult son and daughter. He was born as a teenager, and he regrets that he missed a lot of his childhood in prison.

"I think I failed as a father," Paisley told me. "You know that's my love for Peanuts, man. I keep telling Lowry. That's why it's so urgent that I don't mess with him. He is my only hope, and this is my last chance to get it right."

His scrap metal was shipped to the same place in North Buffalo, a yard called Niagara Metals. The shipyard has an extensive processing facility-a giant version of the Paisley garage-with special equipment that can strip the insulation of the wires and hydraulic shears to cut the metal pipes into small pieces that can be easily shipped. On the day of our visit, Paisley took his scraps directly to the "non-ferrous" material (that is, non-ferrous materials) area. A chatty young waiter named Charles Pearce greeted us and checked Paisley's condition. Pearce looked at the aluminum-copper radiator appraisingly and explained that this piece has its own price: the aluminum must be melted and separated from the copper.

I asked Pearce if he knew what happened to copper once he left Paisley. I suggest that it will be fun to follow its path to the end point.

"Till the end?" Pierce asked.

"In the end," Paisley murmured. They seemed a little confused, as if I had suggested chasing the disappearing sunset.

Pierce shrugged. He put the copper on the cart, weighed each item, and gave Paisley a receipt.

Elsewhere, in the yard hee hee activity. There are homeowners who clean the basement or drop rusty grills, but there are also many professionals like Paisley who work more or less full-time.

Friendship prevails among veterans. One of them, Hector Acevedo (Hector Acevedo) told me: "Unless you choose where I want to go, otherwise there is no competition, then we will have problems." Hector added Most of his scrappers respected his "turf", and when he found a place full of trash, he did not crowd him. Another scrapper, James Lassalle, lamented, because “too many freelancers” make it difficult to find good scraps. It turns out that this is a euphemism for drug addicts who use shopping carts to shop around. LaSalle said: "They are looking for their own daily solutions, they just want to beat you." I also met a former ironworker named Tom Gervasio, who told me that you can pick up garbage. To make a lot of money, he personally trained many people to do it, including some elderly people.

I doubt that many elderly people can take up this job. Then, after a while, we met another regular customer in the yard: 94-year-old Hobart Balaton. "I'm going to quit this game," Balaton announced. Today is the last time in his life that he was scrapped because he was moving into auxiliary facilities and he scrapped all the property that he could not take away.

In fact, Balaton is an exception. Most of the waste-related jobs in the city are given to young people who can do hard work. I saw this myself when I visited a company called Buffalo Engine Components, which rescued and recycled auto parts from scrap yards across the country. One of the owners, Joe Pellitieri Jr. showed me around. The scale of the business is staggering: Workers recycle about 1,000 tons of engines and gearboxes every week. A group of people work frantically-drag, damage, clean and restore car parts. Pellitieri dedicated 150 employees and even offered a profit-sharing bonus, but he quickly pointed out that the actual work is daunting, paying only about $15 an hour. He said that few people over 40 have the stamina to do this. These jobs and the jobs of scrap hawkers are a far cry from the old union performances lost when the steel plant closed. Pellitieri told me that he has so many that he often cannot find anyone willing to do the job. He told me: "Everyone wants to be a doctor, a lawyer, a computer engineer or something like that." "We won't all be like that. You know what I mean?"

Outside, the copper from the Paisley air conditioner and all the copper he had shipped over the years have never been in the Niagara Metals yard in North Buffalo for a long time. In the end, all the scrap here is sent to Niagara Metals' main factory in the nearby suburb of Cheektowaga. The factory does not look like a formal scrap yard, but more like an Amazon warehouse: a large, orderly warehouse. In the complex, attendants use handheld devices to track inventory scanners.

Here, I met Todd Levin, the owner of Niagara Metals and the successor to one of Buffalo's oldest and most respected scrap families. Levine seemed to know every inch of the yard. He is serious and careful to me. When he was a child, he built a miniature waste yard in the basement, which contained Tomka trucks and small scraps. That is his blood. His great-grandfather Abraham Levin immigrated from Belarus in the 1890s and began scrapping with horses and carriages in his youth. He was just a member of an army of hawkers, and with the industrialization of the United States, he began to look for any metal he could find on the street. In the following decades, as Buffalo became an industrial powerhouse, the business of the Levin family developed rapidly. Most of their trade is carried out entirely within the industrial sector of the city. The family buys waste from various factories, sorts them, processes them, and resells them to many foundries in the city.

However, by the early 1980s, Buffalo's industry was collapsing. Levin still remembers that he was still a teenager. When he announced that General Motors would close its local foundry and lay off more than 2,000 workers, he watched the six o'clock news in his family’s living room. The foundry is one of Levins' main buyers. Levine recalled: "My father and grandfather put a lot of eggs in that basket."

This should have been the death knell for the Levin family's business and the entire Buffalo waste industry. Instead, the Levin family established new relationships and expanded the scope of influence. They used relatively cheap railroads and started shipping scrap steel to Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Syracuse. They also cooperated with a steel plant in Hamilton, Ontario to purchase a lot of ferrous metal scrap. Finally, there was a windfall, which was the biggest small business: the ruins of the city. Beginning in the late 1990s, as China's demand for metals increased, there was suddenly an incentive to demolish and scrap abandoned houses, factories and industrial machinery in Buffalo. Levin did a lot of work, such as taking scraps from the same General Motors foundry where the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium and his family had taken care of.

One afternoon, Levine offered to take me on an outing, looking for large pieces of waste. He held a leading position in an old asphalt plant in the 1960s. A friend of his, Jamie Hypnarowski, oversees the quarry where the factory is located. Hypnarowski wants to delete it and wants to estimate its value. The three of us drove to the quarry together, and Hepnanovsky lamented the status quo of the gang industry. He told me: "The state has not rebuilt roads like before." When we entered the quarry, I could see the factory in the distance: a huge multi-layer metal installation. Levin looked at the factory carefully and I realized he was doing the same thing as Paisley-only on a larger scale.

Levine said: "I guess it is about 150 tons." He speculated that this will be converted into 10 trucks of waste. "We will come in with scissors or a grab, and then tear it apart." Levin estimates that he can pay about $30,000 for this factory. Hypnarowski nodded and added that he has other even larger plants in other parts of the quarry, which need to be discarded in the next few months.

Hypnarowski later told me that his companies New Enterprise Stone and Lime also own part of the land where Bethlehem Steel once existed. The steel plant was scrapped a long time ago, but there are still gold nuggets-"buttons" to be exact. Buttons are essentially giant metal boulders weighing 20 tons. When the mill is still running, the iron ore is melted and poured into a huge ladle, where a less than ideal slag will form at the bottom. The slag is then dumped on the shoreline of Lake Erie, where it hardens and forms buttons. Hypnarowski and Levin worked together to rescue these buttons from the lake. They seem to have thought of all possible ways to mine large pieces of waste. Over time, the scrappers changed the landscape of Buffalo. The city survived partly by devouring.

As early as when the steel plant closed, Lou Jean Fleron, an emeritus professor at Cornell University’s School of Labor Relations, provided a series of education programs for laid-off workers. She has a close relationship with poor families. She recalled that it was a very difficult time, and whenever she visited the waterfront in Buffalo, her eyes inevitably drifted towards the abandoned mill. She recalled: "Oh, my goodness, it's like a ghost town, like a skeleton, it's a huge black skeleton." Then, demolition workers and scrapped workers came to work. Now, Fronon went down to the beach, and she saw young families and their children having birthday parties. The scene is almost idyllic.

"The important thing is to take it all down," Furen told me. "It did make some pain go away."

Paisley's copper may not be there after it left Niagara Metals. It most likely went to a local copper factory, Aurubis Buffalo, which is the main copper buyer of Niagara Metals. Jeff Nystrom, who runs Aurubis Buffalo, showed me his factory, which occupies more than 1 million square feet, which is roughly equivalent to 17 football fields. It has about 650 employees, many of whom fly past us on special bicycles equipped with tool boxes.

Nistrom escorted me to the intake center of plants: a large space, almost like a cave, bathed in dim light. As far as the naked eye can see, there is a large delivery box full of copper by Gaylord. The metals here are sorted by size and shape, ranging from fragments that look like razor blades to cylinders that look like ice balls. There is even a box full of thousands of retired Canadian pennies. Various copper alloys, ranging in color from silver to gold, shimmer.

Aurubis absorbs these materials, melts them and mixes them with other metals to produce many different alloys, including brass, Munz metal, and various grades of copper. These metals are made into steel ingots weighing up to 10 tons, and then sent through a large rolling mill (the size of a large house), which rolls a continuous coiled plate. Imagine a huge roll of tissue paper, three feet wide and thousands of feet long. This is how Aurubis Buffalo is made of copper only. Then, their customers use these panels to produce a range of products, including Zippo lighters, heat exchangers, coffins and skyscraper facade panels.

Paisley's waste may also go to another local business. Levine occasionally sends a small amount of copper to Manitoba for special processing. Paisley (Paisley) and even most scrap yards can't handle copper at all, and this is where Manitoba is. For example, it can use a specially designed incinerator to burn the coating off the "weathered" wire. Then, Manitoba also sold its copper to Aurubis. In any case, the key point is: wherever Paisley's copper goes, it must be cleaned before it can be purchased in a US factory.

Not long ago, there was a time when "raw" or "dirty" waste was usually easier to sell on the global market. Most of it went to China. During the boom of the early and mid-2000s, Chinese companies might buy copper wires still with rubber or plastic insulation, and then burn the insulation in a fire, which caused terrible air pollution. Adam Minter wrote in his book Junkyard Planet that a small town in China once burned 20 million pounds of Christmas lights every year.

Beginning in 2017, China has issued a new policy called the "National Sword", which imposes stricter standards on the types of recyclable materials (including scrap metal) that can be imported. This policy, coupled with China's retaliatory tariffs on imported metals, has caused a major shift in the scrap market. "The party is over," explained Brad MacAulay, senior scrap reporter at Argus Media. "For a while, that was China's Wild West. Now they are not just taking what we sent to them." Many people speculate that China wants to establish a completely independent recycling system, that is, a closed loop within itself.

This may destroy the US scrap industry, which relies on exports to make some profits. The trick is to find new markets. In fact, the first person to start this work on a global scale was Brian Shine, the co-owner of Manitoba. Shine's family has a long history in the industry; he is another fourth-generation scraper in Buffalo, Shine currently serves as the chairman of the Waste Recycling Industry Association (ISRI). Shine has been to India three times in the past year alone, hoping that India, like China before, can industrialize at a high speed and consume a lot of American waste in the process.

At the same time, a large amount of copper scrap is still used in China. In 2017, more than one-third of all copper consumed in the United States came from scrap. In order to understand where some of Buffalo's scraps ended up, I visited the university center of the new school on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan: a huge 16-story building with fashion studios, science laboratories, and dormitories. The exterior of the building is earthy yellow and consists of 6,500 Muntz metal plates, most of which are made of copper. All Mounts metal (over 500,000 pounds) comes from Orubis.

Peter Sheppard and Robert Cox run CBC Specialty Metals, a company that helped design and supervise the project. They met me on the side of the road to show off their work. The building opened in 2014 and seems to shine in the winter sun. When we stood and watched, I wondered how much Paisley's copper was mixed up-his tubing, his radiator, even the wires for stadium lights. When I mentioned this to Cox, he became alive.

"It started with someone like your hawker!" he said. "Then, integrate vertically upwards from there." Unable to know the source of all the copper in this building, Cox continued to operate or was recycled how many times.

Sheppard said: "It may be the air conditioner from China, or it may be the copper after the restoration of the Statue of Liberty."

Cox said: "It may be coins from China, Kazakhstan, Uruguay."

Shepard said that before that, in the early days of the Roman Empire, copper was used to make tools.

I spent nearly a year studying Paisley's copper wire and looking for a "end point". But it does not exist. One day in a few decades from now, this building will become obsolete and in disrepair. Then the scraper will arrive and the whole process will start again.

Paisley still insists that scrap metal can ensure the future of his dreams. He is still looking for a copper mine that will allow him to buy a piece of land in the western New York hinterland, where he can live as a hermit and teach peanut butter how to be self-sufficient: how to farm, hunt down and make his own leather goods. Paisley explained: "He must know how to take care of himself and his family without relying on others." "I just want to get some land, just to make sure my baby is fine. That's it."

Currently, Paisley likes to visit some nearby wetlands, called the Alabama Marshlands, where he hunts bows. This place refreshed him, and one summer afternoon, he took me there.

When we reached the swamp, Paisley jumped out of the car and took me into the brush. The hunting season has not yet begun, and his goal that day is to build a blind man. Paisley quickly found a deer trail, and we followed it together. As we walked, he described his vision for the future, and he will live entirely on this land. When I mentioned that this might be difficult to do, Paisley did not waver. "Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark, and Sacagawea are all going crazy, you know the people who think back to the past, all those cats, people, they all live In this land!" He told me. "You have to remember that Daniel Boone and their handsome guy came here. They didn't know anything. Every step they took was foreign. But they did it."

We quickly came to a clearing where we encountered a small pile of garbage, including a plastic bottle, some jars and some glasses. Paisley's whole body was taut. "Man, none of these are biodegradable," he told me, pricking his finger at the debris. "No. Glass bottle and all of this. You can't break it down. The earth won't destroy it." He seemed angry. "It annoys me, the people who watched just came here and didn't respect it. Come on, we only have one."

Paisley said that it was not just his heaven being defiled. This is the complete ruthlessness of the behavior, and it heralds future development. As if the landfill behind his house and the wasteful debris it represents will eventually take everything away.

Paisley took a deep breath and tried to regain his composure. "I'm sorry, brother," he finally told me. "I'm just looking for higher goals."

We continued deep into the swamp, and gradually, he returned to talk about his vision of a homestead with a vegetable garden, a freezer full of venison, and even a small piece of scrap iron to provide metal for his furnace. In his mind, everything is very clear: "I want to see fog hovering on the ground on a cool autumn morning. I just want to hear the chirping of birds and insects. I want to stand there, man, drink My coffee, looking at the fog. It's calm. I don't want to see no one. No. You know what I mean?"

Jake Halpern won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for his 20-part graphic narrative series in The Times.

He is adapting it into a book.


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