In the months after the 9/11 attack, which killed thousands of people and cost $40 billion in damages, the shock at the tower collapse gave way to the monstrous scale of the rescue and clean-up operation in New York.

Amid the destruction, an improvised team of volunteers, firefighters, police and detection dogs found 21 people alive on the first day, but none thereafter. The remaining body parts would be painstakingly collected in 21,900 pieces scattered throughout the skyscrapers’ debris. This uneasy piece of forensic work would haunt the American psyche, with intriguing side-effects and aftershocks.

The authorities designated a Staten Island landfill as a site where the tower debris was transported to be sorted and inspected for human residues. Evocatively called “Fresh Kills” (from the Middle Dutch word kille, meaning “stream”), the suburban landfill had served since 1948 as the primary disposal facility for New York City’s solid waste. Over time, according to the city’s mayor, Rudy Giuliani, it became “the world’s largest landfill”.

The landfill would soon become a site for the most costly forensic investigation in US history, involving DNA identification of damaged bone and statistical analysis of partial profiles. But, sifting through the melted computers, corroded steel, broken glass, ash and dust, analysts could not systematically identify and separate the human remains from architectural debris.

Fresh Kills became a graveyard for unidentifiable bodies. The monstrous ruins further escaped the attempt to control them, their toxic vapours proving harmful to the workers on site. In Manhattan, the death toll escalated, reaching the lives of construction workers, medics and others exposed to contaminants and likely to contract deadly illnesses after the attack.

Thousands of tonnes of pulverised concrete, construction debris, cellulose, asbestos, lead and mercury and fire dioxins increased the risk of kidney, heart, liver and breast cancer among first respondents. Over the next decade, surviving first responders filed workers’ compensation claims and sued New York City for failing to provide proper protective equipment at Ground Zero, until the passing of the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, a law created to provide them with medical care.

Pain and profit

Though the site was considered a health hazard, the towers’ structural steel was not. The scrap metal industry bought the buildings’ remains and sold them for profit to Chinese and Indian second-hand metal markets.

One scrap processor under contract with the New York City Department of Sanitation had purchased and cut down the metal at Fresh Kills with torching equipment. Another company, Shanghai Baosteel Group, bought an additional 50,000 tonnes of large structural beams auctioned by New York City at $120 a tonne.

The rubble of the World Trade Center smouldering following the collapse of the towers. Photo credit: Alexandre Fuchs/ AFP

Despite an early and unsuccessful attempt by Greenpeace to qualify the scrap exports as hazardous and ban their repurposing in the “global south”, the steel reached India within six months of the tragedy. Several buildings were built with Twin Tower steel across Indian cities, including a college, a car maintenance yard, arcades and … a trade centre.

In order to reopen the New York Stock Exchange as quickly as possible, the Department of Design and Construction had expediently contracted five construction companies to clear the rubble of the World Trade Center.

Families of victims objected that the authorities improperly handled body remains. Piles of organic and non-organic waste from the rubble of the Twin Towers had, they argued, been hastily displaced and indistinctly buried along with conventional sources of municipal waste.

An affidavit filed in 2007 before a Manhattan Federal Court reveals that the remains, mixed with debris powders known as “fines”, had been allegedly carried away by city employees to fill ruts and potholes in New York City. The remains of a privately owned vertical tower had been used to patch a broken horizontal public road network.

As the families of victims filed a lawsuit for mismanagement of human remains against the municipality, the authorities objected that the debris had been inspected following a meticulous process of classification. In the end, the judge sided with New York City. He said: “the victims perished without leaving a trace, utterly consumed into incorporeality by the intense, raging fires, or pulverised into dust by the massive tons of collapsing concrete and steel”.

Rising from ashes

With time, however, a regime of land reclamation covered up the presence of the dead. Since 2008, the Fresh Kills dumping ground has gradually morphed into a municipal recreational park, accessible by bike, canoe and horseback. Once completed, the expansive area will be almost three times the size of Central Park and covered in vegetation and synthetic playgrounds.

Freshkills Park on the site of the former landfill where the debris from 9/11 was buried. Photo credit: HLIT via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

A marshland in the 19th century, Fresh Kills is now an eco-park, including a human-made wetland, secured by a system for the capture and treatment of underground toxic gases that heats 20,000 local homes.

The story of 9/11 provides a stark example of the political economy of waste management, which profoundly shapes the culture of the modern metropolis. “Waste” is not an undesired byproduct of human society but contributes to the cycles of boom and bust.

As Wall Street reopened, Silverstein Properties and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation oversaw the reconstruction of the site, including the erection of six new office towers, the highest one being One World Trade Center. Totemic symbols of wealth stand erect to ensure the institutional continuity of the financial corporation.

But waste is impossible to ignore, much less eliminate, control or even predict. Starting in 2006, explosives detonated to clear bedrock for building foundations. In July 2010, construction of the Ground Zero memorial ground to a halt when remains of an 18th-century ship were found in the mud. It was speculated that the hull of this wooden ship was used as part of the debris in a landfill to extend the island of Manhattan into the Hudson River.

Historically, New York used the rubble of its construction operations and wreckage of its seaport to create artificial land and expand its waterfront. Much as other prized real estate still standing today, the Twin Towers were originally built on the site of a former landfill in Lower Manhattan, following a law of ruins according to which “capital is built upon the foundations of its own refuse”.

Michael Picard is a Lecturer in International Environmental Law at the University of Edinburgh.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.