In The Waste Makers, his 1960 history of American consumerism for consumerism’s sake, author Vance Packard describes a satirical city of the future. It’s a place of planned obsolescence, where papier-mache houses are torn down and rebuilt every other year, plastic automobiles melt if they’re driven more than 4,000 miles, and factories are constructed on the edges of cliffs, so that conveyor belts can simply dump excess consumer goods into the abyss without slowing down the economic engine of production itself. Packard calls his mock-utopia “Cornucopia City.” If America possesses a non-imagined model for Cornucopia City, it’s Las Vegas. A horn of plenty that’s half-metropolis, half-amusement park, where excess is an edict, from bottomless booze bongs to endless buffets, it is our crapulent capital of abundance.
At a proper Vegas buffet, like the 25,000-square-foot Bacchanal at Caesars Palace, or The Buffet at the Wynn, the steam tables and hot lamps and carving stations stretch out toward infinity and you can eat prime rib, oak-grilled lamb chops, South Carolina shrimp and grits, roasted bone marrow, angry mac ‘n’ cheese, lobster tails, baked-to-order souffles, made-to-order cognac-and-Boursin omelets, breakfast tacos, fish sliders, barbecue chicken pizza, filet mignon, Peking duck rolls, mashed potatoes, waffle cone chicken and fries, cookies, cakes, pies, crème brulees, assorted fudges and barks, and, sure, even some fresh fruit, until your guts explode, all for one flat fee.
When you get up to reload your plate or duckwalk to the toilet, your sullied china, littered with rib bones and crustacean carcasses, will disappear as if by magic, plate after plate after plate. The handling of the leftovers is so efficient and elegant that you don’t even get to think about where they go. That’s by design. It’s like the old joke: In the fevered throes of a swinging sexual reverie, a man turns to someone and whispers in their ear, “What are you doing after the orgy?” Squirming in the sticky spasms of rhapsodic pleasure, we’re not meant to think about what comes after. In the case of your leftovers, the “after,” it turns out, is inside the belly of a hog.
Sin City bleeds away about a dozen miles north of the Strip, past the factory outlet malls and “locals-only” casinos and quarries and high school gymnasiums boasting “RATTLER PRIDE,” where everything starts looking more and more like a parched parcel of the American heartland. The snowcapped mountains on the northern horizon insist upon this being a real place, like pretty much any other, emerging out of and folding back into nature. The cling and clang of casino gambling floors and the howls of rowdy bachelorette parties are replaced by the chirpy songs of native Nevada birds. Then there’s the smell: the piquant pong of hot garbage and porcine excrement that wafts downwind. Yes, that’s the aroma of the real Las Vegas.
In September 2009, the funk was so aggressive that it became the subject of a lawsuit. Local homeowners, recently moved into a then-new housing development, complained that the builders hadn’t fully disclosed that the area was suffused with the reek. The suit charged that the smell was so bad that new owners couldn't even be in their homes “without gagging.” Neighbors would hang up those strips of gluey flypaper, only to find them completely full just a few days later, mottled with flies drawn to garbage perfume. The source of this great odor was R.C. Farms, a North Vegas hog farm, overseen by veteran agriculturalist Bob Combs since the 1960s — and the final destination for the literal tons of wasted food that is produced every day at casinos up and down the Strip.
When I stopped by this past February, the stink had largely subsided, reduced to a faint scent lingering in the air. A few months prior, Combs had sold the farm to a local housing developer for $23 million. After more than 50 years as a fixture in the area, he’d been squeezed out by rising land prices, new development, and the infeasibility of maintaining a particularly odorous farming operation in a neighborhood that was, increasingly, a residential suburb. Fortunately for the family business, his sons had already started construction on a new farm in a less contested location, even farther from the phantasmic oasis of the Strip.
What remained of R.C. Farms looked like it was jerry-rigged from scrap metal found littering the barren desert. The now-empty perforated steel pigpens had a previous life as World War II-era landing strips. Combs, now 77, told me that when he first leased the parcel of land, it was “the end of the road.” Nearby there were warehouses, a few farms, some manufacturers, but little else. There weren’t even power lines running out to the farm; Combs lived truly off the grid. In those days, he bragged, the first money he made wasn’t from farming, but from offering roadside assistance to philanderers carrying on affairs. “Guys would have girlfriends out here and they’d get their cars stuck in the sand,” Combs said. “I had a tractor. And they’d tip me pretty heavy to haul them out.” It was hard to tell whether or not he was joking.
Since it opened in April 1963, R.C. Farms has had a very particular relationship with the overflowing decadence of nearby Las Vegas. At the time, the Combs family operated a modest hog farm in Chula Vista, near San Diego. They established relationships with a local army base, collecting food scraps to be reused as pig feed. Every year the base would contract out the privilege of collecting their wasted food to the highest bidder, with a few local farmers vying for the deal. But in Vegas, tens of thousands of pounds of food were going to waste. “My dad came here to Vegas for his 70th birthday, to have little gambling vacation,” Combs said as we sat at the round kitchen table of his modest bungalow farmhouse. On that auspicious trip, Combs’s father wandered through a backdoor of the now-long-gone Navajo-themed Thunderbird Hotel, and he came upon a huge container full of food being thrown away — the same sort of stuff he was bidding on back in La Mesa.
Combs told me the story with a well-practiced, raconteur’s confidence. It’s a tale he’s likely told a hundred times before, slowly metastasizing with each telling into a bona fide legend: Imagine Jed Clampett happening across oil in his fetid swamp, except that the treasure is something that was being chucked away. Where the casinos saw only untouched shrimp cocktails and half-nibbled slabs of heat-lamp-warmed prime rib, the older Combs saw profit. He leased 150 acres north of the Strip, at the dead end of a dirt road, and installed his son to run the place. The young Bob (affectionately known as “Goof” to his family) arranged deals with several of the old-school casinos — the Desert Inn, the Stardust, the Sands, the Flamingo, the Sahara, the Tropicana, Caesars, the Riviera, and other locals-only joints. The business model was simple: collect buffet food scraps, reprocess them as feed, fatten hogs, send them off to slaughter.
In 1982, Combs incorporated Waste Management, Inc., a subsidiary of R.C. Farms, dedicated to on-site recycling and waste sorting: that is, sifting through garbage in the back of hotels, casinos, and other clients. At its peak, WMI handled some 20 percent of the waste in Clark County, amounting to around 1,000 tons a month. (Combs’s Waste Management, Inc. should not be confused with the other Waste Management Inc., a multi-billion-dollar comprehensive environmental services company founded in Chicago in 1971.)
Gathered at the buffets’ back-alley loading docks, far away from the hungry eyes of tourists, WMI employees separated cardboard, metal, grease, and other recyclables from the food scraps. The leftover food waste was then hauled back to R.C. Farms, poured onto a conveyer belt, and carried up into an enormous handmade industrial cooker that looks like something out of a Rube Goldberg sketchbook. Inside the cooker, the mass was injected with steam at 210 degrees for 30 minutes — a way of further rendering the food to exterminate germs and prevent cross-contamination. But before the slop was rendered, before the scraps were steam-spun into slurry, farmhands sifted the waste for solid material: napkins, silverware, broken champagne bottles.
Combs told me that years back he came across a loaded .38 revolver. On another, even more disturbing sift, he claims that he found among the refuse a baby. “It was shocking,” he recalled, still unnerved all these years later. “But it underscored my point: America is so abundantly blessed by the grace of God. We have so much food. But we’ve become so wasteful. Not only with food, but with other things. They’re even throwing children away now.”
There was no discernible irony in Combs’s voice when he said this, only honest-to-goodness devastation. That’s because at a certain level, Combs’s mission is underpinned by a notion of Christian stewardship. He regularly invokes God and God’s grace and how God has blessed America with its natural bounty. A pamphlet advertising WMI’s services namechecks God. A sign conspicuously hung in Combs’s farmhouse window reads, “NOTICE: This place is politically incorrect. WE SAY: Merry Christmas, One Nation Under God, We Salute Our Flag & Give Thanks To Our Troops. If This Offends You, LEAVE.” It’s right next to another sign with a cartoon hand, finger pointed out, Uncle Sam-style, commanding, “WASTE NOT.”
Despite the bulk of his income coming from sorting, recycling, and reprocessing, Bob Combs believes that he’s a farmer, first and last. Former North Las Vegas Mayor Mike Montandon, who helped arrange the recent sale of R.C. Farms and originally connected me to Combs, affectionately refers to Combs as a “good ol’ boy.” With his well-scuffed boots and plaid shirtsleeves sloppily cuffed, the label fits. Shaking his hand is like gripping the branch of some mighty, gnarled oak.
Combs’s wife, 74-year-old Janet, works as an administrator and the company’s de facto PR manager. She takes an obvious pride in the farm’s status in the local community, and is quick to rattle off a list of television shows and news programs they’ve been featured on: Dirty Jobs, Modern Marvels, and America’s Heartland, among others. In February 2017, the City of North Las Vegas even declared a “Bob and Janet Combs Day.” She pointed me toward an official proclamation on the wall of the kitchen, signed by the mayor, three councilpersons, and a notary, certifying that “Bob and Janet Combs are two outstanding citizens who have contributed greatly for decades to North Las Vegas and its residents.”
Inasmuch as R.C. Farms stands as a living testament to reusing, recycling, and extending the lifespan of industrial materials, it also doubles as a rickety cathedral to the family’s favorite animal. The Combs’s farmhouse is decorated wall-to-wall with cartoon hogs (“We give ’em credit where it’s due,” Combs likes to joke), and the farm’s 150 acres, dotted with run-down cars and tractors and free-range chickens pecking at the dirt, continues this swine tribute with hand-painted signs of a smiling porcine mascot in a neckerchief alongside slogans like “WASTE NOT WANT NOT” and “TEACH YOUR LITTER TO RECYCLE,” which is a pretty good pun, as far as puns go. “The pig oughta be used for recycling like that owl was for fire prevention,” Combs said. He stopped for second, as if riffling through his memory to fact-check his own joke. “No wait. That bear. Excuse me.”
Janet swooped in to offer the assist. “The pig is the most comprehensive, best way to recycle there is,” she said. “You take the food scraps from the buffet, take it and feed the pigs. Then the pigs go away, get slaughtered, and end up back at the buffet. Then what comes out of the backend of that pig is used for compost. It’s such a circle.”
Before R.C. Farms, the cycle of food and waste in Las Vegas wasn’t much of a circle. It was more like a straight line: Leftovers were scraped into trash bins, and sent off to landfill to be buried or burned. Bob Combs estimates that each tourist visiting Las Vegas wastes about one pound of food per day. It may not sound like a whole lot, but multiplied by the nearly 45 million tourists who pass through the city annually, all that refuse is the core of a solid business model.
At the city’s trademark buffets, cooks knowingly prepare surpluses of food simply to give the appearance of bounty and excess. Nobody wants to sidle up to a carving station and see the perfectly portioned-out amount of prime rib, just enough to feed the average number of guests who churn through the restaurant in a sitting. No. A tourist visiting Las Vegas wants to see too much prime rib. “When guests first come to Vegas there’s an exuberance about their experience,” Yalmaz Siddiqui, a VP of corporate sustainability for MGM Resorts International, which runs over a dozen casino-hotel properties on the Vegas strip, told me. “They go to the buffets, and they want that special food they’ve been thinking about. There’s very little insight, and very little action that the client needs to take, in terms of having their leftover food diverted.”
MGM started taking issues of sustainability and food waste seriously in 2007, when it was concrete-deep in the construction of CityCenter Las Vegas, the $9.2 billion, 76-acre hotel/casino/conference center/parking garage/shopping complex erected in the middle of the Strip. The largest privately funded construction project in U.S. history, its buildout was plagued by numerous accidental deaths, on-site protests, legal disputes, and financial problems, including a near bankruptcy. “This was the time when MGM’s sustainability program and ethos emerged in a stronger way,” Siddiqui said. “We started thinking about broader environmental issues, including food waste. We started thinking about how we can manage to avoid landfill for past-end-of-life food.”
According to a recent corporate sustainability report, some 7,000 tons of food waste were diverted from landfills by MGM properties in 2015 alone, and MGM is now on track to divert 11,000 tons a year. And as the hotels and buffets become more adept at managing food planning and prioritizing waste recycling, they become more efficient, the circle drawing ever tighter. Food waste is reborn, imbuing “past-end-of-life” with a new meaning.
Combs’s sons, 53-year-old James (who goes by Hank) and 49-year-old Clint now have waste removal contracts with many of Las Vegas’s biggest concerns: the Wynn, the Palazzo, the Venetian, the Encore, and every one of MGM’s nearly dozen properties. “Dad did a good job for a lot of years,” Hank Combs told me as we sat on the outdoor patio of a “California-style” breakfast spot off Sahara Avenue, just a short shot from the Palace Station. “It’s just that there’s a lot more out there now, and he was restricted by the constraints on his place. We plan on having more hogs than dad had. We have the ability to grow substantially. We have the room and ability, and the permits in place to do so.”
At its peak, R.C. Farms could comfortably handle just 6,000 pigs. The new farm, christened Las Vegas Livestock, is just a third of the size of the original, but it already houses thousands of pigs leading up to a grand opening in the fall, and it has the capacity and permits to allow as many as 25,000. Gone are the creaky old handmade industrial cooker and the farmhands manually cooking food waste into hog slop; in their stead is a new, mechanized high-tech rendering process that’s compliant with all standards and guidelines laid out by the Environmental Protection Agency. (Hank is a bit mum on the details, as he’s hoping to secure a patent for the new cooking technology.)
Most importantly, the new facility’s located on landfill property 30 miles north of the city, far away from the prying eyes of tourists and hypersensitive noses of neighbors populating new suburb developments. The Combs boys seemed baffled — and slightly annoyed — by the effect that exurban sprawl had on their dad’s farm. “As the city developed, and encroachment came all around them,” Hank told me, “we would go down to city council meetings and just tell ’em: ‘We’re not moving.’ They’d go ahead and approve the developments anyhow. Right next to him. They have three schools right near there, within a mile.” (The proximity to the farm earned one of these schools the unfortunate nickname “Pigsty High.”) It’s a problem they hope to avoid with their new facility, located on landfill property, surrounded by industrial parks. “That’s the reason we’re here,” Hank noted. “You don’t see a lot of people.”
Hank estimates that the family company currently handles about 15 percent of buffet food waste in Las Vegas. The actual amount is tricky to tabulate, as the total tonnage of food that isn’t diverted to the farms isn’t calculated. “We really don’t know the true number,” Hank said. “Some of these hotels are throwing out eight tons of food a day!”
There’s something encouraging, even intoxicating, about the Combs mission. By managing the residual runoff of human desire itself, they make possible what MGM’s Yalmaz Siddiqui calls “sustainable exuberance.” And reckoning with the future of waste requires a staunch willingness to confront not just the philosophical unpleasantness of our consumption and waste, but the immediate, material, byproducts of it — the smells that make less hardy homeowners gag, for instance. “The smell is just a sign things are working!” Hank Combs said, laughing. “That’s what I tell my wife all the time.”
As we shook hands in parting and made small talk about the area and its veritable horn o’ plenty of tourist-trapping delights, I told Hanks Combs that I was planning to drive out to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, to escape the Strip and drink in some all-American natural beauty. He encouraged me to stop in at the nearby Red Rock Casino, Resort & Spa. “They’re one of our clients,” he said, cheerily. Then, from behind his deeply tinted eyeglasses, I’m pretty sure he winked. “Make sure you make a big mess.”
John Semley lives and works in Toronto.
Natalie Nelson is an illustrator based in Atlanta. Her newest picture book is Uncle Holland, written by JonArno Lawson.
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter
Fact-checked by Dawn Mobley