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Waste of a nation
Despite huge efforts on recycling, we can't keep pace with our garbage
By Douglas Fischer, STAFF WRITER
Inside Bay Area
A San Francisco waste hauler grinds up construction and demolition materials to feed a co-generation plant.
An East Bay water utility tosses chicken droppings and table scraps into a digester to produce methane.
Unused house paint heads south to a Los Angeles cement plant to be used as a binding ingredient.
Increasingly, our trash lives on in ways we never suspected. But not every community is taking such an aggressive — and expensive — tack. Even in the progressive Bay Area, Contra Costa and San Mateo counties lag behind Alameda County, which in turn is a distant second to San Francisco.
And waste managers in San Francisco say they're starting to bump up against an inherent design flaw: our society's penchant for packaging.
"Coca-Cola sells 12 ounces of sugar water, and we're left with the environmental aftermath," said Robert Reed, spokesman for Norcal Waste Systems, San Francisco's garbage hauler.
"It's pretty frustrating."
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Hear the deafening sounds of Norcal's sorting line. Tour the landfill where your garbage is buried. Discover how an East Bay water utility uses San Francisco table scraps to make fuel. And track your city's recycling rates for the past eight years.
Pressure comes from a state law that requires cities to recycle or otherwise divert half their trash from the landfill by 2000. Many localities have set the bar far higher: Alameda County aims to hit 75 percent in six years. San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley all dream of generating zero waste by 2020.
But reality has proven far harsher. After peaking early in the decade, recycling efforts in cities throughout the region have slipped. Union City and Oakland, for instance, both peaked above 50 percent in 2000 but were mired at or below 40 percent as of 2004, the latest year available from the California Integrated Waste Management Board. Daly City peaked at 38 percent in 2001 but had dropped to 24 percent two years later.
Of the 82 Bay Area communities tracked by the state, only San Francisco has seen consistent gains year after year; of the cities hitting the 50 percent threshold in 2000, just nine have remained above it, including San Jose, Fremont and Alameda. All were near 60 percent in 2004.
The success has come with a price tag.
For starters, Norcal was indicted Thursday on bribery and othercharges associated with San Jose's contract. The scandal centers onwages rather recycling, but San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales and a topaide were arrested and charged with several felonies last week fortheir alleged help in securing Norcal a lucrative hauling contract.
More to the point, our discards need a lot of work before they areready for the commodities market.Every day Norcal sorts 600 tons of mixed paper, metals and plastic collected in San Francisco into 16 different commodities, with the most recent addition being margarine tubs and yogurt containers — the No. 4 and 5 plastic which clutters landfills everywhere else.
But hauling and processing that stuff costs $75 to $100 a ton, exceeding what any recyclable fetches on the open market except aluminum cans.
San Franciscans — and residents of any area with a recycling program — subsidize everything else.
But it's not just the money. Our capacity to create garbage surpasses our ability to recycle it. An American in 1960 produced, on average, 2.5 pounds of trash a day. Today, the daily total is closer to 4.5 pounds, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Californians in 2005 bought, opened and tossed 20 billion drink cans and bottles. About 60 percent made it into the recycling bin — far from the peak of 84 percent in 1995, when only 12 billion containers were sold.
Despite the record, those running the recycling programs see progress. Many cities throughout the Bay Area are going great guns to reverse those trends, investing in everything from new recycling lines to methane-creating digesters to divert waste from regional landfills.
Given time, they say, controversial efforts such as collecting table scraps could be commonplace — and could go a long way toward the ultimate goal of zero waste for many municipalities.
"All programs take some time to get used to," said Debra Kaufman, senior program manager of the Alameda County Waste Management Authority. "Even bottles and cans took some time to work their way up to the current 60 to 80 percent recycling rates that we're seeing."
The question no one wants to answer, however, is what effort do we want to make to get there?
Not a tranquil spot
Robert Reed is standing in a place that doesn't make for a good interview.
Behind him a loader is dropping construction debris by the ton into a hopper. Above, twin shakers are feeding that material to "the line" with a staccato, ear-splitting TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT broken only by the crash and whump of concrete, lumber and metal hitting the conveyer belt.
On either side of the belt, eight workers at the San Francisco Dump sort the junk rumbling past: scrap metal to the left, cardboard to the right. Right, left, right, left for eight hours a shift.
In a back corner, another loader feeds an industrial grinder chewing a mountain of unpainted wood, discarded pallets and scrap lumber into mulch. Across the facility, in a separate building, workers collect paint from homeowners and mix it into one of three colors: off-white, light green, and brown.
Mattresses are stacked for dismantling, refrigerators held for recycling. And in the center, a mammoth hanger known simply as "the pit," collects the rest of the trash hauled off the streets of San Francisco.
The Dump was once the end point for all this. Today, it's simply a transfer station: materials arrive, get sorted, go out to new homes. What's left — some 2,300 tons a day — gets scraped into trucks and hauled 65 miles away to the Altamont Landfill, east of Livermore.
The paint goes to Mexico, to coat churches and schools. Excess goes to the cement kiln in Los Angeles, which charges $130 a ton. The wood chips feed a co-generation plant making electricity. The metal coming off the construction and demolition line gets sold as scrap, the plastic becomes park benches, the paper is bundled for recycling and the concrete ground up for fill.
Norcal's Recycle Central on Pier 96 works in much the same way, with commodities heading out daily to Alcoa, Tenn.; Manila; Washington state.
It's a concerted effort from a waste hauler looking to find markets, a city government wanting to find change, and city residents willing to pay for it.
"New York City is looking to build six new landfills in North Carolina to take their trash," Norcal spokesman Reed yelled above the din. "San Francisco is the second-densest urban area in the nation. We've proved you can do it. They've given up."
Is this even possible?
But can we get to zero waste? Or even 75 percent?
Across the Bay in San Leandro, garbage trucks never stop rumbling through the gates of Waste Management's Davis Street Transfer Station, a facility twice as large as Norcal's San Francisco Dump that handles much of the trash Alameda and Contra Costa counties produce.
Like Norcal, Waste Management has a construction and demolition line at Davis Street and a wood grinder feeding a co-gen plant. The company is building a new facility to sort recyclables. But it's at the pit, where a Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer mashes the trash and pushes it into long-haul trucks heading to the Altamont, that district manager Jack Isola pauses.
"All of this has a recycling stream in front of it," he said looking down at the mass of plastics and paper and junk. "We have the processes to handle this material, but we still get it in the (municipal solid waste) stream."
"We have a long way to go, and as we arrive at the ultimate destination, it gets more difficult," he added. "But we've got to start by maximizing the streams we have in place."
And that doesn't happen by itself. In San Francisco, city government is driving the change. Elsewhere, cities are struggling. Hayward's garbage contract is expiring and the city is looking to add a food composting program much like the kind Oakland adopted two years ago.
But trash isn't high on every board of supervisor's agenda.
"When you go to city councils and say, 'We want to spend this much more money on recycling education,' it's not that popular," said Nora Goldstein, executive editor of Biocycle, a trade magazine devoted to composting and organics recycling.
"It's already pretty expensive. ... City councils, county councils are not going to have the stomach to put a lot more in their budget."
Just give it up
And maybe they shouldn't.
An economist looking at the economics of our trash sees one conclusion: Give up. Bury everything in a hole and use the money to change our throw-away mindset.
"I feel kindly toward the people who want us to recycle everything, but they're not helping things," said Lester Lave, an economist with Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who studies trash.
"Putting things into landfills is not kissing them off forever."
For Lave, the question is pure economics. A soda can costs a dime to make but is worth about a penny on the recyclables market.
We could recover it for a penny or simply not make it in the first place and save a dime. And that's aluminum, one of the hottest commodities on the market right now. Plastics look even worse.
"Why is it you need to buy new water — particularly water shipped from France or the Fiji Islands — and then you say, 'Wait a minute, you better recycle that bottle.' You're talking about something that is 1/100th the value," Lave said.
For soda cans, despite decades of effort on recycling education and record prices for scrap aluminum in '05, national recycling rates are abysmal, according to the Container Recycling Institute.
Half of the 100 billion cans sold in the United States last year never were recycled. That's 4 million tons of bauxite ore that got strip-mined, crushed, washed, refined into alumina and then smelted so it could be made into a can and tossed.
Aluminum companies, hungry for cheap power necessary to make the aluminum for those cans, are the driving force behind the Brazilian government's plans to dam several major tributaries of the Amazon River, the Institute claims.
"Our general American attitude about this stuff is we're going to live the way we live and we'll soothe our conscience by doing a little bit of recycling," Lave said.
"The recycling stuff we're doing is really very unimportant compared to the decisions we make in the first place."
Finding a market
Those doing the recycling counter that sorting costs are just one element. Throwing trash away isn't much cheaper, and even if communities have slipped, even if recycling is expensive, there's a value to it.
A lot of the work right now is just building the market for recycled goods, said Adrienne Priselac, an environmental specialist with the EPA.
Regulators are pleased with progress to date.
Two out of five Bay Area communities are below the state's 50 percent threshold and subject to daily fines. But the last levy against a municipality came in 2004 — an $11,000 fine for the Central Valley town of McFarland.
The requirement, it appears, is really more of a suggestion. The law asks only that cities "identify" ways to get to 50 percent — rather than have them in place and working.
Goldstein, editing the Pennsylvania-based Biocycle, would love to see other states saddled with the dilemma confronting California.
"For any other place in the country to be 'stuck' at 60 percent — that's kind of like a dream," she said. "Most of the rest of the country is around 20."
The policy is forcing some creative solutions, Priselac added. One of the more innovative is a pilot program turning chicken droppings and San Francisco table scraps into methane at a spare digester at the East Bay Municipal Utility District's Oakland sewage plant. It's proven so successful that the utility is retrofitting other digesters to expand the program and trap the gas.
The Sacramento Municipal Utility District has gone one better: building a handful of digesters just to handle food waste and manure. The benefit cuts two ways, Priselac said: Local governments cut waste as they get renewable energy credits.
Single-stream recycling — where recyclables end up in one cart on the street and are sorted, in part by hand, at the transfer station — is another example. It brings costs down and increases consistency, she said. "The more you can have consistent markets, the more easily you can build strong markets."
Then again, wouldn't it be easier if we didn't have to build so many markets?
"Anybody who thinks about things at any depth would realize that, rather than opening a new plastic water bottle every day, it would be better to refill the one you just opened," said Mark Oldfield, spokesman for the state Department of Conservation.
"But not everyone is going to think about that."
Contact reporter Douglas Fischer at email@example.com .
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