My tour of Davis Street Transfer Center continued with a trip to the garbage transfer pit. This is where all of Oakland’s non-recycled garbage is dumped before being transferred in huge trucks to the Altamont Landfill. Just look at it all. You may not be able to tell from the photo how much recyclable material is mixed in with the garbage, but I can assure you that it’s a lot.
LESSON 9: Your hands are the very last human hands that will touch these items before anthropologists dig the stuff up in hundreds of years. That’s pretty much a direct quote from Rebecca Jewell. Contrary to what some people believe, items placed in Oakland garbage bins are never sorted. They are never even touched by human hands once they leave your curb.
Our residential bins are lifted and dumped mechanically into the garbage truck; the truck dumps its load at the transfer station; bulldozers ride over the garbage, compressing it to allow as little air into the mix as possible and pushing it forward towards an opening in the floor, under which a huge truck waits to be filled from above; another heavy machine adjusts the materials in the truck to balance the load; and finally, this larger truck carries the garbage to the Altamont Landfill, where the goal is not biodegradation but “mummification.” Imagine what future generations will think of us when they dig up these “mummies.”
Anyway, the point is that if you put a recyclable item in the garbage, no one is going to rescue it for you. So while it’s very important to keep the wrong things out of the recycle bin, it’s just as important to put the right things in.
Opposite the platform where Rebecca and I were standing was a huge pile of restaurant waste: mounds of food in plastic bags and a lot of valuable cardboard. This is where the scavenging birds were hanging out.
LESSON 10: As careful as you are with your waste at home, by dining out you could be contributing to a lot more waste than you know. Seeing this pile of mostly compostable and recyclable garbage makes me really consider which restaurants I want to patronize and also what questions I can ask beforehand.
In fact, that same afternoon after the tour, I had lunch at Oliveto, a local Oakland restaurant, and made a point of asking about its recycling and composting practices. My server assured me that the restaurant does both. Afterwards, I went next door to Peaberry’s Coffee & Tea and asked what they do with their used coffee grounds. “We just dump them,” was the response. I ended up carrying home a warm bag of coffee grounds for my compost bin as well as the plastic bag they’d been “dumped” in to reuse.
It’s not easy asking these questions. You never know when people will look at you like you’re from outer space. But looks are just looks. And the more you get in the habit of asking questions about the products you buy, the easier it becomes to speak up. And you become a more savvy consumer.
But I’ve leapt ahead, and it’s time to get back to Davis Street, where the tour continued. On our way out of the transfer pit, we spied a few of the other workers at the facility.
A mama cat and three little kittens eyed us warily as we attempted to interview them about their jobs. No luck. They scurried through a hole in the wall. I asked Rebecca why kitties would want to live in such a loud, scary place with big trucks constantly thundering through. Of course, it’s because there are so many rodents for them to eat. The cats do more than look cute for visitors. They help with essential pest control.
I didn’t have time to view the other areas of the transfer center, but Davis Street collects a lot more than residential garbage and recycling. For example, they accept the food and yard waste from our green bins that are then shipped to Grover Landscaping in Modesto to be composted.
LESSON 11: Compostable plastic you put into your city’s compost bin (as opposed to your own backyard composter) may not actually be composted. Currently, compostable plastics are being developed before infrastructures exist to deal with them. According to Rebecca Jewell, compostable plastics take much longer to break down (27-32 weeks) than other organic matter. Therefore, a compost facility like Grover Landscape Services, which typically “cooks” its compost for a much shorter time, cannot process bio-plastics completely, and any such plastics they receive may end up being filtered out at the end of the compost process and discarded if they have not fully broken down.
I plan to do a whole lot more research on the subject of the different types of bio-plastics and issues surrounding them. And I hope to take more tours, of other recycling facilities, our landfill, and especially compost operations if I’m allowed.
Other services that Davis Street offers include: Construction debris processing, motor oil recycling, large appliance recycling, wood waste processing, latex paint recycling, old tire recycling, mattress recycling, and e-waste processing. Of course, none of these items are recycled through the curb-side recycling program and shouldn’t be put in the bin. They have to be brought to the facility separately.
LESSON 12: The more you learn about recycling and waste disposal, the more you realize that the issues are complex, the system isn’t perfect, and there’s always a lot more to learn. Dealing with waste is a lot more than a set of simple rules that everyone can follow about which items go in which bin. And the complexity of the issue can lead us to question the concept of waste itself.
Why do we have so much waste to deal with in the first place? And what can we do to reduce it? While it’s been very instructive for me to learn all about recycling and garbage disposal, I remain convinced that those should be our very last options for living in an ecologically responsible manner. And I’ll continue to focus first and foremost on reducing the amount of “stuff” that I acquire and finding alternatives to the most problematic material: plastic.