<< Previous Post:
Next Post: >>

October 10, 2007

Recycling Part 3: Further Lessons from Davis Street Transfer Center

 

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.


I asked Rebecca about composting the new biodegradable plastics that are made from corn, sugar, and potato starch. Her answer was not the most encouraging.

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.

And finally,

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.
 



Print Print

 

<< Previous Post:
Next Post: >>

Comments

A Note about leaving comments: I switched to the LifeFyre comment system because it weeds out the hundreds of spam comments I was getting each day and also allows us to respond to individual comments, to "Like" comments, and to link them to social media if we so desire. But if you do not wish to login via social media, you don't have to. You can comment without logging in! Here's how:

  1. Type your comment in the box.
  2. Click "Post Comment As" button.
  3. When the LiveFyre box pops up, type a name, email address, and optional website address in the fields provided.
  4. Click Next.
  5. LiveFyre will ask you for a user name and password. But if you don't want to register or use a password, you don't have to. Just click "Post as Guest" which is to the left of the black "Finish" button. Your comment will be saved.
  6. Please email me if you have questions or problems. This new system is supposed to make it easier for all of us to converse, not harder.
16 comments
latex mattress
latex mattress

Very useful post.. I hope you will continue your same best work and we will get more informative post which can helpful to us. Thanks for this!!!

Brave New Leaf
Brave New Leaf

Wow - these pieces on your visit to the recycling station are gripping reading. Thanks for pointing me to them! I think if more people had a mental picture of their trash at these facilities, they would be more thoughtful about what they do with it. But our current society treats this infrastructure as "out of sight, out of mind". This was my attitude for many years, and the way that I was raised.I wonder if we took kids on field trips to these places starting at young ages, if it would help instill more innate appreciation for the "magic" of energy in, trash out, etc.Anyhow, I'm so glad I discovered your blog, and agree that there's a ton that we will be able to learn from each other!

Beth in the Fake Plastic Fish Tank
Beth in the Fake Plastic Fish Tank

Clif, that's great! I hope that it helps!At my Green Sangha meeting this morning, I mentioned my trip to the recycling center, and they asked me to prepare a presentation for them for next month. But I feel like I've just barely scraped the top of the ice berg. Hopefully, I'll learn even more before then.

Clif
Clif

Beth, I took the part 2 of your MRF visit and put it into a MS Word document which I then printed up for distribution in the 4 lobbies of my condo building. I gave it a cover sheet with the title (forgive me) "Plastic is Plastic, Glass is Glass, so why is recycling such a pain in the a..?" Then on the next page I introduced your part 2 (to do the whole series would be more than is necessary for my purpose) told about your website and directed people to it for more information. I hope my neighbors will read it!

Crafty Green Poet
Crafty Green Poet

You're totally right about reducing rubbinsh being the most important step. Excellent post.

Clif
Clif

Having visited a facility like the one you described, I wonder what the difference in value would be between the co-mingled mess that is currently collected and "pure" aluminum, or glass, or paper. The reason I wonder is I've thought it might be a possibility for communities such as a neighborhood block, to arrange to have large bins placed in their area that would be for the single materials. The recycling companies might go for it 'cause they could completely bypass all of the processing. We do have such a facility here on the north side of Chicago but if it were more localized with smaller receiving bins and within walking distance, it might be a good alternative to the currently abused system, where try as you might, people dump everything in you can imagine.Imagine what could be done if convenience weren't the be-all and end-all of modern society, if people acted like you and me and made it a point to seek out and solve the waste problem as well as it can be done. I think of what I do as an obligation for all that I have taken and take daily from Mother Earth, not a bother that is asking too much. First take care of what you create (garbage, recyclables, CO2, etc.) then move on to use your time as you see fit. We've been too long in the *want it - take it, don't want it - toss it* mode of all life, from amoeba to man. You see it in the zoo where the keeper must come along and clean up the cages. We two-legged animals just live in a bigger cage. People act like it is a burden to think about what they do, but it is an obligation that comes with our intelligence...the intelligence that allows us to do so much damage when we use it only to extract and not to return from this wonderful world we had no part in creating.Ok, do I get the long post award?

Michelle Verges
Michelle Verges

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.So true, so true!! Beth, I'm currently trying to get a better understanding on the use of Styrofoam. As Lesson #12 states, this Styrofoam issue is much more complex than I initially realized. Personally, I'd rather not use those suckers at all. But going back to another point (Lesson #11), you have to consider the necessary infrastructure that can handle these products (as well as those bio-plastics). Considering the infrastructure needed to recycle bio-plastics and Styrofoam is beyond my locus of control. But what is within my locus of control is avoiding the Styrofoam to begin with - and composting my bio-plastics at home - that's what I'll do as technology catches up with these environmental issues. :0)M

Cynthia
Cynthia

Thank you so much for your post on what actually happens to the waste we put out by the curb! I was disturbed to read that cans and bottles that are in plastic bags are just thrown away. This is horrible, but for the past 3 years I have been taking home a bag of cat food cans from my job at a veterinary hospital, and putting them out (in the bag) on top of my recycling container! I called my local waste company today and, sure enough, the bags are just tossed in the trash!! I want to cry to think of all that waste, and wasted effort. I'll move on though, much better informed thanks to you. Now I need to become more informed about the bagged, shredded paper I have been blithely tossing in the recycling dumpster over by the school...

terrible person
terrible person

"Queen of trash"...that sounds like an idea for a Halloween costume!Either that, or Oscar the Grouch! (Not that you're grouchy, but he sings "I Love Trash"...)

Marcie
Marcie

Beth Thank You so much for all your recycling information. It has truly opened my eyes MORE to being aware of what and how I'm recycling. As someone who lives in Washington State (the everGREEN state) we recycle a lot, but obviously its not enough....I think I'm going to do more research about the recycling in my area so I can be SURE I'm recycling properly.

Radical Garbage Man
Radical Garbage Man

I see from one of the anonymous posters that you now have at least 2 trash workers as fans. Congrats! A few more and you'll be well on your way to coronation as queen of trash!

terrible person
terrible person

Another great post. I especially like the way you derive lessons and put them in bold so we can understand what it all means. Here is an article from the Wall Street Journal about turning trash into high-end furniture! Check out the photo slideshow!If we keep filling our landfills, we'll end up like the people in the movie "Idiocracy"!The discussion of the birds living by (and off) the recycling station and the landfills -- do they manage to pick out the organic stuff them actually need to eat, or do they end up eating the plastic? Some might not care, saying seagulls are winged rats, but I kind of like them. I certainly don't want to see them suffer unnecessarily from bellies full of plastic.Speaking of scavengers, this is a really interesting article about vultures in India. There used to be millions of them, and they performed performed the vital task of helping dispose of dead cattle (and dead humans as well.) But then they all got poisoned by an antibiotic given to cattle, so now there is a lot of rotting flesh hanging around, which is not good. Not directly related to plastic, but really interesting!

Anonymous
Anonymous

Beth, I like your post. I am a garbage collector and must asked what compelled you go to go the transfer station? You're probably right that much of what we collect daily is recyclable, but once it makes its way to the curb and we take it, that's it.We usually get a lot of women who are curious about how our trucks work (I ride on one of the older fashioned rear loaders where the trash is thrown in the back). You ever see those trucks working? I'll keep watch your site.

Anonymous
Anonymous

Beth, I like your post. I am a garbage collector and must asked what compelled you go to go the transfer station? You're probably right that much of what we collect daily is recyclable, but once it makes its way to the curb and we take it, that's it.We usually get a lot of women who are curious about how our trucks work (I ride on one of the older fashioned rear loaders where the trash is thrown in the back). You ever see those trucks working? I'll keep watch your site.

Radical Garbage Man
Radical Garbage Man

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.Here, here!

Anonymous
Anonymous

Thankyou Beth for doing so much research and thinking about recycling, and most of all for sharing it in such a well written and pleasant to read blog! It all makes my tiny mind spin to think how easy reducing our landfill waste could be if there was just a tiny bit more education on recycling. Here in Australia the government has just started playing tv ads trying to do this, but their message is so confused - They say things like: "please wash your cans and bottles, but if you don't, that's okay..." which isn't helpful and won't change behaviour!

Post Popularity Graphing by Knowledge Ring