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Put it on the Street, A Look at Curbside Recycling

9:30 AM PDT on April 30, 2010

trucks_and_tractor_at_transfer_stn_6818.jpgEver wonder where your garbage goes? This is the first stop on the way to the big land fill at Altamont Pass.

(Editor's note: this is the latest installment from contributor Chris Carlsson, The Nowtopian)

At least once a week all of us in San Francisco schlep our garbage to the curb to be picked up by our local scavenger services, long known as Sunset Scavenger or Golden Gate Disposal, and recently renamed Recology. The familiar blue, black, and green bins clutter the curbs for a night and sometimes a day, blow around in the wind, are rummaged through by the hard-working legions of homeless seeking a way to supplement their meager resources, and are a ubiquitous presence to any urban explorer.

Who hasn't woken to the screeching roar of passing garbage trucks in pre-dawn San Francisco? This is our contemporary system of trash removal, not quite like (perhaps) apocryphal accounts of the old days when Italian scavengers went through the streets in top hats picking up the garbage while singing opera! 

Waste has been a burgeoning issue for decades, as capitalist economies have radically expanded production and distribution, relying heavily on a consumerist mentality that is continually discarding used products in favor of new ones. Not to mention that so much of what is produced is made crappily, engineered to last just a few months or years at best (when it could be designed to last 25-75 years or longer, and be easily repaired to extend its life once broken or damaged). Instead of paying more for quality durable products, we throw away everything to go and buy anew. 

tour_w_ewaste_guy_6811.jpgFree tours of the Recology Transfer and Sorting Stations are held on the last Wednesday of the month. Here we get a short presentation on how E-waste picked up by our local garbage service is NOT shipped intact to China, but is dismantled and recycled at facilities in Hayward.

Campaigns against littering started in the 1960s, sponsored by the same corporations that were busy filling our world with non-recyclable cans and plastic bottles, plastic packaging and more. The idea of "sanitary landfill" emerged as a "solution," but filling waterways or dumps with garbage only hid the problem while creating new ones. (One of the great ironies of local ecological history is that our much-treasured San Bruno Mountain was saved from rampant mid-20th century development in part by the stench of San Francisco’s garbage, which was dumped into Brisbane Lagoon for almost 50 years.) Heather Rogers did a great documentary and book on this called Gone Tomorrow, where you can learn a lot about the history of how various companies deliberately engineered a world of waste for its enormous profitability.

News occasionally reaches us from faraway cities where garbage strikes are underway: Naples in southern Italy is probably the most famous, undergoing a decade-long crisis of “waste management,” leading to 200,000 tons of garbage piling up in city streets while all nearby landfills were overflowing. A recent film, Gomorrah, did a good job of showing the role of organized crime in illegal waste dumping in Italy, but it’s not unique to there by any means.

skyline_from_pier_96_6909.jpgThe view from the Sorting Center at Pier 96... not your everyday sourdough-and-cable car view!

We tend to take curbside recycling for granted. It seems like common sense, and these days the ubiquitous three bins are everywhere: black for landfill, blue for recyclables, and most recently green for compost. But only a few decades ago it was "crazy hippie activists" who started the process of bringing our trash out of the dark and into the light of day.

In the early 1970s Richmond Environmental Action started a recycling center below Lone Mountain (and sold t-shirts with an image of Rodin’s The Thinker, with the slogan “Cogito Ergo Reciclo”, I Think Therefore I Recycle), and the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council sponsored a collection center in the small parking lot alongside Kezar Stadium off Frederick Street, which is still going today. Activists working with the Berkeley Ecology Center began a recycling program. Karen Pickett joined the effort a few years later and recalls what it was like as recently as 1980:

Back around 1980 or so, recycling was not institutionalized the way that it is now, and it was actually a pretty radical concept to think that garbage was something good. So the public education that was going on around solid waste issues, recycling issues, really felt cutting edge… What sucked me in was the recycling program that the Berkeley Ecology Center started. I [worked on] the curbside program, only picking up newspapers. There was no formal contract with the City of Berkeley, it was a nonprofit running around throwing newspapers into the back of a truck, and we took them down to Ashby and San Pablo, to the Packaging Company of America. They turned the newspapers into egg cartons and fruit dividers. It was a terrific example of local industry because at the end of the day we’d go a mile or less.

"You reduce, reuse, recycle. But you ALWAYS reduce first, because it has to do with consumption habits. We have to recycle because we’ve used up the raw materials, the resources, to produce these products… I hate to say this, but in a lot of ways it’s a failure. That’s not to say that all of people’s efforts all of these years has failed, because all these municipalities, county entities, are recycling. By and large, people across the country can do curbside recycling in a convenient way which most people see as a success. To ignore [that] would be foolish. Nonetheless, where does it get us if we’re recycling all this stuff but we haven’t reduced how much we consume? We’re still on a suicidal path.

"We worked for so very long at getting people to see the value in touching their garbage and separating things, and the whole idea that if they participated in that process in that way, then things would be re-used in the highest and best use kind of way. And that was the whole reason we separated colors of glass, never mind the glass from cans. And now the irony is, now that it has been institutionalized and it’s so acceptable that everybody is recycling, everything is thrown into the same bin. It breaks my heart every time I do my own recycling and dump my stuff into a recycling bin and see what else is in there, because I know that things are lost in the process.

dumping_sortables_6887.jpgHere's all the stuff you carefully put in the blue bin, dumped into huge piles to be sorted at Pier 96.

Last Wednesday I took the free monthly tour at Recology. It starts on Tunnel Road at the “the dump,” or the Transfer Station as they prefer to call it. This is the location where all the garbage in the black bins goes, where it is culled and gleaned for useful objects and materials before being bulldozed into large trucks that carry it to the Altamont landfill site.

An ongoing Artist-in-Residence program gives 24-hour access to clever artists who make remarkable sculptures, machines, gardens and more (May 15-16 is the next Open House Art Party on Tunnel Road). The gravel path that runs through the sculpture garden is made up of crushed cement from the old Embarcadero Freeway, in what I thought was one of the more resonant demonstrations of re-use at the Recology center.

gravel_path_embarcadero_fwy_6840.jpgThis path through the sculpture garden above the Transfer Station is made up of crushed cement from the old Embarcadero Freeway.
curved_picnic_table_6858.jpgA picnic table from another dimension?
iron_pipes_6853.jpgFloral scrap iron...
plastic_bottle_sculpture_6849.jpgYou really can do ANYTHING with plastic bottles!

But the tour got even more interesting when we drove back to Pier 96 on the bay shore to the Sorting Center. Here is the place where all the recyclables jumbled together in the blue bins goes, and dozens of Teamster union members work to separate the different streams of materials. As Karen Pickett noted above, the retreat from source separation that our curbside blue bin system embodies is quite disappointing for all of us 1970s veterans who spent so much time trying to inculcate in ourselves and our culture a new, finely tuned sensibility about waste. When you see how chaotic the flowing conveyor belts are, with so much paper, plastic, cans and more going by, much of which was missed by the workers standing at workstations that we could see, it’s hard to imagine that the quality of San Francisco’s recyclables is very high.

Our tour guide explained how Japanese citizens routinely separate their trash into seven different containers, but Recology discovered that when source separation expectations were reduced by introducing “single stream recycling,” “recycling” increased by 25 percent or more. San Francisco has nearly reached its target of a 75 percent diversion of solid waste, and ostensibly is trying to eventually reach “zero waste,” a target that is impossible in the absence of systematic changes at the federal level, not to mention at every level of economic activity.

sorting_lines_by_John_Hovell.jpgTechnically photography was not allowed here, and I can start to see why. This facility was essentially built to comply with a statewide mandate that 50 percent of the refuse stream be diverted to recycling. In order to hit that aggressive target, the city implemented mixed stream recycling, hoping it would encourage more people to recycle more of their garbage. By single stream recycling, a household does not need to separate glass, metal, and plastic into individual bins. Instead, workers are paid to do this sorting after the fact. It's debatable whether having the consumer or a professional sort recycling is more efficient. What is clear is what the city has made up in diversion rates, it has lost in quality of recyclable materials. The city sells its recyclable materials as low grade goods because it typically contains about 5% foreign content, either through sorting errors or, because one recyclable (for example paper) has been contaminated by a second recyclable such as a dirty can of tuna. (photo and caption by John Hovell)

In any case, few remember that only a generation ago the San Francisco Board of Supervisors had signed off on a quite different approach to solid waste. In the late 1980s the plan was to build a big electricity-generating incinerator in Brisbane, between the old bayfill dump and San Bruno Mountain. Ruth Gravanis worked with San Francisco Tomorrow to oppose that plan and tells the story:

I was very involved in fighting the trash burner that was proposed for Brisbane, that was going to take all of San Francisco’s garbage. San Francisco Tomorrow tried to educate people about how it would be much better to have a curbside pickup program than to commit all of San Francisco’s garbage to being burned. [If it had been built] we could never have had a curbside recycling program because we would be obliged by our contract to produce as much garbage as possible to burn as much as possible to generate electricity to sell to PG&E to pay for the trash burner. That was a huge battle. It passed SF’s Board of Supervisors, it went to Brisbane, Brisbane’s Planning Commission supported it, Brisbane City Council supported it.

Thanks to the good citizens of Brisbane, who put a proposition on the ballot that stopped it, we didn’t get an incinerator. What a lot of people don’t know who talk about San Francisco’s “zero waste” was that it was the NIMBY’s of Brisbane who made it possible for us to have a curbside recycling program. Now everybody wants to take credit for it, especially Sunset Scavenger, for the curbside pickup program we have. But it was Leonard Steffenelli [head of Sunset Scavenger in that era] who said "maybe Davis, maybe Palo Alto, but we know our customer, and our customer will not recycle."

sorting_center_from_inside_doorway_6883.jpgThe Pier 96 sorting center from inside the front door--an impressive system of conveyor belts and materials flows...
bales_of_cans_6904.jpgOne-ton bales of aluminum cans await shipment to be reused.

So kudos to our local garbage company for the transition they've made, and the work they've done to promote waste diversion and reduction. But for most of us, garbage is still something we throw away without thinking about it much. To really make a difference at the end of the cycle, we'll have to challenge not just what is made and how it's designed, but how our own work is a crucial consideration.

How does what we do all day contribute to a general disconnection between creative input and destructive output? Because after all, that logic permeates our economic lives.

Gaining conscious control of what we do, why, and for what purpose is as important as learning how to better handle the endless piles of garbage and junk our society has deemed the centerpiece of "economic health". In the meantime you can get fully informed on which materials can be recycled and which cannot, which bins get what, and how it all works from your very own San Francisco Department of the Environment right here.

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