Every year, each of us throws away almost 1,500 pounds of garbage. But where exactly is "away?"
Thursday, December 16, 1999
In a tiny, windowless building on the edge of a vast hill of garbage, something just short of a miracle happens every day. Two rumbling generators--machines that look like huge grasshoppers--transform the exhalations of rotting banana peels, lawn clippings, and Mom''s leftover meatloaf that grew a fur coat in the ''fridge into something we all can use: electricity.
Ernie Mangubat, donning a hardhat and goggles, smiles proudly and exclaims above the roar of the green engines: "This is No. 1--best in America. This is our accomplishment."
It''s a little strange to gaze upon Ernie''s broad, beaming smile and to hear the enthusiasm in his voice. After all, as a mechanic at the Monterey Regional Waste Management District''s gas-to-energy plant, Mangubat has toiled alongside a huge heap of smelly trash for 10 years. Many people wouldn''t being smiling about that.
But then again, this isn''t your ordinary landfill. The accomplishment of which Mangubat boasts is the creation of a revolutionary system to process the garbage generated by you and every other Monterey Peninsula resident. Those resourceful methods earned the waste management district the title "Best Solid Waste System in North America" last year, as so deemed by none other than the Solid Waste Association of North America.
Here, at a facility two miles north of Marina, is the home of the waste management district, a 475-acre spread that absorbs the 310,000 tons of trash Peninsulans discard each year. Through a series of resourceful procedures, the district is able to recapture nearly one-third of our wasted materials. And, thanks to the convenience of curbside pick-up, recycling is still on the rise.
The fact remains, however, that we are still an exceedingly wasteful society. Moreover, a tremendous amount of resources--like fossil fuel, electricity, and land--are exhausted to process the constant flow of discarded items streaming from our homes and workplaces.
Looking out across the landfill, where two garbage trucks are delivering their goods, Heidi Feldman, public education coordinator for the waste management district, says it best: "Now you know where away is. We are the away place."
Indeed, there really is no such thing as throwing something "away." Seven hundred tons of trash is dumped into the Marina landfill each day (except for Sunday). Day in and day out, a steady stream of trucks roll in to deposit our discarded items into the vast landfill, among the 25 largest dumps in the country.
What happens to our trash once it''s left our homes? Does the Earth reclaim it? Is it recycled? Or is our garbage destined to remain in suspended animation beneath a thin layer of soil? The answer is all of the above.
The Monterey Regional Waste Manage-ment District is a special government agency that handles garbage disposal and recycling for the Monterey Peninsula. When Assembly Bill 939 passed in 1989, requiring governments to recycle at least half of their waste by 2000, the district delegated household recycling to two private firms: Monterey Disposal, processing the city of Monterey''s recycling, and Waste Management Companies, servicing the rest of Monterey County.
Meanwhile, yard waste is processed onsite in Marina. Along the perimeter of the landfill lies the composting area. Mound after mound of various colored soil-like substances are piled several feet high. Discarded weeds, clippings, and trimmings are ground up and converted to compost, mulch, topsoil, or feedstock. The stuff is then sold locally to farmers, commercial landscapers, and weekend gardeners. Chances are, if you buy a bag of compost at your local nursery, it came from the waste management district.
Here, private commercial loads are also picked through and recyclable items are plucked from them, salvaging about two-thirds of the haul. Some of the pre-used booty ends up at the Last Chance Mercantile, an 8,000-square-foot store and two-acre yard--a thrift shopper''s paradise loaded with everything from toilets to surf boards, which last year diverted 515 tons away from the landfill.
An onsite household chemical disposal facility processes dangerous chemicals that cannot be dumped in the landfill.
What''s put into the household garbage can, however, no matter what it is, ultimately ends up in the landfill. "It''s really important for people to understand when they put something in their garbage can, that it''s going to the landfill," says David Myers, the district''s general manager. "It''s not going to be picked through and recycled."
That''s where you come in. It''s the responsibility of individual residents to ensure that the recyclables are put into the recycling bin, so that only nonrecyclable garbage goes into the landfill. As simple as that sounds--especially with convenient curbside pick-up countywide--recyclable materials are still dumped into the landfill by lazy, irresponsible people.
On a recent tour of the landfill, an astonishing number of soda cans, milk jugs, newspapers, and other recyclables are visible atop the latest landfill layer, waiting to be buried along with the rest of the trash. In fact, recyclable paper products make up about 40 percent of the landfill''s contents.
"People from developing countries, when they see what we throw out, it would be a treasure to them," Feldman remarks as we drive through the gut of the fill.
Piled upon a plastic liner and layer of thick clay to prevent groundwater contamination, each day our trash is stuffed into a hollow piece of earth known as Module 3. Once there, the garbage is smashed by a 102,000-pound landfill compactor wielding a compaction force of 927 pounds per square inch. After compaction, soil is layered on top every night.
To encourage decomposition, a funky liquid called "leachate," a mixture of rainwater and garbage sludge, is collected at the bottom and pumped to the top, where it is sprinkled over the garbage. Decomposing trash produces landfill gas, a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide, which is captured and used to make electricity. The district projects it will sell $600,000 of electricity to PG&E this year.
Most of the landfill''s contents, however, doesn''t end up as renewed energy. It remains indefinitely. Eventually, some of it will decompose, but that happens very slowly.
"Much of it does not decompose," Feldman says. "You can pull out a newspaper after 10 years and read it. And hotdogs last forever because of the preservatives."
When Module 3 packs to capacity, a new sector lays waiting to get its fill. Using current techniques, the Marina landfill should serve the Peninsula for 90 more years. Then what?
"Ultimately, this landfill would probably be turned into hiking trails," Myers says. "Someday, it will probably be the highest point in Marina."
While some landfills are built upon (the Shoreline Amphitheater in San Jose sits atop a landfill), it''s a very tricky proposition. Dangerous landfill gas can percolate from the ground and the garbage continues to settle, making development problematic. Barring any technological breakthroughs, even after all the trash is buried and forgotten, the landfill will have to be managed for the duration.
"You can never walk away from a landfill. It''ll have to be watched forever," Feldman says. "It''s a luxury to have this much land."
In an effort to meet the state''s pesky recycling goals by next year, curbside pickup is now available to most Monterey Countians. Every week, we plop our used bottles, cans, and newspapers into their green bins and drag them to the curb to be picked up. Most of us feel good about recycling; we find satisfaction in the thought that our empties won''t end up in the dump, but will be put to good use again.
But does everything we throw in the recycling bin actually get recycled? The short answer is no. To understand why, it''s helpful to understand the recycling process.
Upon leaving the curb, Monterey County''s household recycling (except for the city of Monterey''s) is trucked to a place called the Castroville Materials Recovery Facility--about 100 tons a day. There, about 15 workers have the tedious task of separating the items--by hand.
"These guys work their butts off," says Elaina Smith, the facility''s recycling manager.
First, the trucks dump their loads on the concrete floor of the facility, forming an enormous mound of bottles, cans, jugs, plastic bags--just about any container imaginable. A conveyer belt runs at intervals, moving a seemingly endless stream of refuse up a long chute to the sorting area about 15 feet overhead. On its way up, a man with a pitchfork plucks out any noticeably nonrecyclable items'' plastic bags, a butter tub, a half-empty jar of peanut butter.
The rest of it makes its way up the conveyor belt and moves up to a platform, where eight gloved and goggled workers separate the materials. The first two on the line pick out No. 1 and 2 plastics, grabbing clear and colored plastic bottles and jugs, and tossing them down a chute to partitioned collection bins as the conveyor belt moves the other recyclables down the line. In the center of the line, the belt runs underneath a magnet, where tin cans are sucked up and transported to their own bin.
Next to be skimmed from the line is the aluminum. Working at a dizzying pace, a worker named Walter grabs the incoming cans and hurls them over the edge into an cavernous bin. When complemented on his lightening speed, an embarrassed Walter replies: "Never fast enough!"
At the end of the line, two last workers separate the glass containers. Beyond that point, the remaining items--a full bottle of barbecue sauce, a plastic bag, an unopened can of soup--free fall into a dumpster.
The separated recycling is now compacted and baled into huge bundles. When there''s enough bundles to make a truckload, they''re sold and shipped off to a mill. There, the items are washed and broken down, and then sold again, often overseas, to manufacturers who make new stuff out of our garbage.
Those items that didn''t make the cut are headed to the landfill. Because recycling is a private venture, what is and what is not recyclable follows the rules of supply and demand. While an item may appear recyclable, if there''s not a buyer for it, it goes to the dump. And with wildly fluctuating prices, sellers are often at the mercy of choosy buyers.
"When the market''s down, the mills get picky. It becomes a problem," Smith says. "We''ve had to pay to get rid of materials."
What doesn''t get recycled? For one, Smith explains, containers that are still full of food. Moreover, sticky substances, like peanut butter and syrup, can clog equipment at the mill where the recyclables are broken down. And, at a current $12 per ton for tin, getting that can clean enough to recycle isn''t worth it.
However, even empty, clean containers aren''t guaranteed to stay out of the landfill. For example, the bottom of a discarded cream cheese container bears the recycling symbol enclosing a numeral 1. To the untrained eye, that symbol indicates that the empty tub is recyclable. But it''s not.
The cream cheese container is made from what''s called injected molded plastic. Such items have wide bottoms and wide mouths, such as butter tubs, yogurt cups, microwaveable plates, and plastic bags. While injected molded plastic can be recycled, its reuses are very limited, and there is virtually no market for it. So, through a convoluted detour, to the landfill these items go.
"When people don''t sort," Smith explains, "it causes a lot more work."
It also costs additional waste--wasted fuel, wasted electricity, wasted time. When garbage is unnecessarily transported and sorted to recycling centers, the process becomes a double-edged sword. While recycling conserves resources, the processing of nonrecyclable material is wasteful. However, through a few simple steps done at home, a tremendous amount of energy can be conserved (see related story, page 26).
"Recycling," Smith says, "has to start at the curb."