Local Spin: What Dump?
The Monterey Regional Waste Management District deserves a little respect.
Thursday, September 29, 2011
Penny tears a chunk from her lunch of quail, swallows it quickly and goes in for another bite. Her eyes dart back and forth; she seems worried about someone taking her food away. After devouring the quail, she starts in on a serving of pigeon breast. The girl likes her meat raw, and watching her eat it is a little scary: She doesn’t bother cleaning her face between courses, and bits of red flesh are smeared across her face. But when she’s done with her afternoon nosh, she’s untethered from her leash and the gory lunch scene falls away.
All that’s left is graceful flight as Penny lifts off, hovers, soars and dives toward a murder of crows that’s gotten a little too comfortable on the garbage pile. And that grace astounds, despite the fact that Penny’s looking a little shabby around the edges.
Molting: It happens, even to mighty huntresses like Penny, a peregrine/prairie falcon hybrid whose job is to keep so-called “vectors” – seagulls, crows, rodents and the like – away from the landfill at the Monterey Regional Waste Management District.
“She’s just perfect,” says Penny’s handler, Leo Velazquez, as she perches on his leather-gloved hand, talons wrapped around his wrist. He strokes her feathers and almost coos at her, pointing out where new ones are coming in. He then slips a leather helmet on her head to keep her calm on the quick drive from the landfill to a daytime holding pen where she and a variety of other birds of prey hang out between turns on the landfill. “Every single feather is perfect.”
Of the myriad things you don’t expect to encounter at the dump (which, I tell MRWMD General Manager William Merry, is the cleanest dump I’ve ever seen), Penny and Velazquez – a shaggy, friendly bird lover who works for Turlock-based subcontractor Wingmaster Falconry – are probably at the top of my list.
“It’s not a dump,” Merry responded, during a tour of the sprawling facility last week. “Mary, Mary. It’s not a dump.”
His slightly weary tone indicates he’s said it before, more than once, and likely will have to say it again (and probably many times this Saturday) when the landfill celebrates its 60th anniversary of reducing, reusing and recycling on the Peninsula.
When the landfill opened 60 years ago, the three Rs were concepts not even considered. Garbage was burned at a dump (c’mon, let’s call it what it was) on the shores of Sand City, literally on the water’s edge. When Merry joined the Waste Management District 30 years ago as a young engineer, the landfill had only 40 years of capacity left, he says. Now that lifespan, with the three Rs fully enacted, has reached about 150 years.
That seems like the ultimate in a sustainable business model, but even as Merry touts the district’s laudable accomplishments – the Last Chance Mercantile brings in $700,000 a year and keeps trash, er, treasures from going into the landfill; the district recovers landfill gas and converts it to electricity in a 5-megawatt project that generates 38.5 million kilowatt-hours a year – he’s still worried about the bottom line. There’s a new $20 million belt that needs to be built at the Materials Recovery Facility, where workers separate the salvageable and the recyclable from true garbage. There’s how to help haulers, business and the public meet the requirements of AB 341, which calls for 75 percent of solid waste to be diverted by 2020.
And then there’s the fact that as 2020 looms, the district still gets 80 percent of its revenue from the scales.
“That’s a broken model,” Merry says. “We’re trying to redefine what that model is for the future.”
Part of that model, it seems, involves innovative subcontracts with a variety of businesses that will be on hand for the Saturday celebration. Leo and the gang from WingMaster will be there; the state requires the district to keep vectors out of the landfill, and so Velazquez and the birds are there 10 hours a day, six days a week.
Don Chapin Co. operates a concrete/asphalt recycling and sand harvesting business at the landfill, and they’ll be on hand to show the public how it works. Hope Services conducts mattress recycling, and from the looks of the mattress pile on a recent visit, there’s plenty for them to do. Keith Day Co. operates a commercial composting and food scrap composting business at the district; the neatly organized piles of beautiful black soil amendment are enough to make even a weekend warrior gardener swoon.
When Merry considers waste, he considers those who produce it. From burning it on the shores to diverting 70 percent or more in 60 years is a remarkable feat.
“People want to do the right thing,” he muses. “Is it waste, or is it a resource that can be put to higher use?”
MARY DUAN is the Weekly’s editor. Reach her at email@example.com. Check out a short video on MRWMD’s vector program at www.mcweekly.com/falcon