Tuesday, September 18, 2007

We Are a Nation that Bleeds Plastic

A Trip to the San Francisco Transfer
Part I
The black bin. The blue bin. The green bin. You sort your trash as best you can, and you've done your duty. But there's so much more...where does it all go? What does it all look like? I trekked down to the SF Transfer Station with my gardening class to see for myself.

What I discovered was a sea of plastic. The bulldozer above is choked with it. It's all you can see in the gigantic warehouse where my neighborhood garbage truck dumps my trash. Plastic shopping bags, plastic containers, it's endless.

It was 11am on a Saturday, and a line of 20 vans and trucks churning out top 40 hits were idling in line for the dump. Some truck beds were filled to the brim with the remains of a remodeled kitchen. Other mini-vans held giant plastic bags filled to bursting with recyclables. Responsible residents waited in line to properly dispose of their hazardous oil pans, pesticides, and house paint.

As my crew, in our uniformed fluorescent vests and hard hats (to protect us from the hundreds of birds flying overhead) wandered through the construction reclamation area, some dude yelled out to me "hey, I've got hazardous waste back here. Heh. Heh. I'm not supposed to, but I'm going to dump it in the demolition pile."

Next stop: the apocalyptic warehouse of trash. I was hit by the smell first. A smell of rot, like I've never experienced before, burned itself into my nose. Then I noticed a mist. Confused, I looked to the ceiling lined with a row of sprinklers, keeping the dust down. It creates a strange, sticky veil over the whole warehouse. As my eyes adjusted to the dim, veiled light, I began to realize what my eyes were taking in: huge seagulls, some dirt brown others pure white, perched in waiting over a gigantic hole. A hole of trash, a sea of plastic.

In one day, the City of San Francisco generates the equivalent of one foot ball field size full of trash five feet deep. 30-40% of this trash is organic waste. Waste that could've been composted, but will now never decompose. Instead this organic waste will breathe methane, one of the most toxic greenhouse gases, in its final resting place buried near the windmills at Altamont Pass.

And SF has one of the most progressive municipal waste programs in the country--there is a wide spread curbside compost pick up where I can put all of my veggie scraps,

Most of my photos didn't turn out--but here's a few...

What happens to the the rest of our trash--the trash we so dutifully sort into the blue and green bins...

Blue bin: It is trucked to Pier 39, where it is dutifully hand sorted (by well paid employees/shareholders). We keep the aluminum (it's worth something) and the glass (goes into making fiberglass). But we ship the paper and plastic to China! The costs of recycling paper in the US, both financial and environmental, isn't worth it--we save money, and pollution, by exporting our trash to China.

Green bin: our food scraps, milk cartons, and yard waste is turned into rich, black compost--it is piled into large rows covered in plastic where nature takes over. The organic waste starts cookin. It reaches temperatures between 120 and 150 degrees, so hot it would burn you, for up to a weeks, to kill any pathogens. The rich compost then gets packaged and sold to local nurseries and farms.

It was a profound trip. If this is the way SF does trash, one of the most progressive municipal waste programs in the country) what does trash look like in my hometown of Phoenix? What will trash look like in the future? I can't look at my trash, at my consumption in the same way ever again--I am empowered. Use less and compost more.

Somewhere along the way I forgot the 3 R's, let's bring them back:
Reduce, Reuse & Recycle.

Part II to come: Art at the Dump...

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