Thursday, March 27, 2008
A basic law of physics states that in a closed system – let’s say the Earth – matter can neither be created nor destroyed. We can’t throw things “away,” globally speaking, except maybe by shooting them into space, but even the Earth’s orbit is littered with broken and discarded pieces of satellites and rockets.
Only in the past century has humanity begun producing, en masse, materials nature can’t take back. We tear metals and minerals from the Earth’s crust and manufacture them into cars, computers, concrete and buildings. We link the hydrocarbon molecules in crude oil to produce plastic, which can take 1,000 years to degrade in a landfill.
Our growing heaps of trash sprawl under mountains and deserts and metropolitan bays. Litter swirls in the air, on the land and in the sea. Americans generated an average of 4.6 pounds of waste per person per day in 2006, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and recycled about one-third of it. That leaves about three pounds of trash per American per day – more than 160 million tons per year – streaming to landfills and incinerators.
The good news: In California we’re pretty good recyclers, thanks to a state law requiring jurisdictions to divert at least half their solid waste out of landfills. The 2006 statewide diversion rate was 54 percent, according to the California Integrated Waste Management Board. Also playing a role is the demand for recycled materials, particularly in foreign markets, which grind, pulp, melt and reconstitute America’s cast-off junk into new products to sell back to us.
The bad news: Californians generate enormous quantities of trash. In 2006, residents disposed of an average 6.3 pounds of garbage per person per day, not including recycling. That’s more than twice the national average.
In the Monterey Regional Waste Management District, which encompasses coastal Monterey County from Moss Landing to Big Sur, all of the cities recycled at least 60 percent of their trash in 2007. Some of the credit goes to the public-private partnerships that created strong residential and commercial recycling programs. Some of it goes to waste district leaders, who have found innovative ways to recycle up to 40 percent of the stuff that otherwise would be trashed. Even so, locals added 227,000 tons of garbage to the district’s landfill in Marina over the course of the last fiscal year.
Waste Management Inc.
The contents of thousands of commingled recycling bins form a teepee-sized mound on the warehouse floor. A tractor shovels the material onto a conveyor belt, scoop by messy scoop. A multi-leveled flurry of belts, blowers, magnets, hard-hatted workers and chutes sorts the stuff by commodity: cardboard, tin, aluminum, glass, mixed paper, various plastics, and residual trash destined for the landfill. It’s vaguely like the breakfast scene in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.
This is Waste Management Inc.’s materials recovery facility, or MRF (which industry folks pronounce “mirf”), in Castroville. The corporate yard is grimy with litter, blown off the endless stream of trucks that haul recyclables from Carmel-by-the-Sea, Del Rey Oaks, Marina, Pacific Grove, Seaside, Sand City, Pebble Beach, King City, Castroville, Big Sur, Carmel Valley, Moss Landing and the unincorporated county.
PLASTIC CAN TAKE 1,000 YEARS TO DEGRADE IN A LANDFILL.
Once the materials are sorted into piles, each commodity, except glass, heads to the baler, which looks like a giant pasta-maker. It slowly excretes a dense rectangular log of mixed paper, held together by a criss-cross of metal wire. A few plastic bottles and bags stick to the sides.
That’s not ideal, but it’s pretty standard, says Elaina Smith, Waste Management’s effusive recycling coordinator, who picks a plastic grocery bag off the bale without damaging a flawless French manicure. “When you do this all day you make mistakes,” she admits. “You’re gonna have contamination. There’s not a perfect bale that goes anywhere.”
The Castroville MRF processes about 4,700 tons of material each month, according to regional Waste Management spokesperson Monica Devincenzi. Newspaper averages 41 percent of the outbound recyclables, cardboard 19 percent, glass 17 percent, mixed paper 13 percent, plastics 4 percent and metal 1 percent. The remaining 5 percent is non-recyclable “residue” that’s re-routed to the landfill, Devincenzi says.
Waste Management is barely old enough to drink, but the Houston-based Fortune 500 company already is North America’s largest recycler, processing 8 million tons of recyclables annually. On the Monterey Peninsula, it provides garbage and recycling hauling services everywhere but in the city of Monterey. The city of Salinas contracts with a different hauler, BFI Waste Services, which takes recyclables to A&S Metals in Castroville and trash to the Crazy Horse landfill.
Franchise agreements generally give haulers the exclusive right to collect, transport, sort and sell a jurisdiction’s solid waste, including trash, recycling and yard waste. In most cases, the company pays a percentage of its revenues back to the jurisdictions. Residential garbage service fees generally include three bins – trash, recycling and yard waste. Monthly rates for 64-gallon recycling bins (sometimes coupled with smaller trash bins) range from about $15 per month in Marina to $36 per month in Carmel.
Garbage collection represents the biggest chunk of Waste Management’s business, bringing in 65 percent of the company’s $13.3 billion revenue in 2007, according to its annual report. Sales of recycled commodities and other enterprises grossed $1.3 billion the same year.
Outside the company’s MRF in Castroville, bales of glittering aluminum cans and plastics coded #1 (mainly water and soda bottles) are locked behind a barbed-wire-enforced gate and surveilled by video cameras. These are the valuable stashes. Aluminum was worth $1,600 per ton in mid-February, according to Devincenzi, and Smith says thieves have made off with aluminum bales more than once. Bales of lower-value tin-coated steel cans, on the other hand, lay unprotected outside the gate, rusty and crusted with meat miscellany.
The markets for recycling commodities fluctuate as wildly as the stock market, Devincenzi says, but certain materials are more lucrative than others. Cardboard sold for $180 per ton in February, newspaper for $170, and mixed paper for $135. Glass and plastics coded #3-7 tend to be the least profitable, sometimes even representing a loss to the company. Markets for plastics coded #6 (polystyrene) and #7 (other) are sketchy, but Waste Management accepts them in curbside recycling bins, and Devincenzi insists they are recycled. “Because we’re trying to do the right thing, we take that in stride with everything else we are doing,” she says.
Devincenzi won’t say where the recyclables are processed. She accedes only that there are domestic markets for aluminum, glass and fiber on the West Coast, while China and Pacific Rim countries “have markets for all commodities.”
Outside the Waste Management empire, other industry insiders are more candid.
Monterey City Disposal Service
Monterey City Disposal Service Inc.’s little MRF perches at the top of a hill at Ryan Ranch. Basic operations are much like those at Waste Management’s Castroville MRF, but smaller, and with a slightly larger breadth of recyclables. Recycle Supervisor Jaime Gomez gives the tour.
The MRF’s 15 employees handle recyclables from two companies: MCDS, serving only Monterey, and Tri-City Disposal, serving the cities of Greenfield, Gonzales and Soledad. The same local family owns both companies. Revenue flows from hauling service fees, state incentives and the sale of recyclables. With few exceptions, Gomez says, just about everything goes to China.
Gomez says he’s traveled to China to see how MCDS’s recyclables are processed. Recycled paper is pulped, mixed with virgin pulp, and re-constituted. Aluminum is ground up, melted, and cast into molds. Tin-coated cans are stripped of their tin, leaving the valuable steel to be recycled. Glass is crushed and re-constituted into glass containers, insulation and pavement. Plastic is turned into pellets that can be re-manufactured into toys, clothes and car parts.
While operations are similar, several details differentiate MCDS from Waste Management. For one, MCDS accepts waxed cardboard, plastic wrap, plastic bags and pizza boxes for recycling, materials Waste Management refuses. “I recycle anything and everything, whether it’s profitable or not,” Gomez says. “Our whole goal is diversion out of the landfill.”
FOREIGN MARKETS GRIND, PULP, MELT AND RECONSTITUTE AMERICA’S CAST-OFF JUNK INTO NEW PRODUCTS TO SELL BACK TO US.
He sees other recycling enterprises as more fickle: “When the market is high, everyone wants to recycle. When the market is low, you see people pull out.”
While Waste Management made 9 percent profit last year, according to its annual report, MCDS’s franchise agreement with the city of Monterey limits profits to 7 percent of gross sales. MCDS returns 10 percent of its annual receipts to the city of Monterey. City households pay about $17 per month for residential garbage and yard waste hauling service, which includes a 64-gallon recycling bin at no extra charge.
In stark contrast to Waste Management, MCDS is a family-run garbage dynasty. It’s older, too, dating back to 1963, when Andrew Parola began providing garbage service to the city of Monterey. In the 1980s, he sold the company to his son, Gary, who worked with the city to initiate the Peninsula’s first commingled curbside recycling program in 1987. Gary still runs the company, with his son, Tom, as operations manager.
Sitting in his office, dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, Parola says he isn’t interested in expanding MCSD to other cities – his company’s relationship with the city of Monterey is as solid as the waste it hauls. Staff can call Gary or Tom at home. “That’s the way that it’s been,” he says. “That’s the way [Tom] grew up. That’s the way I grew up. And it isn’t going to change.”
Monterey Regional Waste Management District
Most of the Peninsula’s waste that doesn’t end up at a MRF – the contents of trash and yard-waste bins, commercial Dumpsters, construction debris and self-hauled trash – lands at the Monterey Regional Waste Management District facilities in north Marina.
Curbside trash gets buried in landfills bordered by agricultural fields. But it’s not entirely useless yet. The district’s 4.6-megawatt power plant harnesses the methane gas rising from the decomposing garbage, powering the site’s facilities and generating enough surplus electricity to power 4,000 houses.
Roughly 35 to 40 percent of the stuff that passes over the district’s scales is recycled in some fashion. District staff grind up yard waste and sell it to Sun-Land Garden Products, which composts it and sells the finished product at Last Chance Mercantile, the district’s on-site resale shop, and retail stores.
District staffers disassemble appliances and sell the scrap metal, salvage lumber and chip the scraps, ship out tires and mattresses to be recycled, and crush concrete for re-use in home foundations and roads. They pull useful goods out of the trash stream, dust them off and sell them at Last Chance. They offer below-market compost bins to residents, in hopes of diverting more organic waste out of the landfill. Their efforts earned awards in 2007 from the Solid Waste Association of North America and the California Resource Recovery Association.
The district’s programs are not only ecologically sound, but also business-savvy. “Tipping fees” of $45 per ton, paid at the scales, comprised 75 percent of the district’s revenue in 2006-07 – about $12.9 million. (Waste Management is the district’s biggest customer, accounting for 31 percent of last year’s revenue.) Power sales from harnessing methane generated an additional $1.9 million, recycled materials about $750,000, Last Chance sales $560,000, and landscaping products $310,000.
But operating expenses also are huge, with salaries and benefits alone totaling more than $9 million last fiscal year. The landfill came out about $950,000 in the black in the 2006-07 fiscal year, but the district’s budget had projected $1.3 million.
Ironically, the cost of the district’s recycling and hazardous waste disposal programs could threaten its ability to keep offering them. As the landfill’s tipping fees rise to cover costs, some haulers are taking the Peninsula’s waste to lower-cost Bay Area and San Benito County landfills, according to District Manager William Merry. “That waste needs to stay here,” he says earnestly, “but for economic reasons flows there.”
The diversion of waste away from the landfill is a good thing if it means more recycling and re-use, Merry confirms. But the flow of trash outside of our local “wasteshed” concerns him; the district needs a steady flow of trash (or cash) to fund its operations.
“We’re in an era of declining waste tonnage,” Merry says. “What we’re struggling with here at the district is if you extend this idea of zero waste, we need to look at a different way to fund our programs.”
To complicate matters, the state may legislate even more recycling. California law currently requires jurisdictions to divert at least half of their waste from the landfill. But two proposed state bills, still in the works, could tweak the rules. One would tighten how compliance with the diversion law is measured. The other would mandate 60 percent diversion by 2012 and 75 percent by 2020. If that bill is signed into law, California agencies will have to get aggressive about plugging the cracks where recyclables fall through.
What Doesn’t Get Recycled
Last summer, Merry looked on helplessly as a conveyor belt full of trash – about half of it recyclable – moved past at about 30 feet per minute, too fast for his workers to make a dent in the mounds of salvageable beverage containers headed for the landfill.
Merry and district spokesman Jeff Lindenthal took a few minutes to pick out beer bottles, Red Bull cans and water bottles, tossing them down chutes to be recycled. Their efforts made about as much impact as bailing out a sinking boat with a Dixie Cup. “This is not the best way to recycle bottles and cans,” Lindenthal admitted, holding up a dirty plastic Gatorade bottle.
“They should stop the line for that. The place to get that bottle or can is at the curb!” Merry said, pumping his fist. “It just really bums me out that all those cans and bottles are going by. Here I’m the general manager, and I can’t do anything about it.”
Merry suspected that the trash was from July’s U.S. Grand Prix motorcycle (Moto GP) races at Laguna Seca Raceway. The abundance of bottles bound for the landfill reinforced the notion that large venues – which host events such as concerts, fairs and races – often trash too many recyclables.
State law requires event promoters to devise waste-reduction plans. But that doesn’t always translate to efficient recycling. Funded by a state grant, the waste district is working with Santa Cruz-based nonprofit Ecology Action to implement better recycling programs at special events through more recycling bins, outreach and signage. The initiative will target the upcoming Moto GP races and the Scottish Games at Toro Park, according to Matt Krenz of the county health department.
One of the obstacles with event recycling, says Ecology Action’s Brennen Jensen, is the vague sharing of responsibilities between the venue owners, event promoters and county health department. “There’s not necessarily a responsible agency,” Jensen says. Then she revises: “Really, everyone is responsible for it.”
A similar hot potato is passed around apartment buildings. MCDS owner Gary Parola estimates that while 95 percent of single-family households and more than 90 percent of businesses in Monterey recycle, the multi-family home rate is closer to 75 percent. “Multi-family is the most difficult, and why?” he asks. “Because it’s transitory.”
The nonprofit Californians Against Waste estimates that only 15 percent of the waste from multi-family homes, which account for about 8 percent of the state’s waste stream, is diverted from the landfill. A proposed Assembly bill would require the owners of multi-family buildings to provide recycling facilities. (The Legislature passed a similar bill last year, but Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed it.)
Officials also are grappling with the handling of polystyrene plastic, or Styrofoam. The material is recyclable in theory, but the waste district hasn’t found a market for it locally. On March 21, the waste district board unanimously approved a draft regional ordinance that would ban polystyrene take-out containers. Local city councils will consider the ordinance individually.
Officials also are discussing the potential for a plastic bag ban. Currently, plastic-bag recycling is a sort of half-baked concept. MCDS accepts bundled bags in curbside recycling bins, as do haulers in the city of Santa Cruz. Large grocery stores also accept plastic bags for recycling, as required by state law.
But Waste Management doesn’t accept them – yet. “Plastic bags have always been recyclable,” Smith says. “The problem is the process.” Errant plastic bags can clog the machines at the MRFs, she explains, but customers can prevent that by bundling their bags inside one another. Smith anticipates the company will add plastic bags to its list of curbside recyclables after making an effort to educate its customers about it.
“We have to take baby steps,” she says.
The Wasteful West
In the end, how we deal with our waste is a conditioned behavior. Californians might be horrified to see garbage cans full of paper, bottles and cans in states with low recycling rates, such as South Dakota, Wyoming and West Virginia. But even though the Golden State has one of the nation’s highest recycling rates, we still hemorrhage trash.
You’ve probably heard the waste-reduction mantra: Reduce, re-use, recycle – in that order. The most efficient solution for our growing trash problem is to accumulate less of it. Re-use is the second-best option.
Recycling isn’t a complete fix for our growing trash problem – just a deceleration. The trucks, ships, and machines that pool, puddle, re-constitute and transport recycled commodities depend heavily on fossil fuels, use water and emit pollution. Our recycling stream, in effect, takes a tax on our air quality; but it’s a far lighter tax than the production of goods from virgin materials.
“By far, source reduction and re-use are better than recycling,” says EPA recycling expert Saskia Van Gendt.
While the majority of California’s recyclables – particularly electronics, scrap metal, aluminum, paper and plastics – are shipped overseas for processing, they usually hitch rides on ships that have emptied their cargo at West Coast ports and are returning to Asia, Van Gendt says.
And so, like the ocean and wind currents that circulate across the Pacific, we now have a sustained international flow of recycled materials connecting the continents.