Tale of two landfills

With a pair of giant corporations vying for control of San Francisco's trash, will our zero waste dreams ever become a reality?

San Francisco has trucked its trash to the Altamont landfill since 1987


Everyone should make a pilgrimage to the landfill where their city's garbage is buried. For San Francisco residents to really understand the current trash situation — and its related issues of transportation, environmental justice, greenhouse gas reduction, corporate contracting, and pursuing a zero waste goal — that means taking two trips.

The first is a relatively short trek to Waste Management's Altamont landfill in the arid hills near Livermore, which is where San Francisco's trash has been taken for three decades. The next is a far longer journey to the Ostrom Road landfill near Wheatland in Yuba County, a facility owned by Recology (formerly NorCal Waste Systems, San Francisco's longtime trash collector) on the fertile eastern edge of the Sacramento Valley, where officials want to dispose of the city's trash starting in 2015.

Both these facilities looked well managed, despite their different geographical settings, proving that engineers can place a landfill just about anywhere. But landfills are sobering reminders of the unintended consequences of our discarded stuff. Plastic bags are carried off by the wind before anyone can catch them. Gulls and crows circle above the massive piles of trash, searching for food scraps. And the air reeks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is second only to carbon dioxide as a manmade cause of global warming.

It's also a reminder of a fact most San Franciscans don't think much about: The city exports mountains of garage into somebody else's backyard. While residents have gone a long way to reduce the waste stream as city officials pursue an ambitious strategy of zero waste by 2020, we're still trucking 1,800 tons of garbage out of San Francisco every day. And now we're preparing to triple the distance that trash travels, a prospect some Yuba County residents find troubling.

"The mayor of San Francisco is encouraging us to be a green city by growing veggies, raising wonderful urban gardens, composting green waste and food and restaurant scraps," Irene Creps, a San Franciscan who owns a ranch in Wheatland, told us. "So why is he trying to dump San Francisco's trash in a beautiful rural area?"

Behind that question is a complicated battle with two of the country's largest private waste management companies bidding for a lucrative contract to pile San Francisco's trash into big mountains of landfill far from where it was created. This is big and dirty business, one San Francisco has long chosen to contract out entirely, unlike most cities that at least collect their own trash.

So the impending fight over who gets to profit from San Francisco's waste, a conflict that is already starting to get messy, could illuminate the darker side of our throwaway culture and how it is still falling short of our most wishful rhetoric.



The recent recommendation by a city committee to leave the Altamont landfill and turn almost all the city's waste functions — collection, sorting, recycling, and disposal — over to Recology (see "Trash talk," 3/30) angered Waste Management as well as some environmentalists and Yuba County residents.

WM claimed the contract selection process had been marred by fraud and favoritism, and members of YUGAG( Yuba Group Against Garbage) charged that sending our trash on a train through seven counties will affect regional air quality and greenhouse gas emissions and target a poor rural community. Observers also want details such as whether San Francisco taxpayers will have to pay for a new rail spur and a processing facility for organic matter.


"Why does San Francisco produce so much trash?" This, or something like it, was posed on the cover of the Guardian.

I read the whole article, but you never answered that question. Why does San Francisco produce so much trash? Is it because of consumers or businesses?

Your pie chart even broke up the different kinds of waste--compost, recyclable, landfill. It didn't mention, though, whether that trash is actually being composted, recycled, or put into landfills.

Perhaps you can write an article that actually addresses the role of its readers.

Posted by Jenna on Jun. 17, 2010 @ 8:11 am

Thanks for the feedback about the headline on the cover and its connection to the story inside the paper.

As the author of the article, I can tell you that my response to the city's plans--after visiting both landfills--was to question how sending our trash hundreds and hundreds of miles away to either location helps San Francisco residents develop an awareness of the towering amounts of trash that this city generates each day.

Without that awareness it's going to be hard, me thinks, to achieve zero waste by 2020.

Now, clearly no one is going to back building a landfill in Golden Gate Park (at least not at this point in time). But imagine if there was a moratorium on sending trash into other communities backyards--and as a result, there was a growing brown mound next to Stow Lake. Imagine how fast our habits would change, and how much harder we would work to pass legislation to make manufacturers take responsibility for excessive packing and non-recyclable products.

In the meantime, I have been asking if the city has a sustainability equation that it can share with its residents that addresses the issue of trash transportation and disposal.
(and so far, I have not got a clear answer to my question.)

For instance, if trains are used to transport our trash, what is that worth in the sustainability equation?
And how far can these trains travel before any perceived benefit, in terms of reduced greenhouse gas emissions, is lost?
Likewise, If trucks are used that use biogas, what is that worth? And how far can these trucks drive before any perceived benefit is lost?
And what about transporting our trash all the way by rail?
And how about using barges to get it to the East Bay?

Likewise, I have questions around the organics recycling program:
Where are these organics taken? And do we dry them ahead of transportation, so they weigh less, or do we carry them fresh? And how far can we transport them, before any benefit in reduced greenhouse gas emissions is lost?

Those questions also bring me back to my point about local processing of our waste: to the extent we handle stuff in our city, we truly reduce emissions and create green jobs.

And to the extent our landfill is local, we also have greater control of the overall waste disposal picture: how will it help the planet if we remove our organics, but then dispose of our waste in landfills where the surrounding municipalities don't use a three-bin system and/or don't have an aggressive organics recycling program?

So, those are some of the issues I tried to explore.
That said, it sounds like an article on who throws away what would be useful--and of interest to our readers, including you. So, thanks, once again, for the feedback,

Posted by sarah on Jun. 17, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

Related articles

  • Striking Out

    Stadium concession workers — without a contract since 2010, denied tip jars, some paid less than minimum wage — aren't sharing in the San Francisco Giants' success and rising prices

  • Meet the new supervisor

    How will Christina Olague balance loyalty to Mayor Lee with the needs of the city's most progressive district?

  • Burned

    Burning Man ticket fiasco renews criticism of SF-based Black Rock City LLC