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?

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San Francisco has trucked its trash to the Altamont landfill since 1987
PHOTO BY LUKE THOMAS

Sarah@sfbg.com

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.

 

TALKING TRASH

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.

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