Tale of two landfills - Page 2

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

Mark Westlund of the Department of Environment told the Guardian that negotiations between the city and Recology are continuing and the contract bids remain under seal. "Hopefully they'll be concluded in the near future," Westlund said. "I can't pinpoint an exact date because the deal is still being fleshed out, but some time this summer."

Under the tentative plan, Recology's trucks would haul San Francisco's trash across the Bay Bridge to Oakland, where the garbage would be loaded onto trains three times a week and hauled to Wheatland. Recology claims its proposal is better for the environment and the economy because it takes trucks off the road and removes organic matter from the waste before it reaches the landfill and turns into methane gas.

But WM officials reject the claim, noting that both facilities will convert methane to electricity, energy now used to fuel the trucks going to Altamont. The landfill produces 8.5 MW of electricity annually, some of which is converted into 4.7 million gallons of liquid natural gas used by 300 trucks. The Ostrom Road facility would produce far less methane, using it to create 1.5 MW of electricity annually.

Recology officials say removing organic matter to produce less methane is an environmental plus because much of the methane from Altamont escapes into the atmosphere and adds to global warming, although WM claims to capture 90 percent of it. Yet David Assman, deputy director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, doesn't believe WM figures, telling us that they are "not realistic or feasible."

State and federal environmental officials say about a quarter of the methane gas produced in landfills ends up in the atmosphere. "But they acknowledge that this is an average. Some landfills can be worse, others much better if they have a good design. And there is no company that has done as much work on this as Waste Management," company spokesperson Chuck White told us, citing WM-sponsored studies indicating a methane capture rate as high as 92 percent. "The idea of 90 percent capture of methane is very credible if you are running a good operation."

Ken Lewis, director of WM's landfills, said the facility's use of methane to cleanly power its trucks has been glossed over in the debate over this contract. "We're just tapping into the natural carbon cycle," Lewis told us.

But Recology spokesperson Adam Alberti (who works for Singer & Associates, San Francisco's premier crisis communications firm) counters that it's better to avoid producing methane in the first place because some of it escapes and adds to global warming, which Recology claims it will do by sorting the waste, in the process creating green jobs in the organics recycling and reducing the danger of the gases leaking or even exploding.

"But what has Recology done to show us that the capture rate at their Ostrom landfill is on the high side?" Lewis asks. "Folks in San Francisco say it's not possible, but we've got published reports."

Assman admits that San Francisco won't be able to ensure that other municipalities that use Ostrom Road will be focusing on organics recycling. While questions remain about how that facility will ultimately handle a massive influx of garbage, Altamont has been housing the Bay Area's trash for decades. And even though San Francisco's current contract will expire by 2015, this sprawling facility nestled in remote hillsides can still handle more trash for decades to come.

 

ZERO SUM

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Altamont landfill is the 30-foot-tall fence that sits on a ridge on the perimeter of the facility. It's covered with plastic bags that have escaped the landfill and rolled like demonic tumbleweeds along what looks like a desolate moonscape.

Comments

"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

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