Tale of two landfills - Page 3

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

Wind keeps the blades turning on the giant Florida Power-owned windmills that line the Altamont hills, but it also puffs plastic bags up like little balloons that take off before the bulldozers can compress them into the fill. Lewis said he bought a special machine to suck up the bags, and employs a team of workers to collect them from the buffer zone surroundinge site.

Although difficult to control or destroy, plastic bags are not a huge part of the waste volume. San Francisco has already banned most stores from using them, and the California Legislature is contemplating expanding the ban statewide in a effort to limit a waste product now adding to a giant trash heap in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

"Plastic bags are a visual shocker," said Marc Roberts, community development director for the city of Livermore. "In that sense, they are similar to Styrofoam. It's pretty nasty stuff, can get loose, and doesn't break down. But they're not a major part of the volume."

Yet Roberts said that these emotional triggers give us a peek into the massive operations that process the neverending stream of waste that humans produce and don't really think about that often.

"Our world is so mechanized," Roberts observed. "Stuff disappears in middle of night, and we don't see where it goes."

San Francisco officials confirm that the trend of disappearing stuff in the night will continue, no matter which landfill waste disposal option the city selects.

"No matter what option, it's going to involve some transportation to wherever," Assman said. Currently, Recology and WM share control over San Francisco's waste stream. But that could change if the waste disposal contract goes to Recology.

A privately-held San Francisco firm, Recology has the monopoly over San Francisco's waste stream from curbside collection to the point when it heads to the landfill. Waste Management, a publicly-traded company that is the nation's largest waste management operation, owns 159 of the biggest landfills in the nation, including Altamont, the seventh-largest capacity landfill in the nation.

San Francisco started sending its trash to Altamont in 1987, when it entered into a contract with Waste Management for 65 years or 15 million tons of capacity, a level expected to be hit by 2015, triggering the current debate over whether it would be better to send San Francisco's waste on a northbound train.

 

TRAIN TO WHEATLAND

Creps, 76, a retired school teacher, warns folks to watch out for rattlesnakes as she shows them around this flood-prone agricultural community.

"This is an ancient sea terrace, and now it's fertile grazing ground between creeks," Creps said as we walked around the ranchland that Creps' grandfather settled when he came to California in 1850. Today he lies buried here in a pioneer cemetery, along with Creps' adopted daughter, Sophie, who was killed at age 27 after she witnessed a friend's murder in Oakland in 2006.

Creps' cousin, Bill Middleton, who grows walnuts on a ranch adjacent to hers, worries about the landfill's potential impact on the groundwater. "The water table is really high here, so you've go a whole pond of water sitting under this thing," Middleton said.

Wheatland's retired postmaster, Jim Rice, recalled that when the landfill opened on Ostrom Road in the 1980s, individual cities had veto power over any expansion plans. "But Chris Chandler, who was then the Assembly member for Sutter County and is now a judge, carried a bill in legislature to do away with veto power," Rice said.

"So we lost out and ended up with a dump," Middleton said.

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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