Tale of two landfills - Page 6

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

"Landfill gas is a byproduct of an existing system," Lewis said, noting that 43 percent of the trash buried at Altamont comes from San Francisco. The implication is that a large part of the methane in the landfill comes from — and benefits — San Francisco.

"We are delivering waste products that contain organics," he said. "We realized that we could flare methane [to burn it up] or produce electricity. California has very aggressive landfill gas requirements, and the collection rates are relatively good at most sites. But once you've collected it, what to do? Historically, they flared the gas. Twenty years ago, there was not a lot of technology to allow anything else."

Lewis says WM began producing electricity from the gas in 1987. "What we do in the future is decoupled from what was giving us the methane in the past," he said. "Today we are managing what was brought here 15-20 years ago. It's your hamburger, cardboard, and paper that has been sitting up there since 1998. We're doing something good with something that we used to flare."

"If Altamont was closed today, the gas yield coming off it would be enough to produce 10,000 gallons a day for the next 25 years," WM's Bay Area president Barry Skolnick interjected.

And Lewis observed that if you take organics out of the waste stream, as Recology proposes, that matter has value, whether in a digester to produce energy or a composting operation. That complicates the comparison of the two bids.

"We agree that if you can get that waste out in a clean form, that's a good thing," Lewis said. "But composting is a very highly polluting approach. In the process of degrading, it gives off a lot of volatiles and carbon dioxide. So air districts have not traditionally been very positive on sitting aerobic composting facilities."

 

WHAT'S NEXT?

The contract that San Francisco has tentatively awarded to Recology is for 5 million tons or 10 years, whichever comes sooner. As such, it's a much smaller contract than the city's 1987 contract with WM, mostly because the future is uncertain.

But trucks will remain a part of the equation. Recology is proposing to continue driving 92 truckloads of garbage over the Bay Bridge per day, possibly to keep the Teamsters happy, frustrating transportation advocates who believe direct rail haul or barges across the bay would be greener options.

In December 2009, Mayor Gavin Newsom and Bob Morales, director of the Teamsters Union Waste Division, cowrote an op-ed in the Sunday Sacramento Bee, in which they argued the case for increased recycling and composting as a "zero waste" strategy for California and as a way to generate green jobs and reduce global warming.

"Equally important for the future of our green economy is that recycling and composting mean jobs," Newsom and Morales wrote. "The Institute for Local Self-Reliance reports that every additional 10,000 tons recycled translates into 10 new frontline jobs and 25 new jobs in recycling-based manufacturing."

Newsom and Morales clarified that they do not support waste-to-energy or landfilling as part of their zero waste vision.

"It makes no sense to burn materials or put them in a hole in the ground when these same materials can be turned into the products and jobs of the future," they stated.

Yet WM's Skolnick sees a certain hypocrisy in San Francisco turning its back on the methane gas that its garbage helped create at Altamont over the past three decades. "Here's a very progressive city, and we want to take their waste from the last 30 years and use gas from it to fuel their trucks," he said. "But they want to haul waste three times as far to Wheatland. What does that say about San Francisco's mission to become the greenest city?"

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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