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?

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

"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."



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?"

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