Getting Trashed on the Job: My Day in the Dump

BY Spencer Michels  January 25, 2013 at 5:10 PM EST

Recology collects about 1,200 tons of garbage every day in “the pit” before it is hauled to a landfill. According to Recology, over the last eight years, San Francisco has reduced the amount of trash it is sending to the landfill by 49 percent. Photo by Cat Wise

For the past two weeks I’ve been wallowing in garbage. Everybody should try it as it casts light on a topic that is near and dear to the hearts of lots of Americans, especially in environmentally aware places like San Francisco. As I worked on a story for the PBS NewsHour, I visited landfills, composting centers, recycling facilities, garbage-as-art studios and curbside pickup sites, and talked with everyone from garbage men and sorters on the recycling line to executives of garbage companies and mayors and federal officials. They think they have a handle on some very sticky problems.

What to do with garbage is a worldwide dilemma that has some obvious and some not-so-obvious implications. Landfills can leach into nearby waterways and water tables, even if they’re lined with plastic. The water in rivers, bays and underground gets polluted. The landfills emit greenhouse gasses as the material in it decomposes and those gasses affect the world’s climate. And the landfills themselves are eyesores that occupy valuable and increasingly scarce land.

A new documentary, “Trashed” featuring the actor Jeremy Irons, details the ghastly effects around the world of too much garbage. The film also touts San Francisco as among the most farsighted cities in dealing with the crisis. You can see the film’s trailer here.

Recology’s Hay Road landfill in Vacaville, Calif.

San Francisco — urged on by a state law that mandates recycling — has adopted a goal of zero waste. That means recycling everything. And that’s a little hard to imagine when you’re standing waist-deep in garbage at a landfill, surrounded by things you might never consider could be recycled.

But San Francisco says it is 80 percent of the way there — that it is only throwing away 20 percent by weight of its garbage. The most recent and crucial part of this achievement was the addition of compostable waste — food scraps, yard clippings and so forth — to the recycling mix. The city can fine residents and businesses up to $1,000 if they don’t cooperate, though they haven’t done it yet.

This is where the politics of garbage rears its head. San Francisco officials, like Mayor Ed Lee, boast that the city leads the nation in recycling; that the city’s private garbage company, Recology, is on the cutting edge of modern garbage treatment. But there are skeptics who don’t believe it. They say the company is inflating the amount of recycling it is doing, and the city is taking the company’s word for it, because they both look good leading the pack. San Francisco can claim it is the greenest city in America. Garbage contracts are always a point of contention, and in San Francisco Recology does all the pickup and recycling , without ever having to bid for the job. City residents recently voted decisively not to require a bid, after an extensive campaign where the company far outspent opponents.

Among those who doubt Recology and San Francisco’s claims is a crusty old politician who served in city and state government for decades, recently retiring as a judge. Quentin Kopp — familiar to generations of San Franciscans — fought to require bids for the garbage contract and now is attacking the boasts of officials who claim they are recycling 80 percent.

“It’s a myth, it’s a bogus figure, ” Kopp asserts, charging that Recology pads the amount recycled by adding sand they collect when the wind blows hard off the beach, and heavy construction materials, to the recycling totals. “They falsify the content, the nature of content, which is transmitted to the state of California.”

Why would the city allow that? I asked him. “City hall goes along with it because it makes the politicians at city hall look good.” As proof of his charges, Kopp points to a pending lawsuit by a dismissed employee of Recology who is ready to testify about the alleged practices.

Christmas trees are collected by Recology and then sent through a massive chipper. The resulting wood chips are shipped to Stockton, Calif., where they will serve as biomass in a waste-to-energy facility.

That’s all nonsense says the CEO of Recology, Mike Sangiacomo. “We report to the city how much we collect, how much we send to the landfill, and how much we recycle. That’s publicly available data. The city has it and anybody who wants to see it, it’s there,” says Sangiacomo.

Even the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s regional director says San Francisco is a leader nationally, and perhaps internationally as well.

And if San Francisco is recycling 80 percent, or even close to that, why aren’t other American cities doing it too? (The average for recycling in the country is about 35 percent, according to the EPA.) Among the answers I received were that some big garbage companies would rather not be bothered, especially since they own landfills and receive much of their profits from them.

Jared Blumenfeld, the regional EPA director, told me: “Really, what’s preventing it is that there’s a financial incentive to send things to the landfill. The garbage companies get paid the more they send to the landfill, one big hole in the ground. So you really need to reverse the economic model, and often that isn’t easy.”

Furthermore, some parts of the country are not as environmentally-minded as the San Francisco Bay Area. And people in many areas think that championing recycling is old hat. They’ve moved on to other environmental issues like climate change. But mostly it’s inertia — why change the way things have always been done?

In any case, Blumenfeld and others think the future is moving toward more recycling. Other cities are getting on the bandwagon, and the rules about disposing of garbage are changing before our eyes.