Just because there's a nifty recycle symbol on the bottom of the container doesn't mean that it is recyclable. That's the bad news. Of course at BFI they don't really like to tell you that. "Well what do you do with it if it's not recyclable?" asked one of our eager tour participants. "We sort it," said the representative. "Theoretically it's all recyclable," she assured us. Uh huh, and theoretically we could live in a bubble a la Biosphere II and recycle everything. In the end when pressed she had to admit that what could not be sold was landfill. That's right garbage.
According to the Ecology Center in Berkeley, No 3 plastic can theoretically be recycled, but it is so toxic to do so that it is considered hazardous to human health. No 7 is an unidentified mix so chances of anyone trying to unmix it is nil, No 6 is styrofoam with limited reuse and No. 4 and 5 have little market value. There is really only a market for No 1 (PETE) and No 2 (HDPE), despite BFI's user friendly, put-it-all-in-the-box recycling guidelines. Recycling is an ideological struggle between making it convenient so consumers will go to the trouble of recycling and actually being able to sell the end product in a market driven economy. The put-it-all-in-the-box philosophy, though, has the effect of absolving the consumer of the sin of trash. We think no more of it. We don't think to look at what we're buying and we don't feel we must pressure manufacturers to use packaging that is actually recyclable.
While tin, glass and aluminum can be reincarnated quite nicely into new bottles and cans, plastic rarely comes back as a new bottle. Most of our plastic containers are made from virgin materials (oil based polymers). Plastic is "downcycled" into carpet, fleece and plastic lumber. And that's the end of the line -after that it's trash. Once upon a time we drank our coke from refillable glass bottles. I still do at home in Thailand. But somehow, in our infinite wisdom, here in the U.S. it is considered a health hazard to sterilize and refill bottles so it can't be done. I find it hard to believe that this was a piece of legislation we the people initiated.
Legislation, however, is how we made it possible to finance BFI's efforts to keep materials out of our landfill. Government money provides the labor to sort our recyclables. (Labor that might otherwise be hard to place due to criminal records.) Our little group of professional organizers watched from on high, through an upstairs observation window, as piles of paper and cardboard came in on trucks, was dumped onto the cement floor and pushed onto the conveyor belt to be sorted by hand. What were the chances of identity theft, I wondered, as I imagined my bank statement and old checks floating around down there. Our guide would not vouch for the security of any sensitive documents. He did say, though, that they would soon be introducing a shredding facility.
"So where does all this paper go", I ask, imagining a paper mill somewhere in the Midwest. Some to Seattle, but most to China. So all of this effort to recycle paper and plastic ends up overseas, not in our own mills, not in our own economy. We buy so much stuff from China, anyway, that rather than take their ships home empty, the Chinese would just as soon fill it up with plastic and fiber which they can use to make more stuff to bring back to sell us. Do you get the feeling that we do nothing here, but consume and make waste?
And what we do buy somehow ends up being even more toxic than what we had before. I was astonished to learn that the little lights in kids' sneakers contain mercury. So do singing greeting cards. How is the average consumer to know that these items become hazardous waste? And even if they do know, people don't always care enough to dispose of hazardous waste properly. After all they didn't create the hazard, they just used it. I worked for a commercial client who refused to pay the $1.00 per bulb disposal fee on fifty fluorescent tubes. I had to watch as she directed our workers to smash them into the dumpster.
In Europe legislation has mandated that manufacturers be held responsible for the waste they create, hazardous or not. This is called product stewardship and is currently a hot topic in our own legislature. If you think manufacturers should shoulder the burden instead of our tax dollars, call your representative and tell them you support product stewardship. Manufacturers, of course, are fighting this tooth and nail.
The good news is that BFI is actually doing the best it can to improve every aspect of our waste stream. The environmentally oriented staff is earnest about putting into practice real solutions and not shipping all our waste problems overseas. Electronic waste (old computers and fax machines, etc) is dismantled locally. If it is actually usable it is sent to a third world country. (We're saturated here; we want to upgrade). A carpet-recycling project has been added. You can bring in your old dirty carpet and it will be made into carpet padding. Mattress collection has just been introduced (to reclaim the wood and metal). And except for computer monitors this disposal is all for free. Styrofoam, too, is picked up locally by a Redwood City company that uses it in packaging. It must be dropped off at the BFI recycle center. Make sure it's clean. Anything that has food on it is garbage.
Our BFI guides were happy to help our small group of organizers figure out ways to educate the public on how to reduce their waste stream. As we watched through the observation window of the transfer station next door, we saw what was still going to landfill. It's called solid municipal waste, not garbage, mind you. Plenty of cardboard, mattresses, furniture and exercise equipment in that pile. There is not enough staff to pull out all that is recyclable and it is considered a hazard to do so. One of my colleagues suggested that we create a publicity opportunity for ourselves by walking the line outside the transfer station on a Saturday and suggesting people re-organize their dump run so that they drop off what's recyclable first, thus saving themselves the dump fee. This would give us the opportunity to introduce our services to assist in this reorganization. It was a stretch, but I could see it would make good P.R.
As part of their Earth Day open house, BFI treated us to lunch, with real plates, silverware and cloth napkins. We had our picture taken next to towers of compressed aluminum cans. They gave us pencils made of old blue jeans. But best of all was the compost. As many bags as we could load into our car. The compost is part of a pilot program in commercial composting. BFI is contracting with restaurants to pick up organic waste for less than the cost of land filling it. I stood in front of a bin filled to overflowing with heads of lettuce and cauliflower. On a table next to it, in a pan, was the resulting compost. It was almost too good to be true. Just this January at a New Year's Day brunch, I had declared to my friends that the most influential trend we would see was the organic food movement, because the demand for compost would change the way we look at our garbage. And here it was, garbage being made into compost, the organic farmers' gold. The program was due to start in August. And it wouldn't stop there; inroads were being made to compost agricultural by-products and even animal manure. This would all bode well for the transformation of our perspective from user of resources to stewardship.
April 23, 2004