Tales from the Pit
The Joy of Garbage. Nope, symptoms that is not the title of a newly released documentary or investigative journalism book. Dozens of student-run courses are available at UC Berkeley through the DeCal Program (or, find Democratic education at UCB), search and after taking the Joy of Garbage class myself, I taught it for three semesters. Running since 1977, it is the oldest DeCal, and arguably one of the most interesting.
I covered topics ranging from the history of western garbage, to incineration, consumerism, and to my absolute favorite: composting. Facilitating discussions with college students about why they should care about their waste stream was, at times, trying. I aimed to create a safe forum for discussion, not to guilt trip; moreover, I wanted to inspire my fellow undergraduates to realize that the best place to start making changes is with themselves.
The final assignment invited the class to reflect on their own habits by keeping a log for five days of all the discards they created and how they handled them (composted, landfilled, or recycled). One student realized she used a lot of paper tissues that she would have composted, had she been provided a bin in her apartment complex. What about using a handkerchief, I suggested, as I shook my own in the air – reduce! Another student remarked that much of his waste stream comprised of packaging for individually packaged food items (e.g. fruit snacks, chips, juice bottles). Since this exercise, he realized that buying in bulk resulted in less waste and even saved him money. The Joy of Garbage stands out the most from my classes during my college career - I felt privileged to be in a position to introduce unique topics on waste to students. (Check out the Joy of Garbage website here)
Presently, at the Education Center, I continue to “talk trash” with our 4th graders and SLWRP middle and high school students; it’s never too early to be 4R’s savvy!
rx I was never really clear on what happens to all the material in the green bins (food scraps, yard waste, food soaked paper (like greasy pizza boxes) after it gets picked up from your curbside. Instead of going to the pit for a one way ride to the landfill, it is sent away to be turned into compost. One such composting facility is located in Modesto, where food scraps are mixed with landscaping debris and turned into compost in 3 months! The finished compost is brought right back to the Davis St. Transfer Station to be sold to the public for use in their gardens. It’s such a great, simple and productive recycling process. Now if we could only get everyone to put all their organics, things that were once alive like egg shells, chicken bones, greasy napkin, in the green cart!I’ve had many eye opening experiences since starting work at the Davis St. Transfer Station. For example,
To learn more about how the Davis Street Transfer station helps "close the loop" by providing compost, mulch, and other materials, click here: http://www.dsgardencenter.com/gardencenter.asp
Our sense of smell is a powerful thing. It has the ability to conjure up childhood memories, alert us of danger, or tell us that it's time to hit the shower. It can also tell us a lot about our garbage here in Alameda County and our associations of what garbage is.
On the outdoor site tour at the Davis St. Transfer Station, our noses can readily identify different materials, like the earthy smell of the yard waste and food scraps pile that came from people's green carts and landscaper's trucks. As we approach the Garbage Pit, the students and chaperones' noses perk up and they ask us how we can stand it, when really, it's because we've smelled worse days. (We're neighbors to a water treatment plant.) But come to think of it, are we already programmed to think about garbage as "Disgusting," "Gross" and "Smelly?" How are our reactions to "the Pit" influenced by our expectations?
Today, our garbage is a mix of food scraps and yard waste (also known as organics), and other materials like plastics, glass, metals, wood, and paper that make up the broken toys, furniture, clothes and packaging. Plastics, glass and metal don't smell bad, so what is creating that smell in "the Pit"?
What many of us don't realize is that the reason why our garbage smells so bad is because of the misplaced organics. Without all our organics in the Pit, it wouldn't smell as bad! At the Fremont Recycling and Transfer Station, a fragrant mist is sprayed over their garbage pit (for example, cherry), so that the smell is contained, but that doesn't mean it isn't there.
When we take the time to put our organic materials, like soiled paper, yard waste, and food leftovers, in the green cart, we will the find that the "pits" at transfer stations will smell a whole lot better!
Humans, I'm reminded as I see the pit, generate a lot of trash each day. The "pit" is as big as an Olympic swimming pool, and rarely do we see the floor because it is always covered with valuable resources like green waste, furniture, and mixed papers. When I ask students to look for items that should have otherwise been reused, recycled, or composted, they have a wealth of things to point out. What strikes me the most is how much of it we send to the landfill each day: 5 million pounds, or the equivalent of 400 African male elephants.
A vast majority of this waste is preventable, but getting to the root of the problem is difficult. "What is always the most important R?" I ask my students. Most of the time, they will tell me the correct answer: to reduce. However, I can't blame those who do not immediately think "reduce" because we are surrounded by the promotion of rampant consumerism, which arguable begins at a young age. Advertisements target children when they're as young as four. Infants can recognize logos before they can even speak. Thus, after I have gone through all of the R's with students, and particularly "reduce," I am satisfied when they write back to us saying that they will think before buying something, and will think about how to best handle their discards. While humans are invariably consumers, we can certainly make conscientious decisions to reduce that consumption!
From medical instruments to planter trays, from cell phone cases to port-o-potties, plastics are everywhere. From the moment you wake up and put a toothbrush in your mouth, plastic has entered your day, and it doesn't end there. I challenge you to count the number of plastic items you interact with in just one day.
In the field of recycling education, we are constantly challenged with identifying recyclable and non-recyclable plastics in order to correctly inform the public as to proper disposal methods. Even to professionals in the field, this issue is strewn with contradictions and uncertainties... so don't feel so bad! It's important to go about recycling with some general rules of thumb:
- Hard plastic containers are A-OK to recycle at home.
Plastic bags can be bundled and taken back to grocery stores for recycling.
Soft plastic wrappers are not recyclable at home.
- Why? Soft plastics include mylar, Tetrapak, and fused plastics that all use multiple layers of materials( i.e. plastic, paper, and aluminum) and are impossible to separate the layers for remanufacturing.
- What do the numbers indicate on the bottom of my plastics? Since it has the recycling sign on it, then it's recyclable, right?
- Not particularly. The numbers were developed by the Plastics Association to indicate the resign type of that certain plastic, or the "recipe" – what it's made out of. The chasing arrows are merely used to display the number, not to indicate if that plastic is actually recyclable in your specific community. Ask your local hauler what numbers are acceptable, or call your city's solid waste division, which is usually in the public works department or environmental services.
- How clean do materials need to be to recycle them? Do I need to rinse them out?
- Clean is good, but empty is better. When materials get re-processed, they are melted down, so you could imagine that any extra peanut butter might get burned off. The thing you want to keep in mind is that other people will be sorting your recyclables, and excessive contents left inside containers may contaminate other materials like paper. Please don't waste water trying to clean your plastics before recycling them, it's not worth it.
- What do I do with the lids?
- First empty the container of its contents, then with the lid off, squish the container flat to reduce the amount of air the empty container will hold, then screw the cap back on. Now you are ready to recycle the cap with the container. Caps are too small to recycle on their own, so by leaving it on the container, it will find its way to the remanufacturer. By squishing the air out of the container and then placing the cap back on, you are ensuring that even if the container get's run over by a bulldozer at the MRF, or compacted inside the garbage truck, the cap won't burst off.
- Bioplastics (#7).
Don't use them. Re-usables are always a better option than disposables. Let's consider our options:
- Green Can: If we place the bioplastic (plate, cup, utensil, etc.) into the green can it will go to a compost facility. Composters can't distinguish bioplastics from other plastics, and will sort them out as garbage. Even under intense industrial settings where piles reach 140 degrees, the bioplastics don't break down in enough time and will get sorted out. And even if the bioplastics do breakdown, they leave a polymer resign behind in the compost. And lastly, we should ask ourselves the moral question, is it right to grow food crops to make disposables?
- Blue Can: Because bioplastics are made out of different materials, they gunk up the screens at remanufacturing facilities who are trying to make crude oil-based plastics.
- Garbage can: You may think that bioplastics will break down quicker than regular plastics in a landfill, but because landfills are anaerobic (without oxygen), even paper or food waste doesn't break down for decades. So bioplastics will break down in the same amount of time as regular plastics.
Answer: Save your money and buy something that is recyclable if you are going to use disposables, but try not to use disposables in the first place. Always carry a fork, cup, water bottle, handkerchief, and napkin with you - and life will get a lot simpler.