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Trash hackers

| 21 Aug 2015 | 01:45

Our garbage is officially everywhere. In dark moments it seems we have no chance. No choice, in the end, but to surrender, psychically and physically, to this human stain. Styrofoam. Plastic bags. Fire retardant. The inexorable companions of our earthly civilization, ‘til death or spaceship do us part.

But that is sloth, and people the world over are beginning to shake themselves out of this sleep-waking state. San Francisco is en route to becoming the world’s first zero waste city by 2020. Through ingenuity and just plain deciding to care, maybe we can bushwhack a path out of our own detritus and into a long future. Here’s how.

By Becca Tucker

Illustrations by Nicole Wynn


The more you throw out, the more you shell out

Seattle was one of the first to brave public indignation (the right to generate unlimited crap is not free and inalienable?!) and adopt this system. Today, a quarter of the U.S., including 30 percent of big cities and 40 percent of New York State, uses some version of user-pay pricing. It’s fair, it’s effective, and it’s already how most of us pay for water and electricity.

Every residence in Seattle has a garbage bin, a recycling bin, and a compost bin. For each, you select the size your household needs. Recycling bins are free; for the other bins, the smaller size you choose, the less you pay. The teensiest garbage receptacle is the 12-gallon “micro-can” that hold a grocery bag’s worth of garbage. When introduced in 1993, it was hailed as the “smallest-in-the-world” garbage can, though it’s got competition now in places like Toronto. Seattle’s micro-cansters pay $12.30 less a month than neighbors who use the standard 32-gallon bin, which adds up to about $150 a year.

Some people won’t notice a fee like that, and those are the folks who will pay for the brunt of waste disposal. For others, it’s enough to get them to think.

“We had a small garbage, large recycling, and a medium one for compost,” said Dan Curme, a graduate student in his twenties who lived in a house with four others. Did the sized bins make them more cognizant of what they were tossing?

Definitely, said Curme.

“Especially the recycling, we would always fill up in a week or a week in a half, but the truck only came every two weeks.”

According to seattle.gov, you can put extra recycling out for no charge, but the money wasn’t the point. Curme and his housemates took it as a challenge to fit their recyclables into the bin. They’d have conversations at house meetings about what they could do to limit their waste. They started buying things like liquid laundry detergent in bulk from the co-op.

“We never wanted to get a bigger bin,” he said. “We actually wanted to reduce our waste. We are trying to do what we can to reduce our carbon footprint.”

Sure, problems crop up with pay-as-you-throw, like illegal dumping or burning, and the so-called Seattle stomp, where homeowners try to beat the system by compacting huge amounts of trash into a single bag. Even so, on the whole these communities throw away eight percent less than those that use a flat fee, mostly because people do a better job of separating recyclables and yard waste, the Environmental Protection Agency found. The economic incentive is big, of course, but for the environmentally inclined like Curme, so is the mere reminder provided by that fast-filling bin.

Toronto phased in a pay-as-you-throw system starting in 2008. “It’s not really onerous,” said Barbara Ruelens, a homemaker who lives with her husband in Toronto, of the annual fee each household pays based on the size of its garbage can. “I don’t think it makes me throw out less garbage. The fee is the fee and you pay it,” she said.

Maybe the price swing in Toronto wasn’t drastic enough. To get people to switch to the smallest bin (and abandon The Hog, which swallows four and a half garbage bags), this year the city hiked the rate for The Hog and slashed it for the one-bag bin. Now folks who use the small — a bin so petite that it requires a raised floor to make it tall enough for the collection truck to grab — pay just $10.63 for the entire year, while the biggest tossers pay $343.60. The change came after a “waste audit” revealed that what people were throwing in their garbage was only 35 percent “garbage.” Most of it should have been composted or recycled.

A waste audit? Does it freak you out to think of someone other than raccoons digging through your trash? Well, that’s the enforcement end of this system.

In Toronto, “we kind of all joke that we’re afraid if we don’t rinse a container, the garbage police will show up,” said Ruelens.

In Seattle, 10 percent food in your garbage can earn you a fine, which prompted a lawsuit and cries of “trash nannying” and “get a warrant.”


Nature is the best cleaning lady

Give Mother Nature your tired pizza boxes, your moldy bread, your slimy banana peels, and she will turn it all back into the richest of earth. That more than half of what lands in American landfills is compostable, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, means we can cut our garbage output in half, simply by letting Nature do her thing.

Here in the Tri-State, food waste is still considered the last frontier. That’s changing, slowly. New York City’s outer boroughs have begun collecting food scraps, and despite the hiccup of overloaded composting facilities, the city is expanding its program to an additional 33,000 households this year and is mulling requiring restaurants to start composting.

Princeton and Lambertville, New Jersey have launched composting pilot programs, where residents actually pay to partake. Paying extra to go through the extra work of separating your food scraps? That’s the opposite of a financial incentive, which shows that people must really like the idea.

“It’s a little bit of a pain in the neck,” admitted Lisa Levine, an architect and mother of three, who pays $65 a year to be part of Princeton’s organics collection pilot program. Now, three days a week she has to roll something out to the curb — recycling one day, garbage another, compost yet another. She buys compostable garbage bags, which she carefully fills and ties up in her kitchen. She’s learned the hard way that if she doesn’t also line her compost bin, she ends up getting maggots. The free compost that participants get at season’s end is nice, but…

Levine sighs. She is committed, and has been since she and her family visited Toronto and saw that they have municipal compost pick-up. The Levines bought a barrel and tried composting in their yard, but the barrel’s contents “seemed to sit there forever, even though we were trying to follow the rules.” That’s when they decided to join the pilot.

“You need to have the people who can afford it, do it. People have to see that it works.”

Messy though it can be, it does work. In cities like Toronto and Portland, where composting is old hat, they’ve been able to cut back residential garbage pick-up to once every other week.

San Francisco, though, is the composting capital of the United States. They even say so even in Seattle. Fog City, which was the first to mandate composting in 2009, diverts 80 percent of its waste from the landfill — the highest percentage in the country.

Why does the system work so well in San Fran, which has no shortage of commuters and tourists who use, but don’t live with, the system? Consistency.

“You see the same system of blue, green, and black bins throughout the city at offices, cafes, and restaurants,” said Julia Kripke, an East Coast transplant who works as a lawyer for Gap and lives with her husband in a three-unit apartment building in San Francisco. “I remember on my first day of work in the city, we were taught on our office tour what is compostable and what should be recycled. We were told that plastic that can hold a shape can be recycled, but other plastic (cling wrap, bags) had to be thrown in the trash. Also, offices, cafés, and restaurants often have very helpful diagrams that show what items belong in each category. Not long after moving to the city, I was pretty comfortable about what went into each bin and didn’t need to spend any time thinking about it. And because I compost and recycle at work, when I eat out, and at home, the practices are completely ingrained in my daily routine.”

In her kitchen, Kripke keeps a small compost pail next to the recycling and trash, which she lines with compostable bags — which pose the same problem as the Levines encounter in New Jersey. “The compostable bags can deteriorate pretty quickly if we put in anything at all liquidy,” said Kripke, “so we try to transfer the contents of our pail to the building’s bigger bin fairly regularly.”

Among the buyers of San Fran’s finished compost: landscapers, the highway department, and wineries in Napa and Sonoma. Instead of clogging up landfills, a city’s yard waste and food scraps turn into cabernet sauvignon.

Leave the leaves

A fall tradition worthy of Rube Goldberg encounters reality

“We have this interesting practice in suburbia here,” said Anne Jaffe-Holmes, who works at a nature center in Westchester. “People in the fall, they rake their leaves all to the curb and leave them in big piles, then the municipalities send vacuum trucks to take them to transfer sites. The county gets even bigger trucks and carts them hundreds of miles away to Dutchess or Orange County. The trucks come back empty, and the homeowners go to Ace Hardware or wherever and buy compost and top dressing for their garden beds.”

What we’ve been doing every fall for the last few decades is, in short, pretty dumb (and before that, we were burning leaves, which was also dumb) — but try telling the real housewives of Westchester County that it’s okay to have leaves on your lawn.

That’s what Jaffe-Holmes, director of conservation education at the Greenburgh Nature Center in Scarsdale, finds herself doing these days.

“People have come to think that a well-kept property means these red woodchips or stripped bare soil around your bushes. But when you look at that with an eye that understands soil biology, you see that as looking very sick, to have the naked roots of your trees and bushes exposed to the elements.

“We have to develop a new aesthetic,” she said. “Kind of like what’s happening with fashion: is the anorexic model really beautiful? These girls are pretty starved. Is it really good to see a garden bed with no natural material on top of the soil to protect it?”

The brainchild of a group of greenies in the village of Irvington, the Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em campaign has spread throughout Westchester since 2010. The Greenburgh Nature Center found itself getting grants and giving educational demos in 20 municipalities last fall, teaching techniques like mulch mowing. That’s a technical sounding term that just means running a lawnmower over your yard to shred up leaves and grass, which both feeds your lawn and saves your town the cost of hauling yard scraps away. It’s not a new idea, but thanks to budget woes, it’s having a moment.

Before the campaign, it cost Scarsdale $782,000 one fall to vacuum up the leaves from the village and cart them away. In Greenburgh, it was $650,000. The tiny town of Irvington paid the county $30,000 to haul off their biomass.

“That’s a ridiculous expense,” said Jaffe-Holmes. “But the worst part is the loss to the soil,” and the subsequent need to apply chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

If you’ve been leaving your leaves forever, whether because you’re conscientious about such things or just not a fan of raking, go ahead and count yourself a trendsetter.

Making money

A town figures out how to monetize just about everything, including used motor oil

“I’m a class A dumpster diver,” said Nick Pugliese. Pugliese, 22, is the sole full-time employee of the recycling drop-off center in Vernon, New Jersey. It’s a simple but effective model that Vernon has lighted upon. People drive in and drop off their own recyclables, the town sells the recyclables to the highest bidder and, with such low overhead, actually makes money.

It is the process of separation that turns your flotsam into a commodity, which is why Pugliese spends so much time sorting through the contents of dumpsters.

“If you go comingled, there’s really no money in that,” said Director of Public Works Dave Pullis. Pullis, 50, has seen Vernon go through every iteration of its recycling set-up. He was hired to work in the recycling center in 1987, after New Jersey became the first state to require recycling. That might make him the most experienced recycling guy in the country, a sort of maharishi of scrap metal.

Pullis knows where the money is. Vernon makes three cents a pound for computers that are mixed in with TVs, but 28 cents a pound for computer towers and laptops, so it’s worth the time spent pulling computers. Aluminum is the most valuable material by weight, so Pugliese haunts the scrap metal depot with a magnet in hand. By now he pretty much knows what’s aluminum (gutters, pool racks, house screens, crutches); if in doubt, he holds the magnet up to an object and if there’s no pull, into the aluminum pile it goes.

Heavy metals (car and tractor parts, used plow blades from the DPW) fetch a higher price than tin garbage cans, bed frames, microwaves and old barbeques, so Pugliese drags them out and piles them in their own corner.

In 2011, Pullis convinced the town to take the recycling operation over from the contractors, to whom the town was shelling out about $100,000 a year. Since opening its drop-off center, Vernon’s finances have seen a $170,000 swing, with no contractor to pay and about $70,000 coming in from selling recyclables — and that’s after paying the center’s two employees.

“Just about every item we take we make money off of,” Pullis said, with a few exceptions, like household batteries and, surprisingly, mixed glass. Vernon pays $10 a ton to truck mixed glass to the Sussex Municipal Utilities Authority, where they crush it and use it as a cover for the landfill. There is money to be made on clear glass, “but it’s hard enough getting them to separate items as it is,” Pullis said.

Of the 300 people who come through the drop-off center weekly, most are Vernon residents, but anyone’s welcome. Pugliese in on a first-name basis with frequent customers, some of whom he swears come by every day. “Veterans and the older generation, they have an old-school mentality,” he said. “They enjoy recycling and re-using.”

They are not supposed to pull stuff out of the dumpsters, but some do a little “shopping” when no one’s looking — which, while technically not okay, feels like a pretty high form of reuse.

“Every time I come here I end up getting something out of the metal dumpster,” said a tall white-haired guy in a red 1970s Ford pickup, who dumped a five gallon bucket half filled with Budweiser cans. “It’s all good stuff.” Fair enough.

Vernonites who don’t want to trek to the dump can hire a curbside pickup service; these folks are, to Pullis, a lost revenue stream. He wants everyone and their mom to use the drop-off center. The more scrap steel and cardboard in, the more money the town makes.

Pullis is always looking for markets for junk that no else sees. Recently he bought an industrial paper shredder and now offers a shredding service for $5 a grocery bag; the shreds go in with the mixed paper, which is bought by a middleman in nearby Byram Township, and probably — like most of this stuff — ends up in China. He’ll happily take your used motor oil, and, yes, make money on it.

This system is a great example of what a town can do, but it is not perfect. As for taking food scraps? “Too messy,” Pullis said. “Then the Health Department gets involved.” Ditto leaves and brush. Pullis has no motivation to encourage reducing or reusing; the more that gets recycled, in his eyes, the merrier. But the system works, financially, and that means it will survive the chopping block when times get tight. Because it turns a profit, this is a truly sustainable operation.