Recycling's Dirty Little Secret 

The people who sort our recyclables have dangerous — and sometimes disgusting — jobs. And they're about to get worse.

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But Oakland is taking a different path than the county, and it's generating a backlash. The Oakland City Council approved a draft Zero Waste plan that calls for workers to sort through not just the trash that finds its way into recycling bins but also all garbage from Oakland's multifamily residences. The draft plan, scheduled to take effect in 2015, would continue the city's practice of providing single-family homes three separate bins: for trash, recyclables, and compost (food scraps and yard waste), and would extend that program to commercial properties. But apartment buildings would get only two bins: one for recyclables, and the other for trash and food scraps, which would be separated later in a "materials recovery facility" (MRF). That's the part that the Sierra Club, the ILWU, and other community groups object to — they want apartment buildings to get green compost bins, too.

But the Oakland City Council approved the two-bin plan for multifamily buildings in January on the recommendation of Public Works Agency staff. That plan is based on "a climate-change and environmental imperative to get [compostables] out of the landfill," explained recycling specialist Slote. Rotting food generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Landfill technology captures some of the methane, but some escapes into the atmosphere. Even with a green bin available, residents often put compostable material into the trash, which ends up in the landfill. By allowing apartment-dwellers to combine the materials in their homes, and then have workers sort them in a MRF, the city will be able to divert most, it not all, compostable material away from the landfill, Slote said.

Councilwoman Libby Schaaf, who sits on the Public Works Committee, said councilmembers were impressed by the recycling program in San Jose, where food scraps all go into the trash bins and are sorted out later. "Our understanding is they're getting a much higher recovery rate of organics," Schaaf said, referring to compostable material. By contrast, said Slote, San Francisco puts green bins in apartment buildings, but "we're confident they're recovering less than 50 percent" of the food scraps.

It's "an environmentalist utopian point of view," he argued, to think that a three-bin system in apartment buildings will capture all the organic material. And more recovery of compostables, said Schaaf, means "doing a better job of meeting our zero-waste goal."

Slote also argues that separating compost won't work very well for apartment-dwellers because multifamily buildings are different from single-family houses. Single-family homes have "yard trimmings that dilute the food scraps and reduce the 'volatility' [translation: smell], as opposed to a plop of wet food scraps rotting," he said.

A Public Works Agency report cited additional problems in apartment buildings: tenant turnover, "space constraints," and "wide variations in tenant participation in source-separation." After discussions with the Sierra Club and others, however, the city did amend the plan to allow a three-bin system in an apartment building if the owner requests it. The city's plan has the support of the East Bay Rental Housing Association, which represents apartment-building owners.

Once the trash-plus-food-scraps material is collected, Slote said, "processing technology is available today or will be in five to ten years that will capture organics [food scraps and yard waste]. I believe we're in a brave new world of organic material management."

Oakland's plan, for example, envisions sending trash through an enclosed container in which anaerobic bacteria would eat up some of the food scraps, generating methane in a controlled space so it can be captured for fuel. Screens and filters will separate some of the rest, so the process will be "very hands-off," Slote contended, although he added that there's "always a little hand-processing."

And once the organic material is separated from the trash, Slote concluded, "we'll have access to all that material, not just get it out of the landfill but capture it in value-added products, in compost," which would be sold for uses like landscaping. And this work could be done locally, Slote said, rather than burning fuel to ship compostable material to the Central Valley. Compost that's been contaminated with trash, however, cannot be used for food production.


In general, the Sierra Club likes Oakland's plan, especially the emphasis on "source separation," asking both homeowners and businesses to put recyclables, compostables, and trash into three separate bins, said zero waste advocate Abbe. "We are 100-percent enthusiastic about that," she said. "Jumping up and down!" But the Sierra Club is distressed at the "disconnect" for apartment dwellers, she added. "We're very concerned about writing off a whole sector of the population." It's as if city officials "don't trust them, don't think they can educate them, don't think the zero-waste vision can be shared by everybody."

At an Oakland City Council meeting, Abbe argued against the creation of a MRF to separate compost and garbage that comes from multifamily buildings. "We want to focus first on education and outreach, going door-to-door" she said in an interview. "We need to invest in social marketing, education to change the culture.

"We're at the tipping point," she added, referring to compost education. "Only this year we've gone up to forty schools in Oakland with composting programs. But many of these kids live in multifamily buildings so they aren't able to recycle and compost at home. That's inequity."

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