Across the pungent world of waste, a climate debate has been raging. Which is better: turning yard clippings and food scraps into compost, or landfilling them and capturing the methane that they release to produce energy?
Last month, I happened across this question while riding in a muddy pickup across the top of Altamont Landfill, a 30-story hill of garbage run by Waste Management, the nation's largest trash collection outfit. "To me, I think it's good to have more organics in the garbage," operations manager Neil Wise told me. Organic matter in landfills generates methane, a potent and flamable greenhouse gas; Altamont currently captures enough methane to power 8,500 homes.
On the other side of this debate is the City of San Francisco, which this week voted to make composting lawn clippings and food scraps mandatory for every city resident. The nutrient-rich product fertilizes more than 200 Bay Area vineyards. Composting advocates worry that outfitting more landfills with "methane wells," possibly with the aid of carbon offsets created through a climate bill, will detract from those efforts.
Here's my take: While capturing methane from landfills is certainly worthwhile, evidence suggests that composting is far better. A nine-year study by the Rodale Institute, to be published in the next issue of Compost Science and Utilization, a peer-reviewed journal, found that applying compost to cropland sequestered a staggering 10,802 pounds more carbon dioxide per hectare each year than farming with conventional manure fertilizer. That's more than the yearly emissions of a Chevy Impala. "That's a pretty big deal," says Rodale research director Paul Hepperly, the author of the study. "When you are composting, you are stablizing the carbon" in organic matter.
And though capturing methane at a landfill also reduces greenhouse gasses, it can't match composting's associated benefits. Compared to raw manure, Rodale also found that compost applied to farmland led to a 600 percent reduction in nitrate leaching, which can pollute steams and groundwater, and improved the soil's retention of water by a factor of three. "This relates to looking at things wholistically," Hepperly said, adding that the ultimate goal should be an "agricultural system that invests more in our environment and takes less out of our resources."
On the same rainy morning that Reed and I tracked my recyclables, we followed Eric Pike to his final destination, "the Pit," where he'd deposit my trash before it was shipped off to the landfill. The Pit was hidden inside a San Francisco warehouse at the edge of town. Caterwauling seagulls were chased off by workers shooting blanks from a handgun called a "whistler," as well as by a trained falcon, a hawk, and two dogs. Still, the rain running off the Pit's roof was frothy white with seagull poop.
Inside, a miasma of chemicals, street-sweeper bile, and rotting burrito stung my eyes and nose. The Pit, a cement trough the size of a college gym, had been filled halfway—about nine feet deep—with compacted trash. The Big Pig opened a hatch and expelled a plasticky load coated in brown syrup. Peering down at the reeking pile, I spotted a "Have a Nice Day" sack that possibly contained my cat's poop.
Despite San Francisco's impressive recycling stats, a 2006 study found that more than two-thirds of the Pit's contents could still be recycled or composted. In an effort to shame residents into achieving zero waste by 2020, this January Sunset Scavenger plastered the sides of its garbage trucks with giant photos of trash heaps. "The idea is that when you actually look at garbage," Reed explained, "you realize that it isn't garbage at all."
Yesterday Operation Rescue, the national anti-abortion group based in Wichita, announced that it wants to buy murdered abortion doctor George Tiller's clinic and convert it into a "memorial to the unborn." The national media dismissed the announcement as a stunt, but it most certainly isn't.
In 2007 I reported a piece for this magazine about how anti-abortion groups have created similar memorials around the country. The story focused on Operation Rescue's efforts to convert a different abortion clinic in Wichita into what is now its national headquarters. When I visited, Operation Rescue director Troy Newman explained that he'd purchased the building through a front group. That approach makes yesterday's announcement a credible threat. If Tiller's family puts the building on the market, they might have to sell to someone they know or closely investigate the buyer to keep the building out of Newman's hands.
"What better way to show that we are winning and demoralize the enemy," Newman told me in 2007, "than by shutting down an abortion mill, throwing out the tenants on their face, and taking it over as our headquarters? You lose, we win."
Beyond the chest thumping, these kind of takeovers--which have also happened in Tennessee and Louisiana--are part of a long-term strategy of the anti-abortion movement. The approach ultimately enables a softer appeal to the millions of women who've already had an abortion. At the Wichita memorial, Newman told me in 2007, they'd be able to reflect, mourn, memorialize—even name their "babies"—and take action: "Not only can I see a plaque here with my baby's name on it, and cry here because I killed my baby here," he imagined visitors saying, "but these people in this building are dedicated to ending the holocaust, and I can join with them hand in hand."
Some pro-choice advocates admit their movement has been slow to tackle the question of healing. Only in the past several years have hot lines such as Exhale and Backline begun providing women with postabortion counseling services. Owning Tiller's clinic--and thus the right to tell its story--would be a powerful way for Operation Rescue to redefine what healing means in this case. If his past clinic takeover is any indication, it will probably involve grisly "tours" in which he will point out supposed blood stains.
Part 2: In which our intrepid reporter continues his trash odyssey and witnesses the beautiful ugliness of recycling. [Read Part 1 and Part 3.]
Step 3: Stream of Consciousness
Near the end of a day's route, some trash collectors—often former military men who call their trucks "boats" or "planes"—will radio in that they're "on final approach." Their first stop is Recycle Central, a gray warehouse in the Bayview neighborhood that looks like a weapons depot. Loud, dirty, and mechanically byzantine, Recycle Central is a factory where disassembly lines split an old product—garbage—into multiple streams of raw materials. In other words, it's where other people start to sort all the castaways that we can't be bothered to sort ourselves.
At around 11 a.m., Pike drove onto Recycle Central's soccer-field-sized "tipping floor." He opened the Big Pig's recyclables hatch and floored the truck, leaving behind an eight-foot-wide log of rejecta. I tiptoed across it and found my unmistakable square-shaped egg crate. "Your egg crate is about to get buried," Reed said as a front-end loader smashed into the log and heaved part of it onto a 15-foot-high pile of recyclables.
The loader's driver, Isidro Vallejo, nimbly scooped out a soiled comforter and carried it across the floor to a dumpster. I asked what he liked about the job. "I think it's a great thing for the kids," he said, leaning out of his cab. "It's amazing how much 'recycle' we get over here. It's incredible. I think it's beautiful." Especially after Christmas when the pile becomes a sparkling mountain of gift wrap: "Oh man, it gets pretty nice."
Part 1: In which our intrepid reporter sets off on a trash odyssey and learns that he's been throwing out his garbage all wrong. [Read Part 2 and Part 3.]
Step 1: The Big Sort
In the best of ways, San Francisco is king of the trash heap. While the average American annually discards more than 1,100 pounds of garbage, the typical resident of the city by the bay trashes 882 pounds, thanks to a Herculean recycling program that recovers nearly half of everything that gets tossed. No major American city recycles more. I wanted to know why. It certainly wasn't because of me.
To find out whether my city's phenomenal recycling success was actually real, I asked San Francisco's waste contractor, Sunset Scavenger, if I could track one week's worth of my own trash in real time. It agreed, and so began my odyssey into a world of waste.
In addition to curbside pickup, Sunset Scavenger offers 11 other recycling services, everything from free "bulky item" pickup to a 16-year-old construction debris program that accounts for roughly 30 percent of everything the company recycles. These programs are supplemented by other independent recycling services that trade in everything from glass bottles to used asphalt. Factoring them all in, San Francisco calculates that 72 percent of its waste is diverted from the landfill. To reflect this focus on waste diversion, Sunset Scavenger's parent company recently changed its name from Norcal Waste Systems to Recology.