Trip for Trash

I arrive at the Solid Waste Transfer Station and Recycling Center at 5AM on a gray June morning. Most of you probably don’t know what the world looks like at 5. Dark and cold.
I am joining those who toil in the underbelly, those who know your garbage — Cash for Trash coordinators Matthew Carlstroem and Whit Fowler are on their second-to-last mission to find the real recyclers in this city of the conscious. In a contest funded by the City of Berkeley and the Alameda County Source Reduction and Recycling Board, the moon-suited Ecology Center team sorts through trash from residential garbage cans to look for recyclable items. If none are found, the randomly drawn residents — who have given permission for this most revealing scrutiny — win cash prizes.
First we’ve got to get the trash. By quarter to six, the three of us are on our way in the Ecology Center’s white pickup, the back stacked with huge plastic bags. As we drive the quiet early morning streets, Matthew and Whit wax philosophical. These are guys who take lunch at 9AM, and they chat about physics and food with the best of them.
We arrive back at the Recycling Center at 6:45, just as the bio-diesel recycling trucks and the garbage trucks lumber out to scour the streets of Berkeley. After dumping our bags behind the trailers that serve as Recycling Center headquarters, we head back out to up-end more cans into the plastic bags. We get back with our last load around 8AM and are joined by the rest of the Cash for Trash team. It’s time to sort.
Laureen White suits up in her white Tyvek protective suit, hat, goggles, surgical mask and double layer of rubber gloves. “If you caught us when our suits were clean you’d think we worked for NASA,” she says.
Picking through garbage gives me a new appreciation for the waste stream. We separate everything by category. Paper and plastics take up most of the volume, with “putrescibles” a close third, a category invented for anything so gross you don’t want to unwrap it, disentangle it, or basically touch it in any way even through two layers of rubber. Whit Fowler describes it better as “anything that rots.” Nate Silva has a more appreciative outlook: “One advantage of this job is that you get exposure to all kinds of food.” But, he warns, “It’s not all as glamorous as it seems.”
So, the question we’ve all been waiting for — what is in our neighbors’ trash? Sure, the odd dildo, dollar bill, baggie of joints (suspiciously well-sealed as if planted for later use) and yes, once someone’s foot-long dead pet lizard came up attached by one stiff claw to the sleeve of Nate’s moon suit. Lots of plastic (11.4 percent of the total by weight, to be exact), lots of paper (21.8 percent), lots of putrescibles (46 percent). The team has categories for yard waste, reusable goods, chemicals, soil, wood, ceramics, textiles, glass, and metals. Central to the contest is the group of all the items that could have been recycled but instead were thrown away. Recycling Operations Manager Dave Williamson comments that they found “a lot less yard debris and a heck of a lot more food than we anticipated in the garbage,” indicating the success of Berkeley’s relatively new yard waste collection and the need to create a composting facility to process food waste. Williamson says, “We’ll be doing our best to influence policymakers toward that end.”
The very first load of trash we sort is a winner. Unlike the other bags’ recyclable shoe boxes, junk mail, and soda cans that are mixed in with the banana peels, old cheeseburgers, and canisters of air freshener, this load has obviously been well sorted. One of a total of eight winners, Parker Street’s Gertie Sylvester says she’s been recycling since the ’80s and plans to use her $1,500 cash prize to go on vacation. “Recycle, reuse,” she says. “It’s the best thing to help save our environment.”

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