Wasting Away

One of my professors once said that if alien anthropologists studied our society, the oddest thing they would find is our belief in a mythical place called “away.” We say “I’m going to throw it away,” or “I flush the toilet and it goes away,” without knowing where “away” is or what the stuff will do once it gets there. Since pondering this, I’ve been unable to throw things in the trash with a clear conscience.

Unfortunately, what I am able to do about waste does not always match my good intentions. I live in an eighteen-unit apartment building in downtown Oakland, and I don’t make the rules, one of which is that food garbage should be thrown out daily in plastic bags. I have a chronic illness, and it’s often difficult for me to manage the practical details of my life. Sometimes time- and energy-saving conveniences conflict with environmental responsibility. I would love to cook homemade food from scratch, but I often eat take-out or packaged frozen food. I rely on Internet shopping, since I often can’t go out, and things are shipped in non-recyclable packaging. I know others have this struggle: while my limitation is poor health, other people work long hours and may not have the energy to can their own tomato sauce either.

Some steps weren’t hard. I installed a filter on my kitchen tap, so I fill my own water bottle and carry it with me. I bought a seltzer bottle and make my own soda, which reduces consumption of plastic bottles. Years ago I discovered the great resource Oakland Freecycle, a Yahoo group where people find takers for their unwanted stuff. Stores that ship, such as the EZ Ship Postal Center near me, will reuse packing materials such as polystyrene foam pellets. But a pile of useless stuff has accumulated in my alcove that I haven’t had the energy to research how to recycle. And I keep throwing out food waste in a continuous series of plastic shopping bags.

But wait. Posters all over town urge us to recycle food scraps; a spirited banana peel asks, “Who ya callin’ garbage?” The Oakland Recycles web site of the city Public Works Department advises everyone to have a green bin for food and yard scraps. Is my landlord not aware of this?

During Earth Week, I catch the Oakland Earth Expo, a fair where every organization, company, and government agency involved with environmental solutions appears to have a booth. It’s a beautiful spring day, and I am excited to be surrounded by people who may have answers to my questions.

First I talk to someone from Norcal Waste Systems, a group of employee-owned companies that includes the company that handles San Francisco’s recycling and waste disposal. She says that food scrap recycling is different for multifamily buildings than for single-family homes, and that such programs take years to implement. She points out that Waste Management contracts Oakland’s recycling, and I could go right over to their booth and ask them. Their representative tells me that they do not recycle food and yard waste from multifamily residences in Oakland. I am disappointed, but an eavesdropper suggests that I compost my own food scraps. So I go talk to composting experts who have a booth on the other side of the Expo.

I thought composting was only for people with yards, but at the booth I see bins that could fit in my apartment. The compost folks, from Alameda County’s Stopwaste.org, tell me that worm recycling can be done in these small bins, which I can purchase through them at a hefty discount. I want to grow herbs on my windowsills, and the idea of recycling food scraps to make my own fertilizer is exciting! But I am not allowed to have pets, and I’m not sure what my landlord will say to wiggly little friends.

On the multifamily unit question, the Stopwaste person says that landlords try to determine if food waste recycling is cost-effective and whether all tenants will participate before giving the green light. Now I’m confused. Waste Management says there is no recycling of food scraps for multifamily units, while this man makes it sound as if it’s up to the landlord. He says WM will make that claim, but I should talk to the City of Oakland directly, which has a booth back on the other side. I pick up Stopwaste’s Recycling Guide, which has a number for the “rotline” and much useful information.

I make my way back to the other side and find the city’s Public Works Department booth. Tell me, I ask, is there any such thing as food scrap recycling for multifamily apartment buildings? The guy says his official answer is no, but off the record, it can be done. Maybe it’s my illness, but I am starting to feel like the hero of a Kafka story. He suggests that I might find a friendly neighbor who will order another green pail. Time to go home.

I am ill again for over a week, and I order a take-out delivery from a Chinese restaurant, complete with plastic containers. The Oakland Recycles web site says that a “greenware” ordinance went into effect this January, banning polystyrene foam and requiring food vendors and restaurants to change to compostable containers when they are available at the same or less cost. I don’t know how effective this will be, since fines only range from $100 to $500, and enforcement is driven by complaints. I carry my own food storage containers with me for leftovers when I go out to eat. The San Francisco Soup Company sells reusable plastic bowls and gives customers a small discount when they use them. This makes good business sense, since it encourages customers to come back. Sometimes I try to give retailers back their packages, which may work if they are selling themselves as socially responsible, or if people do it en masse as they once did with polystyrene at McDonald’s.

When I get back on my feet, I do something that I’ve wanted to do for ages: I make an inventory of my pile of stuff in the hallway. The list includes empty steel carbon dioxide cartridges I had used in my seltzer bottle, some torn un-recyclable plastic bags that say “please recycle” on them, more rubber bands than I can use, unopened hypodermic needles, expired medications, batteries, empty medicine bottles, junk CDs from the mail, socks with holes in them, an old non-working telephone and a similar RF modulator, floppy and zip disks, sleeves from a couple of portable umbrellas that didn’t survive winter storms, and a knife sharpener that I stopped using after the knife sharpener at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market told me that it was as good for my knife as brushing my teeth with borax would be for my teeth.

I picked up a flier at the Expo from Universal Waste Management Inc., a for-profit electronic waste recycling company, not to be confused with Waste Management, the big corporation that handles Oakland’s waste. They would take my ex-phone, ex-RF modulator, steel cartridges (they collect metal for recycling), and batteries. The warehouse is south of 880, no bus goes all the way, and I’m not sure how far I can make it on foot with a loaded pack. Fortunately they have pick-up events, including one coming soon to a building nearby, although there they will only take the electronics and not the steel, which I hike to the warehouse to deliver.

I start thinking about where all this e-waste is going. I discover that tons of toxic e-waste gets exported to poorer countries where unprotected workers process it under dangerous conditions. UWM’s web site says that California has passed strict regulations on e-waste processing, that toxic materials are separated out and processed in the US, and non-toxic materials are sent overseas for recycling. Please note that the Alameda County Computer Resource Center, a Berkeley nonprofit that reuses and recycles electronics, sends nothing overseas. (See related story on page 40.)

The East Bay Depot for Creative Re-use is happy to take my rubber bands, junk CDs, and 32 oz. yogurt containers at their new location at 4695 Telegraph Avenue. Regulations forbid Alta Bates or the Berkeley Free Clinic from taking my needles, but I suspect a needle exchange program may take them, and when I finally track down the truck of Berkeley’s NEED on a Sunday evening, I am thanked for my trouble. Stopwaste.org’s recycling hotline tells me that expired medications are toxic waste, and a handful of pharmacies in the area collect them for proper disposal. Glass medicine bottles can be rinsed and thrown in recycling, plastic ones are my own problem, along with the ex-socks, umbrella sleeves, and bags, which will remain in my collection. The disks I plan to erase at a copy shop and give away on Freecycle, where I’ve already found a market for cassettes, a broken boom box, and a clunky old CRT monitor. Of course I could easily give away the knife sharpener, but I’m not sure that would be ethical.

On my return from my trip to the UWM warehouse, who is in the hallway but my friendly landlord? I ask him if food waste recycling might be possible. He says that he has his own green bin at home, but he hasn’t seen anything for multifamily residences. I tell him that I am researching the subject, and he says he is eager to know what I find out. I ask why I need to throw out my waste in plastic. He says that I can use paper bags if I prefer. I find a chart in Stopwaste.org’s Recycling Guide showing which recyclables are collected in the various cities from buildings with more than four units, and yard trimmings/food scraps are checked for Oakland! I call the “rotline” for more information.

The trainee who answers tells me that it can only be done for buildings with five or fewer units. I point out the chart. It is available for buildings with more than four, but not more than five units? She explains that the landlords negotiated a contract with the city government in which they agreed that it would only be done for buildings with five or fewer units. But if a bigger landlord wants to do it, can he? She doubts it, since it’s not in the contract. But isn’t it the landlords who wanted that restriction? If a landlord is willing, can he get around it? Maybe, she says. He should call to find out more. Call whom? Call this number? Yes, he should probably start with this number. I am feeling again as if my name begins with a K.

Someone else from Stopwaste sends me an e-mail saying that it can’t be done for my building, and the best idea is a worm-powered composting bin. So I hope to introduce some wiggly friends into my lonely apartment. The Oakland City Council has set the ambitious goal of zero waste, meaning 90 percent reduction, by 2020, so I expect that food scrap recycling will come to all buildings in the coming years. Perhaps the greenware ordinance will make a difference. As I struggle to reduce my waste, my beloved city is struggling too. Meanwhile, the canning jars and preserving book I bought last summer are still waiting for a more productive season. I hope one is on the way.

Stopwaste.org is the Alameda County Waste Management Authority and the Alameda County Source Reduction and Recycling Board acting as one agency.

Recycling hotline: 877-786-7927 Composting information (rotline): 510-444-7645

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