Fading in the Rear-View Mirror

After seven years, Dave Williamson is leaving his post as recycling manager of the curbside pick-up operation. Before coming to the Ecology Center, Williamson worked with San Francisco Community Recycling, Urban Ore, and other waste-stream reduction efforts. Along the way, he’s learned a lot about society—and about human nature—from dealing with what we discard. Joe Eaton and I talked with Dave about his thoughts and experiences.

What’s the single thing you’re most proud of?

The biodiesel conversion. It’s the longest-running continuous biodiesel program in the US. It broke a logjam, as one of the first big users of non-petroleum fuel. It had a huge effect, got a lot of attention in the industry, though the story was drowned out in the mainstream press by the Enron energy manipulation scandals.

Biodiesel is turning into the oleochemical industry—we’re already seeing the effects of oil peaking.That’s a mixed blessing for us—biodiesel prices are rising along with petrochemical prices, and the supply is getting erratic. We’ve had stock outages from our regular suppliers. But our program has had a bigger effect than we expected it to, because we’re actually running this whole fleet of trucks, year in and year out.

There’s another thing I’m proud of. When I came to the program, we couldn’t offer prevailing wages to our drivers—the wage a commercial license could get them. So I became a trainer, trained them to pass the CDL exam myself. I was the only trainer around who made my people put their hands on every piece of the truck—I had them start in the middle and grab every component, tell me what it was, what it did, exactly how much give it should have, what the tolerances were. The DMV guys said I was the only one who made my trainees get underneath their trucks and know every part. And they passed on the first test!

That affected the community in more ways than one. I’d taken these folks who maybe made minimum wage, or just enough to maybe rent a place, and now they had a good wage, could buy a house, support their families, add to the local economy because of the free training provided by the Ecology Center.

Of course the catch was that now they had that training& We had so many hired away for more money that I was training new drivers every six months. The City of Berkeley hired four of my drivers away in one summer—that’s four out of nine. Between the ones who went on and a few who washed out or couldn’t physically do the work, I ended up training ten people that summer.

Doing our routes is really hard work. It’s coal mining, not truck driving. These guys lift up to 10,000 pounds on a heavy day, on a 500-stop route. I’ve worked routes myself, to keep costs down and at the start, to learn the job. I’d come home and just sit in the bathtub with tears running down my face, sit down at the table and not have the strength in my arms to lift my fork.

What trends do you see for recycling?

Right now, more people are recycling and more stuff is getting recycled than ever, but the business is contracting because of consolidation in the garbage industry. That goes along with automation, and automation goes along with single-streaming, the idea of putting all your recyclables in one can. That gets picked up by a mechanical arm and dumped into the truck—you can’t do that with sorted bins of paper and glass and what-have-you. But waste-management outfits have found it’s cheaper to pay unskilled waste sorters than skilled drivers. The costs of both drivers and trucks have skyrocketed since we started.

We thought about automating our routes, but the hill streets in Berkeley couldn’t support it. A lot of those little chalets up there don’t have room for an extra tipper can in their driveways—there’s barely room for the car—and when you start rumbling around those narrow streets with a bigger truck& One time I and the driver had to physically lift a parked car so we could turn the truck around. We gave up after that and just sent a pickup truck up to that street.

Here in Berkeley, between our own promotion and gentrification, we have a lot more recycling. When I started, we had one route—one truck, one guy, one day—between Sacramento and MLK, between Ashby and Dwight. Now it’s more than doubled in that neighborhood. Of course, that means more work for us as well as more material.

What do you see in the future?

There’s some movement towards using garbage for fuel in power plants—but any fuel expert knows that the quality of fuel depends on the feedstock, and the “recipe” for the feedstock would change with every truckload of garbage.

Raw materials are getting scarcer; even the big producers know they have to start recycling. About 60 percent of the steel in the US is recycled stock already. Paper’s still a huge part of the waste stream, and it’s hard to use recycled paper for some things. Berkeley’s looking at the sort of composting thing San Francisco’s doing, because that food and dirty paper mix is about 50 percent of the waste stream, and that would put us close to the mandated 75 percent landfill diversion.

You can see already that resources are getting scarcer, it’s driving foreign policy, and the media& I lived in Japan for seven years, came back to US in 1987 and I thought I was in Franco’s Spain, from how much I wasn’t seeing on the news. Compare the New York Times Web site with the BBC’s sometime. Karmically, we’re in for a shitstorm.

The way out I see is sustainable self-sufficiency. With biodiesel, you grow your own fuel. Solar, same way. Organic farming, local growing—local production cuts a lot of the need for lightweight packaging that drives plastics use, and those unrecyclable aseptic packs, those juiceboxes.

The thing is, there’s never been such a profound change without having a war. We have a group of people on the right who perceive themselves as besieged. The last time we had a similar situation was over the slavery issue. If it were to come to blows it would destroy everything.

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