The Trashman Cometh

San Diego - model of recycling?

"If we keep dumping at this rate, all the landfills in the county will be filled in ten years."
  • "If we keep dumping at this rate, all the landfills in the county will be filled in ten years."
  • Image by David Covey

It was a good day for talking trash, and Jerry Balistreri had come to the Otay Sanitary Landfill in the southeast corner of Chula Vista to do just that. Garbage trucks by the hundreds were rumbling up the dirt grade, while Balistreri, parked a safe distance away, chain-smoked cigarettes and watched them dump their loads. For Balistreri, who knows and appreciates garbage, it was a frustrating sight. “Son of a bitch," he groaned. “Look at that! That guys dumping a full load of cardboard — must be three, four tons there. I could make $300 with that load."

Balistreri can estimate the value of a dumpster’s contents by standing downwind from it.

Balistreri can estimate the value of a dumpster’s contents by standing downwind from it.

Jerry Balistreri has a God-given talent for trash. Some people can tap dance. Some people can do long division in their head. But Balistreri can estimate the value of a dumpster’s contents by standing downwind from it. Naturally, this ability doesn’t bring him a great deal of prestige. Though he considers himself a recycler, other people have called him a scavenger, a muckraker, and even a dump-truck chaser. But Balistreri, an optimistic and cheerful soul, doesn’t care. “Garbage is the greatest business in the world,” he said. “There’s nothing else like it. It’s so challenging, there are so many angles, and it’s changing so rapidly. The way garbage is being handled right now in San Diego will be totally obsolete in three years, which means the opportunities for people like me are immense.”

Almost everybody who is familiar with San Diego’s growing trash problem has to agree with Balistreri on at least one point: when it comes to waste disposal, San Diego is still living in the dark ages. While some communities in California are already recycling as much as seventy percent of their trash, San Diego is currently recycling only about five to ten percent. The volume of trash being hauled to landfills in the county is enough to fill Jack Murphy Stadium every day. If we keep dumping at this rate, all the landfills in the county will be filled in ten years. The cost of landfills to replace them will be enormous — much higher than the cost of landfills now in operation. “The population of San Diego is so transient, most people figure, ‘I’m not gonna be here in ten years anyway, so why should I care if the landfills get filled up?’ ” Balistreri said. “But people who are here for a lifetime have got to ask themselves, ‘Where are our next landfills gonna go?’ If you stop and think about it, all this trash belongs to the people. They’re the ones who created it, they own it, and they’re responsible for it.”

Few would deny that something must be done. But as Jerry Balistreri has discovered, talking about the problem and doing something about it are two different things.

“Now look at this guy. He’s dumping another load of cardboard,” Balistreri said. “There must be ten tons there! That’s worth eight hundred dollars! Isn’t that a waste? And what’s totally ludicrous is that the guy had to pay to come here! He had to pay to dump money! I would have let him dump that load at my place for no charge. Oh, hell yes.”

The obvious question, of course, is why would anybody dump money? Ignorance? Sloth? Convenience? “The biggest reason people are hauling valuable items to the dump,” Balistreri said, “is because there are so many restrictions, it’s impossible for recyclers like me to work in this county.”

For the last year or so, Balistreri has been battling with the cities of San Diego and Imperial Beach over the location of his recycling business, Wasteliner, which is experimenting with a plan to recycle seventy to eighty percent of the trash that is now going into San Diego landfills. Balistreri, a burly, San Diego-born son of an Italian fisherman, is a patient and diplomatic person, and therefore he is reluctant to criticize the city officials. “Hey, I’m a cooperative guy. I know the city officials have their jobs to do. Besides, if I make them look like bozos. I’m out of business.” Just the same, Balistreri doesn’t mind saying that the biggest obstacle to bringing a serious recycling industry to San Diego is not a lack of technology or public awareness, but rather it’s plain old government foot-dragging. Local governments are talking about the benefits of recycling at the same time they’re making it impossible for recyclers to work here.

Jerry Balistreri isn’t new to the trash trade. His grandfather used to lease horse-and-wagon teams to trash haulers in Milwaukee sixty years ago. It was apparent to Grandfather Balistreri, even then, that burying trash in the ground was an idiotic solution to the growing waste problem and a temporary one at best. He used to tell young Jerry, “If you can figure out what to do with this country’s trash, you’ll be an instant millionaire.”

A few months ago, Balistreri thought he had come up with a plan that would fulfill his grandfather’s words — a multibillion-dollar scheme for incinerating trash on barges anchored off the coast of San Diego. The idea was to burn the trash, then use the residue to build a chain of offshore islands. Balistreri, who drives a compact car not much bigger than a fifty-gallon garbage can and dresses about the way you’d expect for somebody who spends his day wading through trash, doesn’t have the four or five billion dollars necessary to put such a plan into action — “But I know the people who do. They’re all from overseas. A lot of foreigners are very interested in our trash problem. Of course, the easiest way to get rid of the trash, the least capital-intensive way, is to bum it, offshore.” But the Department of the Interior, which controls the offshore tracts, deep-sixed the plan, saying the tracts were already leased to oil companies. “Which was really unfortunate,” Balistreri said, “because that plan would have made me an instant multimillionaire!”

Though Balistreri admits the isles-of-trash scheme may have been a long shot, he insists it wasn’t just a crackpot idea, either. Rather, it was one of the many alternatives to waste disposal that have to be considered, just as trash-to-energy facilities are being considered at the proposed SANDER project in Kearny Mesa and in San Marcos.

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