San Diego recycling rules

What to do with greasy pizza box, damp newspaper, plastic bags

We squabble over recycling at my house. I see no reason why the pizza boxes can’t go into the blue bin, but my husband says I’m wrong, that the melted cheese and grease stains make them unsalvageable. He frets that the plastic windows in his junk mail envelopes will contaminate the waste stream, so he withholds them. Plastic cherry-tomato cartons have to go into the landfill too, according to him. But, I retort, they bear a triangle with a “1” in it. What’s that, if not proof they can be salvaged?

Sometimes, on cold Sunday nights, putting out the garbage, dark thoughts overtake both of us. What if it’s all a sham? What if, we fantasize, the city really buries the old newspapers and empty cereal boxes and beer bottles and tin cans and egg cartons we hoard for the blue bin?

I resolve to see with my own eyes what, if anything, among my trash is being transmogrified.

The trail begins in a large dispatching room in the city operations station located a half-block north of Miramar Road, just east of 805. Almost every City of San Diego truck that picks up residential garbage — recyclable and nonrecyclable — spends the night here, some 177 vehicles. Each day they fan out for neighborhoods that stretch from San Ysidro to Rancho Bernardo. Most of their drivers are men of African-American and Hispanic heritage, and when they surge through the doors at 6:30 a.m., they often emit comic “moos.” These give way to a baritone rumble of joking and chitchat. The supervisor of the high-spirited herd on this morning is an unflappable woman named Phyllis; she’s wearing a blue windbreaker over her gray polo shirt and slacks. A black felt beret trimmed in a leopard-print fabric protects her against the dawn chill. Many of the men wear baseball caps. The backs of their bright orange sweatshirts proclaim, “Customer Satisfaction Our #1 Priority.”

Although most of the drivers know their routes by heart, each man picks up a route book every morning. This is fine with Wayne Allison, the veteran driver with whom I’ll be riding. Allison likes being free of worry about misplacing the book. Not that he seems sloppy about any aspect of his professional life. Allison sets his alarm for 4:30 every workday so he can leave his home near 61st and Imperial by 5:00. That gets him to the yard by 5:25 — more than an hour before the morning’s muster. He doesn’t like to feel rushed when he’s readying his truck for the day, reviewing the predrive checklist. “We try to make sure everything is working. To make sure we have a decent piece of equipment out on the street,” he tells me. Often he drives his vehicle through the on-site truck wash to ensure it looks presentable. “Another reason I get here so early is because that way I don’t have to mess with traffic,” he adds. “ ’Cause when you have to mess with traffic, you don’t feel like going out and driving all day.”

Allison has 6 children and 12 grandchildren, but he looks too young to be a patriarch. He moves with the quickness of a man younger than his 56 years. Deep-set eyes and a trim mustache are two strong features in his handsome face. He grew up on a farm near Columbus, Ohio, and first came to San Diego in 1966 for the Navy. He started working for the city in 1982. Ten years later, an entanglement with drugs stole two years of his life. But Allison says God gave him a second chance, and he started driving a recycling truck around 1994.

Today the city uses the same types of trucks to pick up both recyclable discards and trash bound for the landfill. Allison thinks most drivers prefer the regular trash routes. They require more stops per street. (“Everybody puts out trash. Not everyone puts out recycling.”) So the routes are more compact. Moreover, trash pickup is weekly, in contrast to the biweekly recycling pickup, so the trash drivers must learn their way around only half the number of neighborhoods.

Over the years, however, Allison has come to dislike the way the trash smells. Recycled items produce little stench. All the recycling trucks are automated, which keeps any unpleasant odors more than an arm’s length away from the truck operator. Allison suggests that the automation is a mixed blessing. Years ago, when he worked on a two-man trash truck as a “swamper,” the guy who jumps off and dumps the cans into the back of the vehicle, he loved the way he could interact with people along his route. Commanding an automated one-man truck is lonelier. But it’s never boring, he tells me.

We’re in the roomy cab of Allison’s truck. The sun is climbing up the eastern quadrant of a cloudless sky, and Allison elaborates on this topic. “There’s so many obstacles in a day. It’s just like parking your car.” You can do it a thousand times, and each time will be different. “The driver always has to be on the alert — for anything and everything,” he continues. “There’s always dangers. Driving down an alley or something, you’ve got to pay attention to the whole perimeter.” Tree limbs, power lines, cars, even children’s basketball hoops are potential targets for collision.

Allison’s routes take him all over the city: to the South Bay, Barrio Logan, La Jolla, Tierrasanta. This morning we’ll work in the section of Clairemont where the streets pay homage to mountains. Pausing near Mount Everest, Allison leaps out of the cab and opens up the top of his truck’s hopper, secured during rides on the freeway to keep any contents from blowing out. Slipping behind the wheel again, he comments that he’s never felt confused by the daily switch between the right-hand drive of the recycling truck and the left-hand drive of his personal vehicle. Allison demystifies for me the daunting array of instruments around the driver’s seat. Many are redundant sets of buttons. A driver also can use a joystick to perform the basic operations: extending the mechanical arm, grabbing the bin, raising and flipping it upside down over the hopper, returning it to the pavement, and releasing it. But Allison turns up his nose at the joystick. “I’m a button man.”

When we stop next to our first bin, he warns me, “These trucks are very jumpy. When the arm goes up, the truck has a rhythm of its own.” The motion reminds me of the rocking and jolting of an amusement-ride car as it returns to the passenger-loading area.

Every time Allison dumps a load, he glances at a compact monitor to his left. It shows what a camera at the top of the truck is revealing: whether each bin’s contents have been expelled. (Sometimes people jam the recyclables too tightly, and they get stuck.) Every time a load goes in the hopper, a mechanism pushes it toward the front. Allison says the recyclables don’t compress as well as the regular trash; the newspapers and cardboard and bottles tend to be bulkier.

We roll down Mount Acadia, a wide boulevard without much on-street parking. Allison points out that it’s ideal for curbside recycling. “You can run right along the curb and pick [the bins] up in one sweep.” Far more commonly, complex maneuvering is required. One of the biggest problems bedeviling the trashmen, it’s quickly clear, is that most homeowners don’t set their bins three feet apart, as they’re supposed to do. So when the truck arm reaches out, it’s easy to knock over an adjoining receptacle. “I do it myself!” Allison confesses with a shout of laughter. “When I put my trash cans out, they’re together.” It’s a normal human foible; not the sort of thing to rile Allison. He says whichever driver — trash or recycling — works a given street first, he’ll usually set his bins down so as to allow more room for the man who will follow.

I note another common infraction: some people stuff their blue bins to the point of overflowing, so full the lids won’t close. This increases the likelihood that the contents will spill out as the mechanical arm hoists the receptacle skyward and dumps it. Whenever this happens, Allison sets his emergency brake and leaps out to scoop up the fluttering newspaper inserts and empty 7UP bottles, an inconvenience he shrugs off. Still, he nods with appreciation at the white-haired man on one long cul-de-sac who, instead of overfilling his receptacle, parks it across the street from his house, waits and watches for Allison to dump it, races across to retrieve it, fills it again, and repositions it for Allison to dump a second time as he makes his way back up the street.

With the bin lids closed, Allison and I can’t glimpse what items people are offering up for recycling, but Allison claims the contents vary from one neighborhood to another. “Barrio Logan people have a tendency to put anything and everything in the container,” he says. “And it’s often real junky.” On the other hand, he says, he covers areas “where you can best believe it’s all recyclables.” Some of those people wash every container they discard, he marvels.

He hazards a guess that the items most often wrongly placed in the blue bins are plastic bags. People store their recyclables in them, then toss the entire package, even though the plastic bag isn’t supposed to go in. Allison has the option of reprimanding anyone who breaks the recycling rules. There’s an informal and a formal way to do this, the latter involving tagging the rule-breaker’s bin. No fines are ever imposed, but anyone who’s tagged gets a letter and a follow-up visit by a code enforcement officer. Allison says, “If a person steady does something that’s wrong, I’ll tag it and tell my supervisor.” But Allison’s more often inclined to cut the homeowner slack. Recycling is voluntary, and if people feel too hassled, he thinks, they’ll get exasperated and quit.

By 11:30, Allison can tell from the action of his truck’s compressor that the hopper is getting full, so he secures the cover and we head back north on 805. All the curbside-recycling items collected by the City of San Diego pass through one of two sorting centers. Our destination now is the one located on a frontage road off Miramar Road. Just inside the front gates, Allison halts the truck on a scale, where the truck’s loaded weight is recorded. Then he dumps the contents inside a gigantic warehouse and drives back to the scale. A receipt testifies that our morning rounds have gathered some 10,400 pounds of discards. After a brief stop back at the truck yard, Allison will return to the streets of Clairemont for a few more hours.

Besides Allison’s conscientiousness, what has impressed me most about the ride-along is how widespread recycling participation appears to be. It’s obvious to me why most people want to jettison their garbage. It takes up space, it’s unsightly, and it often stinks. But curbside recycling asks the average person to take several extra, optional steps in sorting and storing rubbish before the garbage truck arrives. The hundreds of stops Allison and I made this morning seem to demonstrate that a whole lot of people find this worth doing.

My subjective impression, I later learn, was confirmed by a survey conducted by the city’s Environmental Services Department. The department selected eight neighborhoods, four in higher-income areas (Point Loma, Sabre Springs, Tierrasanta, and University City) and four in low- to moderate-income ones (North Park, Paradise Hills, Skyline/Encanto, and South Crest). Two city recycling specialists then drove along selected streets in each community on its curbside-recycling pickup day, recording how many homes had set out blue bins. After the first visit, the surveyors returned on two more consecutive pickup days.

They found that participation varied considerably between the neighborhoods. On any given day, an average of only 29 percent of the South Crest homes had a blue bin in front, compared with 76 percent of the homes in University City. But when the surveyors tallied the numbers from all three days, they found that 1603 of the 1969 households included in the study had set out their recycling containers at least once, an overall participation rate of 81 percent. (Again this rate varied from a low of 59 percent in South Crest to a high of 95 percent in Point Loma and University City.) The 81 percent rate is “one of the higher participation rates, compared to other communities,” the study report states.

There’s reason to believe it may climb still higher. When that study was conducted, in September 2000, curbside recycling was not being offered to every resident in the city. So, according to Stephen Grealy, a recycling supervisor in the Environmental Services Department, “We shied away from doing a lot of mass mailing and radio-type education.” Grealy says every time the city staff encouraged use of the curbside-recycling services, residents in the areas that weren’t served got upset. He says some years the number-one complaint recorded by city councilmembers was from constituents who didn’t have curbside recycling but wanted it. In November 2001, the city finally finished expanding the service to all parts of the city, so now Grealy expects to see more promotion and an even higher participation rate.

An amiable, candid man, Grealy was born in Australia and worked as a farmer there and in Oregon before moving to San Diego in the 1980s. In 1988 he was hired to work as a project manager for a local recycling-consulting firm. Grealy says recycling seemed poised on the brink of huge growth back then. The first comprehensive curbside program in San Diego County had begun in Solana Beach in 1983, operated by a nonprofit enterprise called Solana Recyclers. In 1987, America became aware that established landfills were filling up. The flash point for this explosion in environmental consciousness was the New York garbage barge that motored up and down the Eastern seaboard, unsuccessfully looking for a place to dump its load. Here in San Diego, fears ballooned that our trash might face a similar fate. One forecast predicted that the Miramar Landfill would have to close by 1995, according to Grealy. To postpone that eventuality, the city in 1989 began to implement a curbside-recycling program.

“The funding source for doing this was the tipping fee at the landfill — what people pay when they bury their trash there,” Grealy explains. In 1989, California state legislators also cranked up the pressure to recycle by passing the Integrated Waste Management Act (AB 939). This required every city and county in the state to come up with a plan to divert 25 percent of their solid waste from landfills by 1995. By the year 2000, the target figure was 50 percent. Violators would face a fine of up to $10,000 per day, the state threatened.

Grealy, who joined the city’s workforce in 1991, says San Diego’s curbside-recycling program had reached the 82,000-home mark by then. Those were heady days, he recalls. “We were one of the leaders. The City of San Diego was on the cutting edge.”

And then the money ran out. “What happened,” Grealy explains, “was that private companies started to set up mega-landfills, as they called them, in places like Arizona and Utah, where the land’s real cheap.” Another key turn of events was the County of San Diego’s sale of all its local landfills in late 1997 to a private company called Allied Waste Industries. Allied is the second-largest trash company in America, and its managers “became very aggressive in their pricing,” Grealy says. As they competed with the city for the business of private haulers, a trash war erupted, and Grealy says the net effect was that, instead of climbing by the late 1990s to $60 a ton, tipping fees at Miramar year after year remained frozen at around $40 to $41 a ton (rising only in 2002 to $43). “So we didn’t have that additional revenue coming in [from the landfill fees] to expand the curbside program,” he explains.

A law passed in 1919 (the “People’s Ordinance”) prohibits the City of San Diego from charging a direct fee for residential trash collection, shutting off a source of income that other municipalities have used to fund recycling programs. A breakthrough finally came three years ago, when the city won a $6.8 million grant from the state Department of Conservation. Grealy says this money helped buy the additional trucks and bins needed to expand service. (The bins alone, at $40 apiece, cost more than $10 million.)

Grealy says that today more than 242,000 of the tough blue receptacles have been distributed. Although there were more than 440,000 housing units in the city limits in the year 2000, according to census figures, Grealy points out that a variety of factors make almost half of those residences ineligible to receive the curbside service. Many, for example, are large apartment or condominium complexes that provide residents with Dumpsters. Access problems keep the city trucks out of other areas, such as gated communities and Mission Beach, where community leaders decided their already-congested streets couldn’t accommodate yet more garbage bins. The city believes that the 242,000 bins are serving everyone who wants the curbside pickup and is eligible for it.

All those bins look the same. Bright blue, they’re designed to hold all kinds of recyclable items, rather than requiring the user to separate newspapers, mixed paper, and containers. The change from a “three-stream” to a “single-stream” system came at the beginning of 1999, along with the expectation that the new system would capture more recyclables per household, since householders would have to do less work. Grealy says indeed that happened among homes already receiving curbside recycling, where the average monthly collection increased from about 46 pounds to more than 52. As the program expanded citywide, however, the average yield per household has been closer to 46 pounds. Grealy points out that the switch from three-stream to single-stream also coincided with a change from weekly to biweekly collection, a schedule that saves the city money but also tends to decrease the amount collected.

“The move right now throughout the United States is to move toward single-stream,” declares Mike Howard, vice president and general manager of ims Recycling Services, one of the two firms the city has hired to sort and sell the stuff that’s collected. “It’s a lot more efficient,” Howard argues. “There’s a lot of benefits for both parties.”

Howard may have a certain bias. In addition to ims Recycling Services, his employers also own a San Diego company called CP Manufacturing, one of the largest makers of single-stream sorting equipment in the world. Both enterprises boast a long history in the waste-processing industry. The recycling arm started out almost 50 years ago, when a man named Charles M. Davis Jr. opened a scrap-metal operation on a small lot at the corner of 18th and Commercial Streets, southeast of downtown. There he purchased brass radiators, aluminum sheeting, and other nonferrous metallic discards to be loaded onto trucks, driven up Highway 101, and sold to end users and other brokers in Los Angeles.

Over time the business grew, and Davis got a big break in the early 1970s when Alcoa Aluminum approached him. Beverage companies were just starting to use aluminum for their cans, but no one was yet recycling the new containers. Davis volunteered to set up a pilot program to see if this was worth doing. He wound up designing special equipment that separated, flattened, and loaded the cans. The first machinery of its kind in the nation, “It made the recycling of cans economically feasible,” according to a company handout. When other recycling operations clamored to buy the equipment, Davis formed the manufacturing arm. Today CP Manufacturing produces the majority of can-handling equipment in the United States and exports machinery to a number of foreign countries.

In 1991, CP Manufacturing began to automate the sorting of other recycled materials. Its single-stream sorting equipment has now been installed on four continents (North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia). The machines are built in a plant on Wilson Avenue in National City; a complete system can cost as much as $3 million. Davis’s son Robert, who now runs the company, tests his innovations at the ims Recycling Services operation overseen by Howard at 27th and Main Streets. Trucks covering the areas south of I-8 dump their contents here.

The northern sorting center, off Miramar Road, is operated by an enterprise called the Allan Company. Headquartered in Baldwin Park, it came into being in 1953 as a small recycler of computer punch cards, according to Jason Young, a son of the founder. Young says by 1973 the company had begun directly selling waste and scrap paper to paper mills overseas. Since then, through slow growth, “We’ve become one of the largest independent waste-paper dealers in the United States, and the largest independent dealer on the West Coast. By independent, I mean non-mill-affiliated or not a public company.” Young says the company also branched out beyond “fiber” products (old newspapers, mixed paper, and cardboard) beginning in the mid-1970s. “We started buying aluminum cans. Then the bottle bill came in around the mid-’80s, and we started buying plastic and glass.” When curbside-pickup programs began to proliferate, Young says the Allan Company entered the business of sorting the items collected and delivering them to processors. He says at first all the paper and containers were simply dumped into two huge mounds. “The guys would go out and pick off the pile, without a conveyor belt.”

Young says his family’s company eventually wound up buying automated sorting equipment from CP Manufacturing. When the contract to sort and sell the material from San Diego’s curbside program went out to bid, ims Recycling Services and the Allan Company decided it made sense to team up. Both firms had unique strengths (ims with its sorting technology and the Allan Company with its marketing prowess). They won the five-year contract in1998, and it was just extended for another six years.

The Allan Company opened its Miramar plant in the summer of 2000. What you see toward the back of that property is a huge building that’s open along one side. City employees like Wayne Allison drive right in and dump their truckloads on the concrete floor, creating a mess colossal in scale: hills up to 15 feet high of squashed Michelob cartons, Sunday newspaper supplements, Cap’n Crunch cereal boxes, Campbell’s soup cans, empty wine bottles, Wisk detergent containers, and so much more — the not-so-bad-smelling daily detritus of a modern American city.

It’s a great unruly herd of garbage, and the mechanical sheepdog that imposes the first order upon it is a little front-end loader that zooms in and out of the discards. The operator shoves portions of the mess toward the rearmost area of the plant, to the right of an elevated walkway. It’s hard to see under all the trash, but a slow-moving conveyor has been built into the floor there, and this carries the unsorted refuse onto a slightly faster-moving conveyor belt that climbs from floor level up to a walkway about 15 feet off the ground.

By the time it reaches the men and women stationed at the top, the conveyor belt is traveling between 60 and 120 feet per minute, a brisk clip, but still slow enough for workers to spot items that should never have seen the inside of a blue bin: Styrofoam packing forms, discarded silk flowers, soiled stuffed animals, plastic bags, torn T-shirts. These they pluck off the line and pitch through an aperture at their feet, sending the rejected material into an open bay below. Later it will be hauled to the landfill for burial.

The workers also snatch cardboard off the line and consign it to one of two separate bays underneath the conveyor belt, later to be bundled and shipped to plants that specialize in processing it. The stream of stuff that continues along the conveyor belt meets up with a gargantuan machine designed to split it into two separate rivulets. Rotating disks arrayed in an interlocking pattern sweep junk mail, containers, and office paper downward while at the same time, blowers create a bed of air that floats newspapers above the disks and sends them into their own channel.

Similar action plays out a bit farther along the line. Another thundering, churning contraption sifts the containers onto one conveyor belt, while siphoning the mixed paper onto another to be further cleaned before being baled, deposited in a bunker, and loaded onto railcars. Meanwhile, the thrill ride for the containers continues. Steel cans get waylaid by a rotating drum that clasps them in its magnetic grip and then releases them into a chute. A stream of air separates the lightweight aluminum cans and plastic containers from the heavier glass objects. The plastic bottles roll by human workers, who grab and pitch them into different bins, depending upon their chemical composition. More humans sort the glass into brown, green, and clear varieties. Glass that’s sorted by color commands a higher price than mixed chips, yet even the mixed-glass fragments are separated from any remaining scraps of landfill-bound trash by the time the conveyor belt reaches the end of the line.

Some contaminants do slip through, Young and Howard acknowledge. Those plastic windows on business envelopes that my husband frets about fall into this category, and larger items sometimes wind up in the wrong piles too, but Young and Howard say the businesses that process the recyclable items can tolerate a small amount of incoming garbage. “For newspapers, the percent allowable is 1 percent contamination,” Young said. “For corrugated [cardboard], it’s 2 percent.” Systems at the processors’ facilities screen out such small amounts of unwanted material.

The city says the unrecyclable trash that’s caught by the two sorting centers amounts, on average, to between 6 and 9 percent of the total material deposited in the blue bins. In other words, more than 90 percent of the items collected are the right stuff. In contrast, only about 80 percent of the items picked up in Los Angeles’s curbside-recycling program are reusable. “Some cities go as high as 30 percent contamination,” says the Allan Company’s Young, who adds, “The City of San Diego has done an excellent job at education.”

San Diego’s legitimate recyclable items add up to roughly 12 million pounds every month, Young says, and in 2002, more than 83 percent of that consisted of fibrous material: newspaper accounted for 45.3 percent of the total weight, mixed paper was 23.8, and cardboard was 14.3. Glass was the next-highest category (11.1 percent), followed by plastics (3.6 percent), tin and other metals (1.4 percent), and aluminum cans (a measly half a percent, or roughly 60,000 pounds a month). That doesn’t mean people aren’t recycling their aluminum cans, according to Howard, but rather that many residents prefer to take those to neighborhood recycling outlets where they can reclaim the state-imposed deposit, along with something for the scrap value of the metal.

For the aluminum cans that do wind up in the blue bins, the Allan Company and ims Recycling Services collect the deposit money, along with about 40 to 55 cents a pound for the aluminum. When I asked Jason Young about the prices of the other commodities, he sounded uncomfortable. “I don’t know if you want to get into pricing,” he suggested. “It changes very fast. Our prices change daily.” Pressed, however, he sketched the following rough picture. The 40 to 55 cents a pound received for aluminum translates into $800 to $1100 per ton — far and away the highest price for anything placed within a blue bin. Paper products fall into a distant second place. While newspapers were commanding roughly $80 to $85 per ton at the time we had this conversation, “It’s been all over the map in the past five years,” Young said, “as low as $55 to $60 and all the way up to, probably, $120 [per ton].” Corrugated cardboard often fetches a price similar to that of newspapers, though it might be higher or lower by as much as $20 a ton, he added.

Mixed paper commands the lowest price. “It’s the least sorted grade of paper,” Young explained. Unlike newspapers, which might go to one of a dozen or more paper mills in Southern California, most of the mixed paper is shipped overseas. Delivered at the dock, mixed paper was going for $70 to $75 per ton, “but in some months, it can get very low,” Young added.

As for plastics, the Allan Company was finding buyers for only two types, according to Young. One is polyethylene terephthalate (pet, also known as #1 plastic), a form of polyester used to make strong, lightweight bottles for water, soft drinks, juice, liquor, and numerous other food and nonfood products, such as cough syrup, tennis balls, and cleaning products. The other type is high-density polyethylene (hdpe — a.k.a. #2 plastic), most commonly used to make bottles for milk, juice, and laundry products. One problem with any sort of plastic is “that it’s a much harder item to process at the recycling facility,” Young said. “It’s very expansive, so when you bale it, it tends to push away from the bale.” That drawback notwithstanding, the price for pet and hdpe had been ranging between about $80 and $220 a ton, “depending on what grade and where it’s going.”

That leaves tin and glass. Tin “is basically very, very cheap — between $10 and $30 or $40 a ton,” according to Young, and glass is usually even cheaper. He explained that glass trades by color, with clear and brown commanding “roughly $20 to $30 a ton — somewhere in that range,” followed by green (“usually $5 to $10 a ton”), and finally mixed fragments.

“There was a time when I was getting $15 [a ton] for three-mix glass,” Mike Howard of ims Recycling Services told me. But the market had changed, and at the time we talked, no one was willing to pay anything for the glass chips. “You can’t just take this stuff and put it in the landfill,” Howard continued. “You’ve got to prove that you’re really recycling it.” The city’s agents were thus having to pay between $20 and $30 a ton to get someone to process the mixed glass.

At the same time, Howard pointed out that the State of California reimburses recyclers for turning in mixed (and other types) of glass because there’s a California redemption value (crv) deposit on many, though not all, glass containers. (There’s none on wine bottles, for example, because “the wine industry has a good lobbyist,” Howard told me.) Although for a ton of three-mix glass the state pays only 51 percent of what it would pay for a ton of beer bottles, the refund still makes glass collection profitable, according to Howard.

For all the sorting and marketing services, the City of San Diego pays nothing to ims Recycling Services and the Allan Company. Instead the financial arrangement works like this: The city gives its two partners the recyclable material they collect in exchange for a cut of whatever the Allan Company (the marketing expert) receives for the material. The Allan Company provides the city with monthly reports on the shifting jumble of market prices. Three times a year, the city samples what the trucks bring in from the blue bins in order to figure out its composition. “Then we build up an aggregate — how much a pound of our stuff is worth based on all the percentages and all these prices they got paid,” explains Grealy, the recycling supervisor. According to the contract, if a ton of the recyclable material sells for $90 or less, the city receives $9 per ton as a flat rate, with the other two partners sharing whatever’s left. Whenever the aggregate price surpasses $90, the city still gets the $9 per ton, but it also receives half of the additional amount. Thus if the price climbs to $100 per ton, the city earns $14 per ton ($9 plus $5) and the other partners divide $86. At $120, the split would be $24/$96, and so on.

Grealy says throughout the five years the city has contracted with ims Recycling Services and the Allan Company, the aggregate price of the recyclable material has averaged $114 per ton, and it has never fallen below $90 a ton. Still, the amount of revenue generated by the curbside program has varied widely. In 1995, when the program was serving only 82,000 homes, it brought in $1,900,000 — the record amount to date. In calendar year 2000, even though more homes were participating, the revenue dropped to $1,317,000, Grealy says, and in 2001, it fell still further to $859,000. Last year, it climbed again to $1,468,000.

The market for recyclable material is “like futures trading,” Grealy declares. “It’s like the commodities market. It goes up and down. Dramatically.” Before Grealy joined the city’s staff, he worked on an eye-opening market study for the County of San Diego. He says, “They had asked what makes the market prices [for recyclable material] jump around so much.” Grealy says the study identified at least ten major variables that can impact prices. One, for example, was the availability of containers and ships on the West Coast, “because a big chunk of the market is overseas.” And the availability of containers “has to do with the balance of trade between other Pacific Rim countries and the U.S. If Japan, for example, is exporting a lot, there’ll be a lot of empty containers over here, waiting to go back to Japan. Then it’s cheaper for us to go that way.” World events might affect the price commanded by discarded Coke cans, Grealy points out. “When the Soviet Union started to fall apart, Russia was cash-strapped, and they had a lot of bauxite reserves. They flooded the world market for aluminum, and that drove down our aluminum prices.” Even though aluminum is a tiny percent of the material collected by the city, “It’s a real big percentage of the revenue because it’s a very high-value commodity,” Grealy says. Less comprehensible actions of foreign governments also come into play at times. For example, the Asian Pacific Rim countries tend to lack trees, so they depend on recycled paper, according to Grealy. “But sometimes they stop buying. For whatever reason, from the top down, the government may say, no, we’re not going to buy any [recovered fiber] from the U.S. for a while. So suddenly our prices fall apart.”

If the revenue earned from recyclable material fluctuates a lot, the city’s expenses for collecting the material are more stable. These include the cost of keeping trucks running, paying drivers, replacing equipment, and educating the public. Grealy says the costs added up to $5.18 million in 2001, the year when revenues amounted to $1.31 million. Last year, the cost was $7.38 million — $5.58 million more than the program brought in to the city.

The city subsidizes garbage collection too, of course. What I most wanted Grealy to tell me sounded simple to my ears: how does the cost of collecting and recycling discards at curbside compare to the cost of picking up garbage and burying it? But the question made Grealy sigh. “There are just so many levels to that question,” he told me. “Over the last few years, curbside recycling has been much cheaper than trash collection at times. Other years, it’s been a little bit more, especially with [expanding the program] and buying a lot of equipment.” Grealy dug out these figures for me: In fiscal year 2001, the net cost of the curbside program to the city was $80.65 per ton, compared to $84.77 per ton for trash collection.

I asked Grealy if those figures reflected the fact that recycled items don’t use up space in the Miramar Landfill (which forecasters now expect to be full between 2011 and 2013). He said no and pointed out that calculating that impact can be tricky. You can take the current price of dumping at the landfill ($42 a ton) and “grow it 4 percent a year and then say, ‘Okay, in eight to ten years, the landfill space is going to be worth $55 a ton’ or whatever.” By that measure, for every ton of stuff you divert from the landfill today, you’re saving $55, since that’s space you’ll eventually be able to sell to someone. In reality, however, “The value of the landfill space will depend on the cost of landfilling when [Miramar] is full,” Grealy said. And that will depend upon whatever other landfills become available to accept the city’s discards by then. “For example, there’s one on the drawing board for Gregory Canyon in North County. If that opens up, they might say, ‘We need the trash. We’re going to slash prices.’ So ten years from now, the price might drop by $20 a ton. Who knows? It’s all market forces.”

Also complicating the picture is the pressure on the city from the state’s environmental bureaucrats. The 1989 law AB939, passed when everyone panicked about the specter of overflowing landfills, ordained that by the year 2000 every city and county in California had to “divert” at least 50 percent of its waste (that is, do something besides bury it). Although eight local municipalities met that goal (Carlsbad, Coronado, Del Mar, El Cajon, Encinitas, Imperial Beach, National City, and Poway), the City of San Diego had reached only the 48 percent mark by the deadline.

The state then agreed to extend the deadline until December 31, 2004. Any municipality that hasn’t reached the 50 percent diversion point by then is subject to the $10,000-a-day fine. Avoiding the fine is also part of recycling’s economics.

On the other hand, it’s hard to argue that curbside recycling will make a critical difference, whether or not the city reaches the 50 percent mark. In the year 2000, close to 6.6 billion pounds of trash were generated in the City of San Diego. That’s more than 5100 pounds for every person. Most of that is not household waste. Grealy says construction, demolition, and land-clearing generates a lot of it, and much of that is now being recycled. But in 2000, roughly 3.4 billion pounds of refuse were still being dumped into Miramar and other landfills. The citywide curbside-recycling program currently collects only 140,000,000 to 145,000,000 pounds per year — less than 5 percent of what we’re burying. Here’s another way to look at those figures: If we had ten curbside programs, we would extend the life of the landfill by only six months.

Grealy sounded a little sad when we talked about this, though he reaffirmed his belief that curbside recycling is a good thing. “As a general concept, landfill space is expensive and it’s a resource,” he reminded me. Furthermore, Grealy says when surveys have been done of San Diego residents’ satisfaction with various city services, the curbside-recycling program has consistently shown up in the number-one or number-two spot. Grealy thinks it’s so popular because “people really do recognize that the environment is not an unlimited resource. But everyone is so busy. There’s very little they can incorporate into their lifestyle to have an impact.” By recycling, most people feel they’re at least doing something.

Economics aside, the remaking of garbage into something fresh and new can be bewitching. I learned this on the day I visited the Smurfit Newsprint Corporation’s Pomona mill. I’d given up on trying to follow every type of item from the blue bin at my house to its final processing destination. The different paths lead too far and in too many directions. Not a single item is processed in San Diego County. On the day I talked to Chip Lavigne, who oversees the nonfiber products that the Allan Company markets, he told me that most of the used laundry bottles and other colored hdpe plastic from San Diego was going to China, to be hand-sorted by color and made into everything from auto parts to new containers. A lot of the #1 (pet) plastic was traveling to China too, though a company in Georgia was also buying plenty and transforming it into fiber for carpet. Lavigne said that almost all the aluminum cans recovered from San Diego were traveling to primary aluminum smelters operated by Alcan and Alcoa in the Midwest and East. All the glass was going to one of two glass “beneficiating” plants in Los Angeles that turned it into “furnace-ready cullets,” a raw material sold to buyers ranging from Gallo to mayonnaise-jar manufacturers.

Jason Young is one of the Allan Company’s paper experts, and he told me paper “goes everywhere. We ship into Mexico, Canada, the Far East. And we have big customers in Los Angeles.” But at that moment, most of the paper from the Allan Company’s Miramar sorting plant was journeying by rail to an Albuquerque mill. In contrast, the ims Recycling Services center, which lacks a rail siding, was sending about six trucks filled with old newspapers every day to the Smurfit facility. I decided to make that trek, at least.

The drive took more than two hours, first north on 5, then angling northeast on 57. I couldn’t help thinking about the gasoline those six trucks a day must burn, as well as their impact on Southern California’s air quality.

But once I reached my destination, the niggling reflections receded. The Pomona mill has been operating for 37 years, and my guide, a supervisor named Jim Lane, who’s worked at the plant since 1970, told me the operation ranks as the biggest supplier of 100 percent recycled newsprint on the West Coast. Lane led me first into the production warehouse, a dim cavern that throbbed with the noise of a busy front-end loader. More than a million pounds of newspapers get dumped on the floor here every day, a vast sea of torn, stained, disheveled pages laden with billions of words that no one will ever lay an eye upon again. In this scruffy ocean, the front-end loader looked like a hyperkinetic tugboat. It shoved piles of the paper into a huge floor-level bucket. When a digital scale announced that 9000 pounds had been deposited, the bucket rose into the air, then was carried away by an elevated monorail.

Lane directed me outside, where we walked past a machine ejecting junky glop into a garbage bin. “It’s a little bit of everything,” Lane said of this trash that came in with the old newspapers and was caught by the plant’s screens and centrifuges. Hurrying on to a large vat, we watched the bucket of papers arrive on the monorail overhead. Another mechanism dumped the dusty, fluttering contents into the vat, and Lane informed me that 18,000 gallons of (recycled) water were flowing in at the same time, along with various de-inking chemicals. The vat looked like some giant’s bowl of oatmeal, and after a mixer churned it for a while, the contents would flow into an even larger vat for more stirring.

After this, the paper stew was heated up and washed and spread out on a fast-moving mesh; then most of the water was sucked and squeezed and evaporated out of it. It raced through deafening machines at speeds of close to 40 miles per hour, winding up on six-foot-wide spools. At the end of the line, Lane ripped off a piece of the finished product and handed it over.

Its creamy whiteness startled me. The paper felt satiny under my fingertips. It looked soft and pure enough to be made into a baptismal gown for a baby.

I knew this was an illusion, that it would soon bear inky reports of political scandal and war and environmental disaster, that it would yellow and begin to crumble. But it could be rejuvenated. I was witness to that, and the knowledge felt a little like a gift.


They can go in the blue bin, according to recycling specialist Stephen Grealy. “As long as they don’t have a coating of cheese baked onto them.” But Grealy says a bit of grease is acceptable.

Improvements at processing plants have made way for other previously verboten items, including:

Envelopes with plastic windows — Paper processors can now screen the plastic out.

Unwashed tin cans and bottles — Grealy advises scraping out large quantities of food that remain in cans and bottles. But no rinsing is necessary, he says.

Wet newspaper — This commands a lower price than the dry stuff, and city workers don’t want to be handling noxious substances, such as cat feces. But clean, damp newspaper will pass muster, and papers that were wet but have since dried pose no problem at all.

Plastic containers, on the other hand, are more confusing. The city for several years has accepted narrow-necked, screw-top plastic bottles with a recycling “1” or “2” imprinted on their bottoms (e.g., juice, soda, and water bottles; milk and water jugs; and detergent, soap, and shampoo bottles). But in 2002, the California Department of Conservation ordered state municipalities to begin accepting other plastic bottles labeled with a “3,” “4,” “5,” “6,” or “7,” and “CRV,” “CA Redemption Value,” or “CA Refund.” Because of the small number of these types of containers in the recycling stream, the City of San Diego’s processor is storing them until a large enough quantity has accumulated to warrant sending the plastics to a manufacturer.

Wide-mouthed plastic containers (blueberry baskets, margarine tubs, yogurt cups, and the like) are still shunted off to the dump, even if they bear a “1” or “2.” The problem, Grealy explains, is that the market for such materials is still so small that it would cost the city a lot to have them processed. “And it’s not just about maximizing diversion,” Grealy says. “We’re also trying to keep the program as economical as possible.” (Waxed cardboard containers such as frozen dinner boxes and milk cartons are unwanted for the same reason.)

Plastic bags are unwanted too. It’s difficult to tell which resins they’re made from (something that’s necessary before they can be processed). Moreover, the recycling specialists believe that if the city accepted plastic bags, people would fill them with all manner of items — further complicating the sorting and screening process.

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