Solid-waste and recycling news in Alameda County
Garbage isn't going away on its own. Alameda County's garbage peaked about 1988 at 2.2 million tons per year and declined to about 1.5 million tons per year
(about one ton per person) by the late 1990s, but has remained stubbornly stuck at that level, with some recent increases even. Recycling volumes, both residential
and commercial, are growing only slightly.
Towards more effective
A major innovation in the last decade has been the switch, throughout the county except for Berkeley, to letting home recyclers mix all recyclables in a single
rolling cart. This has reduced injuries to curbside drivers (waste collection has historically been a very risky occupation) and it allows a single truck to service far
more households (since there is only one cart per household instead of three separate bins for different materials).
After an uncertain start, the sorting factories are learning how to de-mingle what the public has mingled, and we are finding markets for the materials. Some
old-time recyclers still miss putting each item into a separate container at home, but the new systems have collected record volumes of material. Apparently, though, most of
this added volume is coming from the same folks who used the old system.
Unlike in Chicago and New York, where curbside recycling has been a political football, collection programs for residential recyclables remain in place
throughout Alameda County, but they are not attracting many new participants. We need new efforts and ideas on encouraging more participants, especially among immigrants
and the urban poor, who need to be sold on the importance of home recycling.
Off-shore buyers, particularly in China, allow the Bay Area steady markets at good prices for almost all recyclable materials. Since imports from Asia greatly
exceed exports bound there, shippers have plenty of room in sea containers for scrap paper, metals, and plastics, which leave Oakland daily for east Asian ports to
be reprocessed into next year's Christmas presents.
The county waste and recycling boards have recently adopted a policy to tighten up on waste disposal and gradually to ban certain commonly recycled materials
from landfills in the county. This follows practice in Toronto, Seattle, San Diego, and other cities frustrated that participation in recycling programs tops out at about 60%.
Composting our garbage
Yard and food debris make up over 30% of the county's trash. Alameda County has more residents, on a percentage basis, participating in food-scrap recycling
than any other urban county in the U.S.; nevertheless the participation is quite low compared with communities in Canada and western Europe. Too many organic
materials are going into Alameda County landfills, materials (such as food scraps and cardboard) that when buried, over time, create emissions of methane, a highly
potent greenhouse gas. Current technologies do not come close to capturing landfill gas completely; according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),
landfills accounted for nearly 30% of methane emissions (2002) in the U.S.
The county's efforts to advance composting lost a couple years due to a proposal by county staff to build a compost facility in Sunol, on a site where
such development is prohibited by Measure D, the county's Urban Limit Line ordinance. Last year the Board of Supervisors scuttled this proposal, and the
Alameda County Waste Management Authority is now entertaining a variety of other composting proposals.
- The East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) has a pilot program of adding food debris to its existing sewage digesters, and plans to increase this to
100 tons per day. (Does that sound like a lot? It's around 6% of the county's green waste, a little over 2% of the county's total waste stream.)
- Pellegrini Marin Disposal, a private firm, has proposed to haul green and food debris up the Sacramento River to an inland compost yard in 200-foot barges. This
plan has the added benefit of reducing garbage-truck mileage.
- Several ranchers have offered composting space on their properties in the eastern part of the county.
Berkeley has declared itself for a zero-waste future, and the plan to accomplish that goal is moving forward through the city's Zero Waste Commission. In July
Berkeley will start collecting food debris from homes and some apartments, and it is rebuilding its waste-transfer station to allow separate piles for all materials coming in.
Berkeley's Zero Waste Commission recommended recently to the City Council that the city begin a pilot program to evaluate the feasibility of coupling
weekly collection of residential food scraps and other compostable materials with every-other-week collection of residential rubbish (dry refuse). Weekly trash collection
would be available for an additional charge. (Today mixed garbage and rubbish is collected weekly.) The changed system would reward environmental behavior and would
help contain collection costs. Officials within the city's Public Health Department do not oppose the pilot program; the department is interested in finding out
whether residents can be successful in keeping putrescible materials out of the trash. The EPA (Region 9), which is conducting a study of best practices for residential
organics, sees value in the effort.
Oakland also has developed a zero-waste plan and aims to cut garbage to 40,000 tons annually by 2020, down from last year's 400,000 tons. Oakland recently
banned polystyrene-foam take-out containers in all food-service settings and is just starting enforcement of that ordinance; it's now the biggest city in the USA to
With the start-up of food-debris collection at homes in Berkeley, Piedmont (probably in mid-2008), and Hayward (in 2009), only the Oro Loma area (in San Leandro
and San Lorenzo) will have no home-based food-debris collections. Oro Loma tells its residential customers to flush food debris down the drain; they'll let the sewer
pipes do the transport and make methane at the treatment plant. Oro Loma does encourage its restaurants to sign on with a food-debris-hauling company that trucks
the material out-of-county for composting.
In contrast, two miles away, EBMUD has a big sign up near the Coliseum: "Prevent Sewage Back-up in your house and the Bay - Recycle Your Cooking
Oil." The Sierra Club has not analyzed the relative efficiencies of these methods of transporting wastes, but we are concerned in our water-scarce state about
using water to move wastes.
Oakland and Berkeley are working together on an important statewide problem. California, as of this year, bans disposal of semi-hazardous materials such
as fluorescent lights and alkaline batteries in landfills. Unfortunately the state has not developed a convenient alternative disposal system. Currently these materials
are accepted at certain businesses, or at free-to-the-user household hazardous-waste drop-off sites, where the public indirectly pays the costs. Oakland and Berkeley
are working to get the state to make manufacturers responsible for these disposal costs. For details about where to
dispose of such items in Alameda County in the meantime, visit Stop
For such information statewide see
Another good resource on many aspects of Bay Area recycling is
The biggest new building in the county for solid waste is the Fremont transfer station, run by BLT Enterprises, which will replace the Tri-Cities landfill on Auto
Mall Parkway in a few years.
After 15 years in San Leandro, the county Waste Management Authority, now known as StopWaste.org, is moving to 1537 Webster St. in downtown
Oakland. Numerous rehabs and improvements will make this the first LEED-platinum rebuild in Oakland. (LEED is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the
green-building rating system developed by the US Green Building Council. Platinum is the highest level.) For more
information on the building, visit www.StopWaste.org (click on "We've moved".)
Residents are welcome to drop by for a tour. Call first at (510)891-6500.
© 2007 San Francisco
Sierra Club Yodeler