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Tiny front-end loaders scurry past six-foot slabs of newspaper, bales of plastic bottles, half-ton cubes of aluminum cans; they push piles into hoppers, onto conveyor belts that raise the debris up to a 12-foot-high platform where seven men in hard hats sort through it, tossing bottles over their shoulders to this bin, loose paper to that; what's left rolls off the end of the belt into a refuse hopper.
The plant manager is a volatile, retired Army colonel named J. Sanger, a broad-shouldered pug with a red-and-gray beard and a shiny pate beneath his white hard hat. He's got a brusque Boston accent with an "ah" sound so broad and flat you could set a polystyrene coffee cup on it. His foreman, Bob Rivera--no relation to Billy, the truck driver--was Norman Schwarzkopf's command sergeant major during Operation Desert Storm, ramrod stiff.
"About a month into the program, I was thinking we'd seen everything come through here but the kitchen sink," the foreman says. "That afternoon, sure enough, we had a kitchen sink."
Sanger one-ups him: "If we received one metal sink, I bet you we've gotten 70, 80 wash basins." They've had TV sets, washing machines. On one shift, an entire automobile engine dropped out of a truckload, raising questions as to how its former owner got it into the recycling barrel in the first place. Sanger gives a "so what?" shrug. "Those suckers weigh what? Five hundred? Six hundred pounds? Whatever the heck it is, a load could get heavy pretty quick."
Then he continues in Bean Town staccato: "I got a guy over there pulled a woman's pocketbook off the line that had been stolen. The woman was crippled. Some guys took it from her, threw it in the blue bin, didn't know it was the recyclables. It came over the line here. Our guy found it, opened it, looked, said, 'Whoop!', closed it, brought it down, gave it to me. We gave him an award, brought it to the lady."
There are lesser rewards of working the line. The lunch truck lurches into the parking lot and the workers step down. One fellow sets down on the curb a stack of papers that look to be catalogues and places his thermos on top to anchor them. The catalogues are decoys; when the wind blows, the thermos rolls off and crotch-shot fold-outs billow out of the pile. He picks them up and walks them to his car, to recycle them later personally in a quiet moment.
Not all commodities are so welcomely received. The dumped loads turn up a couple of dozen tires a week, kids' plastic swimming pools. "With the immensity of the program, people are putting in more than they should," Sanger says. "I see that correcting itself over time." They get the occasional load of crankcase oil--That's not even fucking funny," Sanger snorts--the occasional dead dog or cat, goat, deer. Alas, by the time those reach the plant, they're no longer recyclable.
@body:The program was conceived in 1988, with former deputy public-works director Jack Friedline worrying about the impending closing of the city's 27th Avenue landfill. Subsequently, garbage-truck loads will have to be sent to a regional landfill at a couple of hundred dollars per load.
Friedline invested $35,000 of city money to commission a study of Phoenix garbage by Bill Rathje, a garbage archaeologist at the University of Arizona, and co-author of Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage. Rathje showed that 50 percent by weight and 60 percent by volume of the waste stream was recyclable, and another 20 percent was yard waste that could be composted. That left only 20 to 30 percent that had to go to the landfill. Recycling could reduce the landfill by 100,000 tons a year. (The city, incidentally, does not currently have plans for curbside yard-waste pickup, though landscapers do bring the grass and palm fronds they generate to a special compost facility.)
Rathje's study suggested that the discarded aluminum alone was worth more than $6 million a year, the newsprint a million and a half. As insurance that none of it would end up sitting unsold in a warehouse, Friedline obtained commitments from paper recyclers to take the newsprint and cardboard. "People lose perspective when they think of profits," says Friedline, who has recently left Phoenix for a Buffalo consulting firm, but still talks as if he lives here. "We're trying to reduce costs. What would the cost be if we were shipping this to a regional landfill?"
There were other factors that made the program feasible. Phoenix already had twice-a-week pickup. If 50 percent were recyclable, it was logical to make one pickup for garbage, one for recyclables.
Perhaps most important, unlike most major cities, there is no unwieldy city council to keep the program in debate while councilmembers figure how to steer contracts toward their brothers-in-law. Mayor Paul Johnson had been pushing recycling since he was a councilmember; the Department of Public Works was gung ho. They commissioned surveys and found 90 percent of the population in favor. So there was no debate, no fanfare, no democracy required. The council approved a pilot program of 4,000 homes in 1988, and in 1990, expanded to 6,000.