Robrt L. Pela does not recycle

Last year, 126,000 tons of recyclables were processed at the Northwest Transfer Station, according to Al Shiya, a public information officer for the city of Phoenix. "And every ounce of that would have wound up in landfill if it weren't for this operation," he promised me.

Al said a lot of other things about garbage, but I missed them because I was mesmerized by the workers below us. (Don't worry, you can catch all the facts in "Recycling 101" in this issue.) Like Lucy and Ethel in a chocolate factory, they flanked four-foot-wide conveyor belts heaped with stuff, into which they dipped gloved hands to extract Styrofoam cups and shampoo bottles and crumpled foil. From where I was standing, they seemed neither glum nor happy about digging through other people's trash; some of them looked perfectly content, although some of them looked bored.

At one point, all the workers at one conveyor belt threw their hands into the air on cue in what I mistook for a jubilant sort of trash-picker choreography, maybe one that meant "Hurray for ecology!" or "Look at us, we're saving trees!" but which solid waste administrative analyst Terry Gellenbeck explained is merely what pickers do when a syringe is spotted in the pile they're sorting.

I visited shortly after Easter, so there was a lot of multicolored wicker and plastic neon "grass" flying by. I was surprised to see so many articles of clothing and rubber garden hoses, but the most alarming thing I saw was a stuffed Elmo doll floating past on his back. Who throws away Elmo? And who thinks he can be recycled?

Even more unnerving than seeing a Muppet fly by was chatting with shirt-and-tie city employees who were so gleeful about how they're making money from my trash.

"How come you guys charge me to pick up my garbage, then turn around and sell it?" I had to ask.

"Garbage is big business!" Gellenbeck exclaimed. Who knew? I thought garbage was the end product of big business, but then again, this is America; everything gets sold to someone. For all I know, I could be selling my toenail clippings as jewelry or a nutritional supplement rather than flushing them down the john.

"It's really expensive to run an operation like this one," Brown assured me. We were standing in an odor-free storage space surrounded by big, colorful cubes of smashed-up tin cans and cardboard boxes, the end result of their journey through a colossal compactor; they looked more like pop art installations than refuse. "You have to have trucks to haul the stuff to the landfill, and a sorting facility like this one, and the manpower to run it. Then there's the landfill, which costs about $1 million per acre to create and maintain." Recycling defers these landfill costs and also pays Gellenbeck's salary as well as for the manufacture of all those blue bins which, he claims, should be more full than our garbage cans if we're recycling properly.

But what about the revenue generated from the sale of the recyclables? (For the answers, again, see "Recycling 101.")

I learned a lot from my trip to the transfer station — like that recycle bins are blue rather than green because green was already taken by Glendale, where waste cans are a mossy-beige color, while Scottsdale's are mauve. And I was told that the rumor about how most recyclables come from corporate America is untrue, in part because commercial businesses have made huge strides in reducing the amount of waste they make in the first place. (Again, see "101.") And that though recyclables tend to weigh less than regular trash, they take up a lot more room in landfills — so when selfish pigbags like me don't recycle, our trash requires twice as many transfer trucks to get to the local landfill, then hogs space there once it arrives.

I wish I could say that this and the many other things I heard and saw at the Northwest Transfer Station made an eco-friendly convert of me, that I went right home and set up that second bin under the sink for my Ding Dong wrappers. But the truth is that, though I no longer believe that everything winds up dumped together, I left there thinking mostly of Elmo, staring up at me as he flew by on his way to the landfill. I thought about all those Lucys and Ethels, elbow-to-elbow as the city's trash barreled past them, helping to save the planet one soda can at a time; trying to make up for lazy, cynical guys like me. And I figured, those people are going to be there, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, making their living separating all the crap people dump into those big blue bins. I don't want to take their green away from them, but who am I not to lighten their load a little?

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3 comments
Work From Home
Work From Home

It was enjoyable and nice post....Very much interesting and I would like to read more posts of this type..Good job done.

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westurn australia flowers

nice post.There are two transfer points in Phoenix, one north and one south, where garbage and recyclables are taken and sorted.

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used cell phones

Nice article posted.Its very interesting and informational also.

 
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