I don't recycle. Seriously, if you come to my house and want to toss out your empty water bottle or your paper cup from Starbucks, you can put it right in with last night's leftover sashimi and the packing peanuts from my latest eBay purchase, because there's just one trashcan in my kitchen. There's room under the sink for only a single Rubbermaid bin, and if there were more room, I wouldn't waste it on a second wastebasket. That's idiotic.
I know. I'm single-handedly destroying the planet because I refuse to segregate my garbage. My careless combination of Styrofoam and banana peel, cat poop and candy wrappers is to blame for global warming, higher gas prices, the recent writers strike. So sue me. Call a lawyer. Short-sheet my bed. I don't care. I'm not going to rinse out a tin can every time I eat cling peaches. I'll go off red sauce before I wash and remove the label from a Ragu jar. For me, trash is trash.
I'm not irresponsible. I pay taxes and give to charity and talk to ugly people at parties. I reuse my plastic grocery bags for cleaning out the cat box. I even know the words to "Give a Hoot, Don't Pollute," that catchy TV jingle sung by Woodsy Owl, an environmentalist line-drawing from my childhood. I believe in doing what's right. But I also believe that recycling is one of those things, like sponsoring friends in cancer walkathons and buying Girl Scout cookies, that middle-class people do because we feel guilty that we're not worse off. Putting a plastic bottle into a separate bin allows us to feel like we're contributing to a worthy cause — saving our very own planet! — without having to do a whole lot.
Anyway, I always suspected that the guys who collect recyclables in those big blue bins are taking them off somewhere and dumping them in with the rest of the crap we throw out. Or at least I did until I visited the big, shiny recycling plant way the heck out at Black Canyon and Dixileta (a name that never fails to make me titter) that takes in the crap that everyone else in Phoenix tosses into those big blue bins.
The only other time I'd been to a dump was with my friend Janet DeBerge Lange. Janet is an artist who's always in search of stuff for her assemblage art, which depicts childhood angst and Catholicism. So one day, we drove out to a dump in Guadalupe to hunt for shiny things that reminded Janet of sad little girls and Jesus. The old Mexican who ran the dump actually lived there, in a structure made from refrigerator boxes and a pair of Hefty bags. After we walked around for a while, I noticed that Janet had a big smear of dog shit on her bare leg. I went to ask the Mexican for some paper towels to wipe the dog shit off my friend, and he laughed and said, "I don't have a dog!"
This is a true story.
I saw no shit of any kind at the North Gateway Transfer Station and Materials Recovery Facility when I dropped in for a visit last month. "That's because this isn't a dump," Bill Brown told me rather proudly. He's the solid-waste foreman of the facility, and a lot more jolly than you'd expect someone to be whose job title has the word "waste" in it.
"This is a transfer point," Brown explained. But, in fact, the place looked more like an especially well-manicured corporate park than a site where all the stuff no one wants (out of the green and the blue bins) is hauled. It smelled pretty good, too; I was there for hours and caught only the faintest whiff of garbage as Brown and two other city employees showed off their big, shiny enterprise via long, windowed hallways (they called them "viewing galleries") suspended from the ceiling.
There are two transfer points in Phoenix, one north and one south, where garbage and recyclables are taken and sorted. The garbage is then hauled to a landfill in Buckeye. The recyclables are separated, by machine and by hand, and sold to paper mills and plastic factories as far away as China, where they're magically reconstituted into useful products — namely more paper and plastic — then sold again to companies who need them.
At the transfer station, sprayers first wet the recyclables to minimize the dust from newsprint before more sorters yank out garbage and scrap metal from the piles flying past. Farther along, another set of pickers removes still more garbage and cat litter containers, which are made from an especially inferior plastic that's sold, I guess, to a company that isn't quite so picky about its plastic. The pickers are assisted by specially designed machines; one of them uses a giant magnet to extract clothes hangers and tin cans, another uses a series of rubber rollers that allow smaller stuff to fall through into bins on the floor below; still another separates paper from other fibers with a mammoth fan.
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.
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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?