THE TRUCK STOPS HERE
"This is how the other half lives," Billy Rivera says as he wheels his garbage truck through a neighborhood nestled between Tatum Boulevard and the mountain preserves. The houses are big and pretentious, Taj Mahals in stucco and red tile with lawns like putting greens and shrubbery like a Philippine rain forest.
It's recycling day, and so blue, 90-gallon recycling barrels obediently line the cul-de-sacs, brimming with bottles and lawn-mower throttles, beer cans, old fans, paper from business proposals, boxes from garbage disposals.
"On the South Side, the barrels are less full," Rivera shouts over the roar of the engine. "Let's face it: They're poorer. They recycle their own things." He reflects a moment. "Come to think of it, I've seen people up here going through the cans for the aluminum. Maybe that's how they got here."
In this neighborhood, people shred their bill stubs before throwing them away, in case burglars or creditors go through the cans to see how much they're worth. Rivera once saw the discarded bank-card bill of an account holder with a credit limit of $45,000. "We're walking around proud as a rooster because we got a limit of five grand, and this guy can buy a car on his Visa." Once, a man ran up to the driver's window, asked Rivera how much the truck cost, then shouted, "I'll buy you one. I want my garbage picked up today!"
Rivera has driven a truck for the City of Phoenix for 14 years; he's been with the recycling program since its pilot-program days in 1988. The program now reaches 50,000 homes; by 1997, it will reach 285,000, and though it will not be the largest municipal recycling program in the world in terms of tonnage, it will be the most comprehensive. Even in its current, interim stage, Phoenix's recycling program is more ambitious than any other system, taking newspaper, scrap paper and junk mail, magazines, cardboard, corrugated board, glass, aluminum, clothing, several kinds of plastic containers, plastic bags, tin, steel and other scrap metals that turn up in the form of broken appliances or lawn chairs. What makes it unique is that it is a "single stream" system, meaning recyclables all go in one barrel and get sorted out later. Most municipal programs ask residents to sort recyclables out themselves. But the Phoenix program collects 20 different items; it would be ludicrous to give residents 20 different bins or bags and expect people to put them at the curb on collection day. Besides, it would be more labor-intensive, requiring extra workers to hoist the various products into the truck. Phoenix went to one-man automated trucks years ago.
Rivera's one man, but he's a big one. He's a couple of inches over six feet, a healthy few pounds over 200. The truck he drives is also economy-size, 15 tons, with two steering wheels built cockpit-style into the cab. Rivera fills what would ordinarily be the passenger side, his big frame bouncing on the air seat, the whole truck creaking, squeaking, kidney tweaking. He pulls up alongside a pair of fluorescent-light tubes sticking an inch or two out of a bin. Phoenicians are so enthusiastic about recycling that they tend to err on the overzealous side. They know they can recycle metal and glass, so it would seem likely they could recycle light bulbs. But they're wrong. In the back of Rivera's truck, there are bags of grass, plastic pool toys, foam rubber--things that aren't recyclable, mixed in with all the things that are. People try to recycle hoses and toys and furniture. Rivera's seen loads of medical-style latex gloves in a hopper from a nursing home. Other collectors have seen syringes. Or packing popcorn: "On a windy day, you think you're in Flagstaff in a snowstorm," Rivera says. "You blink and it's gone down the road."
And so he decides to dump the tubes into the truck, anyway. "It'll break on the outside and make a mess," he explains. "You leave it out there, you don't know who's going to get ahold of it--a kid or something." Jiggling the controls like a kid playing Nintendo, he eases the truck's automatic arms around the barrel, then balances the can and the tubes up and through the loading door. Rivera once won a garbage-truck rodeo held in Vancouver, British Columbia; he could probably use those pincers to take a splinter out of a little girl's finger. The arms resound against the steel truck body with a banging, clanging, that rattles the truck and its occupants. The bin drops back on the curb with a bone-shaking thud.
@body:The city sends its recyclables to a Materials Recycling Facility--or MRF, pronounced "murph"--on University Drive at 19th Street. It's operated by a New England-based corporation named CRInc, which is running a makeshift interim program as it builds a processing plant that could be the setting for some trashy, futuristic Arnold Schwarzenegger flick.
Rivera pulls in with a load that weighs in at 9,000 pounds, backs into the tipping floor and with a hydraulic whine, lets it fly.
There's a faint whiff of garbage coming from the day's overall haul, 90 tons in a 30-foot-tall mountain that looks to be mostly paper. In fact, 40 percent of it is newspaper, but the more you look, the more its contents emerge: weed whackers, carpet tackers, lawn chairs, barbecue carts, boxes from pop tarts, cereal boxes with the kid activities scribbled in. Front and center, sticking out like an emblem, is some first-grader's schoolwork, a connect-the-dots rendition of a frog, greens and blues, meticulously colored. People's "stuff," now rendered trash.
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.
The first sorting experiments were by local private contractors, homeless people, inmates from Perryville. The latter were adept at personal reclamation; they would pull Christmas tinsel and garlands that people had mistakenly put in the recycling bins and use them to decorate the sorting facility at 23rd Avenue and Buckeye, pull out discarded stereos, rewire them, and boogie down.
@body:J. Sanger, who runs the current MRF, has no time for such frivolity. He's the sort of fellow who might spend 20 minutes sputtering that he doesn't have time to talk, or ask a visitor for proof he's not an industrial spy from rival Waste Management, Inc. But he has his soft spots.
A helicopter flies overhead, and Sanger suddenly stops his spiel. "I used to fly the shit out of those," he says, his voice brimming with nostalgia. "Alouette; it's got a fan for a tail rotor."
Sanger spent six years in the Marines, 25 years in the Army. He did three tours with Special Forces in Vietnam, and retired as a full colonel with two master's degrees. He brags of how he once flew an F-4 through a hailstorm, "and when I landed the plane, they had to take it to the scrap heap."
Perhaps he exaggerates--what would that be worth on the scrap-metal market?--perhaps not. Sanger seems to vibrate palpably, with the potential energy of a fault line. When he started in Phoenix last June, he claims a cellular car phone blew up in his hand from the heat. One wonders if it weren't turbocharged telekinetic aggravation transmitted from his hand into the fragile mechanism.
CRInc is a 10-year-old company owned by Wellman Inc., an East Coast plastics recycling concern; it has 20-some MRFs in the United States and Europe. Phoenix awarded the company a contract last March that required it to build and operate its own facility and find the markets for the recyclables; CRInc receives a processing fee that is now $36 per ton and in turn it must share one-quarter of the revenues with the city.
Sanger arrived in June and threw together a building in six weeks, as if by force of personality. When the plant is fully operational in February, the CRInc company literature says it will process 120 tons per shift; Sanger says it will do 340.
He walks the big hall where it will all take place, 70,000 square feet. The $6 million of sorting equipment is disassembled on the floor and in the parking lot, enormous slabs of sheet metal, girders, rollers; three giant electromagnets, 12 feet long, six feet wide and weighing 12 tons each; all of it painted industrial green. A couple of engineers stand scratching their heads and staring at blueprints; a couple more crawl dwarfed among the hardware, poking crescent wrenches into remote crevices.
"That is an incline sorting belt," says Sanger, pointing to a pile of steel struts. "That's a BFM-60 shaker, one of the largest in the world. That's the baler--it's a mon-stah!"
Excitedly, he explains how it will all work, how a conveyor will shoot recyclables through a hole in the wall from the tipping floor next door to a platform 30 feet high where six workers will pull out the obvious contaminants, "grass, lumbah."
The magnets pull out the iron and steel and launch them into roll-off bins. The rest flows onto a shaking Rube Goldberg platform that sloughs the paper to one side. Chains and screens rattle and shake and flagellate the mass. Bottles and cans drop through holes, bounce along a 20-foot-high mezzanine that runs more than 60 feet along the length of the room. Human sorters behind plastic bubbles separate the glass by colors and send it off to a crusher that shatters it into road-accident-size pellets. Other sorters pull out plastics, PET in one bin, clear and colored HDPE elsewhere. When the giant bins fill below, a light comes on in a nuclear-power-plantlike console, the foreman pushes a button, and the bins roll automatically to a pit and dump. Then the material floats along a conveyor to the baler.
In Sanger's mind, the room is bustling like a painting by Hieronymous Bosch, like a scene from Blade Runner, front-end loaders spitting, strumming, the balers buzzing and humming, the belts bouncing and shaking, oozing milk jugs, old rugs, plastic tubes from shampoo or hair goo, empty bottles of Pepsi-Cola, TV sets from Motorola, kids' shirts, Dad's ties, tins from store-bought pies, boxes, boxes, boxes. . . .
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.