ABC and BBC, January 8, 2006
A WORLD WITHOUT WASTE -- A RADIO SERIES
[Rachel's introduction: From holes in the ground to smoking mountains, hi-tech incinerators -- and a certain haze in the air. This is a series about trying to make a world without waste. A world that's clean -- truly clean.]
[This is part 1 of 4 parts. You can download all 4 parts here.]
A world without waste
* About this series * USA: From Garbage to Greenbacks * The Philippines: Surviving Smokey Mountain * Japan: Incineration Nation -- Burn or Bust * China: The Race to Renew
USA: From Garbage to Greenbacks
The state of California is leading the way in waste management and recycling in the USA. San Francisco is out in front, with an ambitious target of zero waste by 2020. Already the city diverts more than 65 per cent of all rubbish away from landfill and into recycling and reuse.
The city has strict environmental legislation, which helps both consumers and businesses to recycle and save money. Waste is seen first and foremost as resource, with the city selling on its recycled products to countries all over the world. Even food scraps from over 3000 restaurants are collected each day, composted and then sold to farms and many of the state's 8000 vineyards.
San Francisco has state of the art recycling facilities and has even banned the sale of disposable batteries and leaded paint, to ensure they're not dumped. But trouble is brewing even in this eco-state. Incineration -- banned in California -- might soon be making a comeback under a new guise, which the community is vigorously fighting on all fronts.
Lynne Malcolm: Hello, I'm Lynne Malcolm and this is the start of a journey exploring the possibility of 'A World without Waste'. Right now governments, scientists and communities are struggling to find solutions for the endless mountains of rubbish created each day from what we consume and what we throw away. Sometimes we burn it, sometimes we recycle it but all too often we dump it in open waste sites like this one here in Manila--where people have to make a living out of scavenging off the rubbish.
Over the next four programs in this Radio National series I'll return to the Philippines and also visit Japan, China and the United States. We'll discover how these countries are managing their waste problem as they strive for a balance between economic prosperity and ecological harmony.
It's a concept with a long tradition in the state of California, where our story begins:
Customer: These are all this year's crop, it probably just came in?
Customer: Okay, I'll go for the green ones.
A typical farmers' market in San Francisco, where choosy customers pick over the best fruits and veggies that local producers have to offer. As we'll hear later on, these markets play an important role in the city's drive towards a concept called Zero Waste. It's about a major commitment to reducing waste and increasing recycling. San Francisco has entrusted this task to a newly created department of the environment. Its director is Jared Blumenfeld:
Jared Blumenfeld: San Francisco has adopted the goal of getting to zero waste by 2020, and to get to 75% by 2010. So at the moment, of all the waste we produce, which is about 1.8 million tons per year, or two Golden Gate Bridges (if you weigh the Golden Gate Bridge) of waste is what we produce. 67% of that waste does not end up in landfill, so it's either recycled or reused. It's a pretty ambitious, controversial goal. We decided we needed to set a goal so we could actually get that. When Kennedy set the goal of getting to the moon, no one believed that it was possible--how could we land a man on the moon?-- but it happened. We think just having the goal stirs a debate about what is zero waste and how we actually can plan to get that. So it's definitely ambitious, some would say audacious, we believe it's necessary and we're really looking at how we can get that.
Lynne Malcolm: The department is looking at a whole range of measures to reach this goal of zero waste, including making recycling a legal requirement, banning the sale of toxic materials that can't be recycled and giving consumers financial incentives to buy environmentally friendly products. It's this all-round approach which captures the essence of what zero waste really means. Anne Leonard is one of the area's leading environmental campaigners and a spokesperson for GAIA, the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance.
Anne Leonard: We use a term called 'zero waste' which refers to a collection of practices and policies to reduce waste at source and then to safely recycle and compost the waste that is produced. On a practical level, zero waste refers to these policies and practices, but on a deeper level zero waste refers to a real paradigm shift in how we deal with materials. Conventional waste management has just assumed that ever-increasing amounts of waste are inevitable, and have really been stuck in this sort of 'bury or burn' trap. Are you going to burn it or are you going to bury it? It's this 'it's got to go somewhere' mentality, or what are we going to do with it? And zero waste really turns this conventional thinking on its head, it takes a step back and says; are there ways that we can reduce this waste? Can we design waste out of this system? Can we make products longer- lasting? Can we address the root causes of over-consumption in a lot of countries? Can we reduce the use of toxics so that the materials that we are using are safer to keep in circulation in society? It really looks at avoiding as much waste as possible from the start.
Lynne Malcolm: San Francisco is the world leader when it comes to zero waste--two-thirds of the 1.8 million tons the city produces is recycled or reused in some way. To achieve this they've developed a unique relationship with the company that handles most of their waste; Norcal. Garbage is a cut-throat business in the United States with vast profits at stake. But Norcal, unlike many other companies, makes its money not from what it dumps but from what it diverts, recycles and sells for profit. Mike Sangiacomo is Norcal's CEO.
Mike Sangiacomo: If you have companies that control major quantities of landfill capacity and they're publicly held, their goal is to fill those landfills. Well, we're not in that position. We compete with those companies, we have to find ways of doing things that are different so we have a competitive edge. It helps that we have the environmental bent. We are way ahead of other cities in this country in terms of the types of materials we recycle...certainly collecting any paper, bottles, containers, whether they're glass, plastic or metal and finding reuses for them. We take food scraps and we turn those scraps into a pretty high-value compost. We're selling that product to over 50 California vineyards, we're selling it to organic farmers, we're selling it to golf courses and landscapers. We're looking, as well, at other uses for organic materials; things like the production of liquid and solid fertilisers. We're looking at energy production, whether it's taking organics and digesting them, capturing the gases, and we're looking at things like ethanol production. If that can be done in a way where more energy is produced in the ethanol process than is consumed in making ethanol, we think there might be a value in doing that kind of thing. And we take construction waste and, rather than just throwing that in a landfill, find materials there that can be used for other purposes. We're looking at everything in the waste stream and trying to find something to do with it.
Lynne Malcolm: If you live in San Francisco, then outside your house you'll have three dustbins or carts--a green one for food and yard waste, a black bin for general rubbish and a blue one for recyclables like paper, glass and plastic bottles. Norcal has built a state-of- the-art recycling facility to process the contents of the blue cart which has been the key to making recycling popular across the state. Norcal's Robert Reed explains why:
Robert Reed: A growing trend in California is to allow people to put all bottles, cans and paper together in one cart. In San Francisco it's a blue cart, and we've distributed them throughout the city. We then come along and collect the contents of the blue cart and we take it to a recycling plant we built specifically to process bottles, cans and paper. That plant is full of modern conveyer systems and things called 'spinning disc screens' that temporarily suspend gravity so the lighter materials float over the top. The paper goes upstream, the heavier materials--the bottles and cans--they tumble downstream. Some of these things can be separated mechanically. Unfortunately the plastic bottles will not react to a magnet and so they must be hand- sorted, and unfortunately there are too many different kinds of plastic bottles in the waste stream--this is a problem--so we have hand-sorters that separate and put the clear bottles in this location and the coloured bottles in another location and the opaque bottle in a third. But when we distributed the blue carts, recycling immediately increased 25% because it made it very easy and efficient for the customer to put all the bottles, cans and paper in the one container and then go on about their business. It made recycling very fast, and people like that. So this is a trend that is very popular in California.
Lynne Malcolm: It was time to get my hands dirty and find out how all of this waste is dealt with. I followed the trail of the green and black rubbish carts to a vast industrial complex on the edge of San Francisco. It's where hundreds of tons of organic matter and general household rubbish arrive each day. It's also home to the city's construction waste, nearly all of which is sorted and recycled.
Plant manager is Kenny Stewart:
Kenny Stewart: This is our transfer station here. We currently have around 2,000, 2,300 tons of trash that actually comes into this facility on a daily basis. In San Francisco we have a three-cart system; the black can is just household garbage, the green can is food scraps and yard waste, and the blue can is recyclables. All the recyclables will go to our other facility at Pier 96. The black can, that's what you see there represented, that actually can't be recycled and it goes off to a landfill, and the green can (I'll show you when we go in the building) we currently see about 300 tons a day of food waste, yard waste, and that's taken off to our other facility for processing for compost.
Lynne Malcolm: We've just entered another building--what a sight! An industrial nightmare; a riot of dumper trucks, mountains of rubbish, and a complex network of conveyor belts and walkways. And what a smell! Still, the seagulls seem to be enjoying it. Strangely though, the place has a kind of order about it--everything seems to know where it's going. So this is what a city's waste looks like.
Kenny Stewart: This is where all the debris boxes, construction debris, comes from the city and county of San Francisco. From here it goes on this conveyer up onto a shaker screen, and we pull wood, cardboard, metal, plastic...the wood is put off to the other side. We actually grind that up and it's sent off for fuel which is burned for alternative energy. The plastic goes overseas for a plastic market which is a new market that we're just embarking on right now. The metal is also sent overseas. The sheetrock is sent up to our composting facility and actually blended in for compost, and the cardboard is baled and shipped overseas as well.
Lynne Malcolm: Further along is the penultimate resting place for what goes off to the landfill as well as the composting centre. A huge pit filled with two enormous mountains of rubbish.
Kenny Stewart: This is actually the size of a football field. This pit that we're looking at is actually 16 feet deep, I believe it's 100 feet long. I've got ten stalls on each side. Right now, where you see here, you're seeing around somewhere between 1,700 and 2,000 tons currently in this bit, and basically this is where everything comes from San Francisco. This is not recycled, except for the yard waste and the food waste. Now, our next level will be what you see here. Ten years ago you saw wood, you saw metal, you saw plastics in this pit; you don't see that anymore. What you see is a lot of plastic bags, a lot of paper still. Because we're relying on the customer to do that, we're going to have to take it a step further.
Vox pop 1: San Franciscans see recycling as a religion. It's unbelievable. People take this very, very seriously, and so the ethic around the importance of recycling is very high. People feel ashamed if they haven't recycled properly. People will go to the ends of the world to recycle Styrofoam; they'll drive 30, 40 miles. We get hundreds of calls here a week, 'How do we recycle Styrofoam?' There's one place down in San Jose that does it and people drive there.
Vox pop 2: I live on a piece of property with one other cottage and I notice they don't take the labels off their cans or the tops off their bottles, so I end up doing that a lot before...but almost every little piece of paper that ever goes out of my house, unless it's soaked in cat pee or something like that, goes into the recycling.
Vox pop 3: People tend to put something in a recycling bin and feel good about themselves and then forget all about what's happening to that item afterwards, and in the meantime new things are still being produced out of the Earth's natural resources.
Vox pop 4: Yeah, recycling is great. Why not use as much as you can without creating more...you know, try to get as much use out of something that you can; that's a good idea.
Vox pop 5: A lot of my recycling goes to a local person that comes and collects it in the neighbourhood, and they sell it and that's how they support their family.
Lynne Malcolm: San Francisco's combination of legislation and technology has given it a degree of success in the war on waste, but across the bay, in the city of Berkeley, famous for its laid-back approach to life, the recycling revolution is a little more low-tech but it still gets the job done.
Shift workers get to grips with the day's waste at the Berkeley recycling yard. I talked to Martin Bourque of the Ecology Centre, an organisation that's managed the city's not-for-profit recycling program for 30 years.
Martin Bourque: We have a manual sorting line. All this stuff goes up over this conveyer belt, and as it goes across the conveyer belt there's six staff people sorting by hand. First they pull out anything that's not recyclable. The next person on line is going to be pulling out the two kinds of plastic bottles. Then there's a magnet that pulls off the tin. The next couple of people are sorting glass into three different colours. If you don't sort your glass into three colours then it's likely to become some sort of aggregate, either for asphalt or may be put back on the landfill to cover it at the end of the day. So people think they're recycling but it's actually being put back in the landfill; we think that's atrocious, so we sort our glass into three colours to make sure it gets turned back into bottles again. We do collection from the kerb-side from about 36,000 residences, and we also have a drop-off site here where people can come and drop off materials that include scrap metal, cans, bottles, newspapers, cell phones, PDAs, pagers, books, clothing--all kinds of materials. Then we also have a buy back program, so if somebody comes in here with 200 cans then we pay them four cents for each one of those cans, plus the scrap value of the material.
Lynne Malcolm: Berkeley and its big sister, San Francisco, seem on the face of it to be working towards the same goal; increasing diversion rates to get closer to zero waste. But they differ on how to achieve that. In particular, the increasingly popular practice of throwing all recyclables into a single bin--co-mingled recycling--is one that worries Martin Bourque.
Martin Bourque: There are a lot of people in this industry who want to make recycling as easy as possible for the consumer, and that is important; the easier it is, the more tons you get, et cetera. But you can't make ease for the customer outweigh the quality of the output of the product, and we believe that it's significantly impacting the wellbeing and health of the recycling industry. Many paper mills now are beginning to not take recycled content, and it's really because of the quality; they're getting a lot of glass in with their paper and the glass turns back into sand and grinds through their mill and wears out the machinery and costs them lots of money. They end up throwing away a lot of material that they'd purchased. So everyone was really excited about this highly automated...we'll get lots more volume, we'll collect more tons, we'll save money on collections. But I think what people are really finding when they really dig in is that most programs, unless they're extremely well managed and have really good equipment and somebody's really on top of it, making sure that the quality is really good, most of these programs are collecting more, recycling less and passing the cost upstream.
Lynne Malcolm: Back in the big city, quality is also something that occupies the minds of shoppers and producers at one of the weekly farmers' markets.
Much of the food here was grown using compost made from organic waste collected in the green bins. Robert Reed from Norcal:
Robert Reed: We collect food scraps in the form of kitchen trimmings and plate scrapings from businesses and from people's homes. We collect 300 tons a day in San Francisco alone. We take this material to a modern compost facility that we own and operate and we compost it, and the result is a very nutrient-rich compost; it's rich in nitrogen and potassium and potash or organic matter. The finished compost is called Four Course Compost. It goes to vineyards and to organics farms--it's approved for use on organic soils--and it improves the soil structure on those farms, it allows the roots of the plants to go deeper into the soil and reach more nutrients. You get a microbial action; micro-organisms come and eat the food that's in the compost, and that process makes these nutrients directly available to the roots of the plants.
Vox pop 6: I'd like to try and close the loop in the earth, so using organic compost as a way of sustainably farming, and so that's very important to me. I also like the fact that I get to meet the local people who actually grow the food rather than just have a corporation deliver it to a store and not really have a face associated or a farmer associated with the food.
Vox pop 7: I try and keep things as long as I can, and then if they're going to go bad I make sure they are going to be compostable. I don't buy too much quantity so I don't have a lot of waste, so just preventing it so you don't even have to get to that point.
Vox pop 8: I keep a pile of garbage in my backyard that I intend to compost one day but I haven't composted yet.
Vox pop 9: The produce--the fruits, the vegetables, the wines--come back to San Francisco. In many cases they're served in the very restaurants that generated the food scraps to begin with. So what you end up with is a local closed-loop recycling program. There's very few examples of that anywhere in the country, and it's been very embraced by the restaurants and is working very well.
Lynne Malcolm: One of the first restaurants to take part in the food scraps scheme was The Slanted Door run by celebrity chef Charles Phan. His reputation and enthusiasm helped to kick-start the movement amongst the city's eateries.
Charles Phan: Starting here, we have a blue colour bin, so you try and get everything colour-coded. You can tell that paper, chicken...we have here our broken glasses, our plastic, that gets all recycled. We recycle our frying oil. Here is a little mistake; that paper shouldn't be in there. It's a small mistake but I make a big deal out of it.
Growing up in Vietnam where we pretty much recycle everything, it was really second nature to not throw everything away...we started out composting just vegetables. Maybe a year into it they switched and they say you can put meat, paper, all that product. It just literally reduced out waste by 75%, and we're hearing these great stories that they can sell the stuff and everybody likes it. I think being a chef, in general you just don't want to waste, period. So by knowing that you can put, let's say, the end pieces of a broccoli go to some good use, you really just feel a lot better. When I come into the restaurant in the morning, not only do I check my food and what it tastes like, if they've prepared it properly, I have to check the garbage. It just becomes second nature. Every morning I walk by, I look at what they cut and I look inside the garbage can.
Lynne Malcolm: Another major Californian industry to reap the benefits of the zero waste approach is winemaking. The state has around 1,100 wineries that together produce more than 500 million gallons of wine each year. One of the most environmentally innovative is Fetzer. They sell almost all their waste--cardboard, glass, paper and metal-- reducing what they take to the landfill by a staggering 95%. And they've made big savings on water and energy use too. It's all part of a drive towards sustainability which Fetzer's Ann Thrupp is now teaching to other winemakers.
Ann Thrupp: There's a lot of interest in the California wine industry in overall sustainable winegrowing practices. There's a state-wide program that I'm also very much involved in; I'm the managing director of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. And what that's all about is providing information to people to improve the sustainability or their practices, and people can do their own self- assessment using this very extensive work book, on many parameters--on energy, on materials, recycling, on human resource issues--so it's the full range of sustainable practices, meaning environmentally sound, economically viable and socially responsible.
Lynne Malcolm: On the way to the main Fetzer winery, two hours drive north of San Francisco, you could easily think you were in Italy, with its rolling green hills and endless vineyards. Patrick Healy showed me some of the advances they've made, both on water and energy use, starting with the bottling plant.
Patrick Healy: So the cases of empty glass come in from the outside, goes down on this conveyer, the glass is dumped, and the boxes go off to another area to meet the wine. The empty bottles come down here to the filler room here where the bottles are filled...I think it's 320 bottles a minute can be filled here, and then into the corker. Then it proceeds down the line and gets the caps all put on, and then runs to the labeller and gets the labels put on. Then they get dumped into the box, and then they go to the palletiser where they are all put on a pallet and then someone comes along with a forklift, takes them and puts them in the warehouse and stores them for shipment.
Water is really important to us here. We have our own wells. There's not enough water in the local water district to support us. You can see what a rural area this is. So we challenged quality control and bottling to see if they could reduce the amount of hot water to sterilise the filler bowls. That ultimately saved a million and a half gallons of water a year.
Lynne Malcolm: This has helped reduce their water consumption by 30%. They also have clever ways of saving energy, too, like covering some of their buildings in earth to help insulate them, both from the heat and the cold.
Patrick Healy: We're coming up on the red barrel room and the white barrel room. The red barrel room, as you can see, has an earth berm around it. We had an engineer do a study showing that we would save about 40% of the energy used in that building, so we got a $60,000 rebate from Pacific Gas and Electric for undertaking that earth berm. There's very little energy usage in that building; earth is a great insulator.
Ann Thrupp: Many of these innovations actually can save you money. It can go hand in hand that the economic bottom line in fact is enhanced by environmental and social investments.
Lynne Malcolm: It's good news that wineries, and many other industries, are turning rubbish into a resource. But what about engineering the waste out of products in the first place, during the design and manufacturing stages? Jared Blumenfeld feels there's still a long way to go--just take plastics for example:
Jared Blumenfeld: If you look on the bottom of any plastic, for instance...just plastic, it goes one through seven, and it has a recycling symbol. Just the number of plastic polymers is 249 plastic polymers that go into those seven numbers. Only about six of those 249 can be recycled. So people are making products that cannot be recycled and putting a recycled logo on the side. So there's lots that could potentially be recycled but they aren't being. The most complicated things to recycle will be appliances, computers, things that are made out of multiple components that are very difficult to take apart. When you think about a refrigerator, it's a relatively difficult job to take that to pieces and make sure that every component part is recycled properly. So the first thing is to work with designers to make sure that products can be recycled.
Lynne Malcolm: The waste story in California seems like an optimistic one, a place where garbage is increasingly being viewed as a resource; something of value, rather than something to bury or burn. San Francisco is definitely a role model for how a city could work towards zero waste. But there's a bigger issue at stake than just rubbish, and it has to do with turning back the tide of consumerism, something still so central to the American way of life. So for Martin Bourque, Ann Leonard and Jared Blumenfeld, there's still a lot of work to be done.
Martin Bourque: There are lots of new programs out there and we are reaching new diversion goals and there is gained awareness in the society at large. At the same time, we see new totally ridiculous disposable products coming on line that are just obscene. You know, why do you need a disposable toilet brush head that you can clean your toilet and then flush it down the toilet? It's got one use. It's an obscenity.
Anne Leonard: The amount of consumption that we have in the United States is absolutely off the scale of sustainability, and I think that we could definitely learn from other countries about how to meet our basic needs in a more sustainable manner.
Jared Blumenfeld: All those discussions items around zero waste really impact every other aspect of our life and our environment. So if you can solve and get to zero waste, you're really setting up models for solving all the issues around climate change, all the issues around toxic releases that are facing our planet, and environmental health.
Lynne Malcolm: Jared Blumenfeld. Today's program was produced by Rami Tzabar, with sound engineers Steven Tilley and Louis Mitchell. I'm Lynne Malcolm.
The next program in our Radio National series 'A World without Waste', offers a stark contrast to the situation in the United States. I'll be in the Philippines where, in the recent past, poor waste management has cost hundreds of lives, forcing local communities to take a stand in order to protect their health and livelihoods.
Global Anti Incinerator Alliance
San Francisco Dep't of the Environment
Zero Waste Alliance
Norcal -- The company that handles most of San Francisco's waste
California Integrated Waste Management Board
Berkeley Ecology Centre
Fetzer -- One of California's environmentally friendly wineries. The company has reduced the amount of rubbish it sends to landfill by 95%.
Copyright 2005 ABC"