For years the City of Point Arena and the unincorporated area surrounding the city has had different companies servicing the landfill and recycling needs of locals. While the unincorporated parts were served by Waste Management, the city had a contract with the Ratto Group through South Coast Disposal. Due to the constant changes taking place in the solid waste industry, much of unincorporated Mendocino county is now served by Solid Waste of Willits, who took over from Waste Management, while the Ratto Group was bought out by Recology Inc. Last year I wrote a piece about the transition to Recology and how it seemed like a big improvement over the often criticized (and fined) Ratto Group. Customers seemed quite satisfied with the friendly, efficient, and clean work being done by Recology employees.
Within a year, something became obvious to Recology: they couldn't make money on the Point Arena business. Sending a truck up from Sonoma County to service tiny Point Arena just didn't pencil out. That shouldn't surprise anyone. Consequently, they looked to Solid Waste of Willits (SWOW) to take over the actual hauling of landfill and recyclables within the city limits, as SWOW is already sending trucks the 80 miles from Willits to Point Arena to service the surrounding area.
This change has caused considerable consternation on the part of several Point Arena customers. It seems the problem lies with the transition from human to mechanical pick-up. Workers no longer physically handle landfill containers. They are lifted and emptied by mechanical means without any humans leaving the truck. Like any mechanical system it only works well when all the parts of the system are aligned. The mechanized system requires that cans be several few apart so that the mechanical arms can properly grasp the can. Some cans placed immediately next to each other have not been emptied. Also, cans tightly packed were not always fully emptied, but with no one on the ground to notice this. Further, cans were not always set back down upright. Additionally, the arms on the trucks are 8 ft. long meaning if there is a parked car near the cans, the truck may not be able to reach the cans, especially if the cans are not near the curb. All these things would be resolved if a human was handling the cans, but hiring another worker or two is precisely why Recology couldn't make any money in Point Arena.
After hearing from some customers in Point Arena, I visited the SWOW facility in Willits, met with owner Jerry Ward and toured his recycling materials recovery facility. There are actually two stories to be told. One is specifically about the service being provided to SWOW customers and the other is about the much bigger subject of recycling in general.
Before viewing the sort line, I spent a good deal of time with Jerry discussing the business of recycling and it is a mess. As you may know, the market for most recyclables has crashed. Where once there was some money to be made handling recyclables, it is now a big loser as markets no long exist for the products, mainly because China now refuses to be a dumping ground for the world's recyclables. That is partly due to the fact that China produces plenty of its own disposables and also because American consumers in general don't give a hoot about recycling. Recycling loads are usually heavily contaminated with landfill garbage. And think, only 11 states even have deposits on drink containers. To many of us it is just another hassle to deal with and recycling bins are just another place to hide their trash. Folks may tell themselves that they are recycling when they put the cardboard box their new home electronics came in, but then may leave the styrofoam packaging in the box. While they privately know that styrofoam is not acceptable for recycling, they likely assume that someone down the line will deal with it- or they flatly just don't care.
The current reality is that even items with recycling chase arrows numbers 3, 4, 6, and 7 have no markets whatsoever and are landfilled. I asked Jerry why he is still collecting them in recycling and he correctly pointed out that if he told customers to landfill those items and a market eventually returned for them, customers would be further confused when asked to adjust back to recycling them. Since they get pulled out of the recyclables sort line to be landfilled anyway, it wouldn't be any real advantage to having customers stop “recycling” them.
Here are few helpful tips I learned. First the “do nots”: Please do not think you can recycle garden hose, styrofoam, FILM PLASTIC, or needles (yikes! people actually think they can recycle syringes?). If you shred paper, it is OK to recycle it, but first put it in a clear or blue plastic bag so that those on the sort line can recognize it. If it is in an opaque bag, they have to tear it open to see what is inside (it could be anything including a dead cat) and then it flies all over the place. You can recycle larger plastic items like waste paper baskets and plastic laundry baskets if they are only plastic. Deter animals from your garbage by dipping a rag in bleach and hanging it from the lid of your container.
Finally, if you have a question about recycling, don't guess; pick up a phone and call SWOW (707- 459-4845) and ask. They are glad to answer questions and they really do care.
There are some very deep and intractable problems surrounding the politics of recycling and the whole subject of creating a sustainable society and we have had very little leadership on this issue. We are in a headlong rush to gobble up all the world's resources as fast as we can get to Walmart for another carload of cheap throwaway items- and then complain that garbage rates are going up (and they are January 1).
I can't let this issue go. Next month I will be questioning our state authorities about what they plan to do to deal with our mountains of disposables. Up until now they have relied on the Chinese to “solve” this problem for us, but now is time for us to solve our own problems.