Bay Area is drowning in trash

It is fitting — though unavoidably gross — that as the annual Christmas gift-giving outburst comes to a close, we all consider for a moment what is about to become of our instant mountains of garbage. What happens next to our crumpled piles of festive wrapping paper and package boxes, to the tons of now-unappetizing leftovers from our festive meals, the clanking mounds of cans and bottles that brought our drinks?

The fact is that how industrial societies get rid of their consumer wastes is a long-recognized problem that increases along with population, and it is now approaching the point where major actions must be taken. Here in the Bay Area, the coming hard choices were spotlighted when it became known that San Francisco’s main trash dumping grounds — the Altamont landfill in southern Alameda County — is on track to meet its assigned 15 million ton capacity by 2015, nearly halfway earlier than the 65-year contract signed in 1988. Remaining capacities will also be gone in the foreseeablefuture at other Bay Area landfills, such as the Peninsula’s Ox Mountain.

What will be required at all levels, from local to international, will be a combination of new disposal enhancements, ranging from greatly increased public recycling cooperation to an arsenal of high-tech trash-diversion facilities. Already under discussion by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is a project to compost 79,000 tons of annual city food waste and produce methane gas to drive wastewater treatment plants as part of an ambitious sewage reclamation plan. Two-thirds of The City’s garbage is composed of food or paper, which could all now be diverted from landfills.

In adjacent San Mateo County, the 26-year-old Shoreway Environmental Center is undergoing a

$20 million expansion that will enable it to recycle an additional 50,000 annual tons of waste by 2011. No less than 12 trash disposal companies attended a recent joint authority conference in preparations for submitting proposals to take over the Shoreway facility.

One intriguing new development in public participation seems to indicate that monetary rewards and turn-in convenience might be as important as continued appeals to good ecological citizenship to motivate consumers to recycle. A study recently issued by the California Department of Conservation found that Californians recycled nearly 800 million more beverage containers during the first half of this year than in the same period of 2006. More than 6.8 billion cans were recycled during the first six months of 2007, the state’s largest recycling rate increase of the last 15 years.

Officials theorize that simply increasing the state’s refund value from just pennies to a nickel for small cans and a dime for large ones provided a substantial motivation. And the state also ought to consider rewarding a major expansion of convenient redemption stations, which might entice consumers to recycle even more empties.

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