Trash in Afterlife

Vol. 8, No. 41
Oct. 12-18, 2000
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The stuff you throw out never really goes away
Ay Christy Grimes

A wiry guy with his undershirt wrapped around his head Lawrence of Arabia-style hangs casually off the back of the garbage truck as it grumbles along a historic Annapolis street. He's ready to pounce on the next stand of bags and cans along the route.

"They say garbage men make good money," says customer Jerry Richter. "I say you could never pay them enough." Richter's not even talking about the smell. He's talking about the garbage-man scramble: Spotting Jerry's fetid, overflowing can, the trashman leaps off the still-moving truck onto solid asphalt, grabs the can and rushes back to the truck, swinging the can over his head - as though it weighed next to nothing - to feed its contents into the truck's snarling compactor. He runs back to the curb to return the empty can, then rushes after the still-moving truck and springs back aboard, burnoose flapping.

It's too bad no Olympic competition exists for this feat, which trash collectors perform hundreds of times a day. Our garbage men could stand up to any triathlon contestant, let alone the other garbage men of the world.

Four days a week, the Olympiad continues as Anne Arundel County and City of Annapolis public works trucks clatter and bang through every Anne Arundel neighborhood from Odenton to Holland Point, emptying the familiar navy blue or canary yellow recycling tubs loaded the night before with soup cans, coke bottles and junk mail.
The Hills are Alive

It's only natural that America has the world's mightiest and most agile trash collectors - plus the world's most impressive garbage trucks. For good reason. We have the most trash. That said, let it also be said we have found amazing ways to deal with it all, be it our Big Wheels, dirty socks, beer cans, newspapers, tires or burned-out frying pans. The way we bury our trash is impressive. Even more impressive is the way we resurrect it.

"It's one of the highlights of Anne Arundel County," says Beryl Eismeier, the county's recycling manager, of the county landfill. She's not kidding. It's a downright scenic range of grassy hills with a sweeping view of the county. "You can watch planes take off from BWI," says Eismeier. On a clear day, you can see Key Bridge from Landfill Cell 7, the highest point in Anne Arundel County. And possibly the quietest. The only sound is a distant growl of bulldozers packing trash onto Cell 8.

Millersville is far from the landfill of legend: The buzzard-encircled heap of exposed trash where gangsters drag their victims. There are no bodies here, although the occasional deer carcass has made its way into the mix. It doesn't smell great, but except for an occasional whiff of a complex, nameless funk whenever the breeze shifts, it's not bad.

Landfill cells begin as huge holes dug for dumping. Millersville, where haulers dump the 250 tons of garbage they collect daily, is fast filling up Cell 8 of its nine total disposal cells. Less populated counties like Calvert have one-cell landfills. Half a century after it opened, Calvert's one cell is still a half-empty crater. Calvert has found it much cheaper to ship its garbage off to a Virginia landfill that buries it for $33 a ton. So, four years ago Calvert's single cell was, as Calvert County's recycling coordinator Steve Kullen says, "put on ice" - in fact, blanketed by stabilizing mulch. On its rim, an open torch burns off the volatile methane produced by the ancient refuse.
Buried Alive

Landfills have come a long way from a simple hole in the hinterlands. Open dumps have vanished except in developing countries. That's because they crawl with vermin and occasionally catch fire. They allow trash to blow free, and they stink. Millersville is a fine example of a state-of-the-art, dry-tomb trash dump.

"Think of a landfill cell as a trash pie," says Eismeier. "a crust, or liners, on the top and bottom, and trash in the middle." Better yet, a trash Napoleon. Over the bottom liner, installed to prevent seepage, workers drop a layer of trash, tamp it down flat for space, stabilize it with a layer of mulch, then add more trash until finally a landfill pastry is created. A cell may be dug as deep as a 20-level underground parking garage. It may be stacked as high as a 30-story building.

When this pie is filled, it makes a nice mound that is capped, covered with two feet of soil and sodded over. The cap is a plastic filter that keeps rainwater from percolating through the layers, waterlogging the trash. It's because of this cap that the Millersville mountain range is treeless. "The roots would break through the cap," Eismeier says. Landfill staff keep watch for wayward seeds from nearby woods that drift onto the turf and sprout. "We actually have to pick out seedlings," says Eismeier.

Heavy-duty plumbing draws out any water and gas produced by decomposing trash. Despite the little white vent pipes dotting the hillsides, Millersville seems like a great place to play ball or have a picnic. Forget that, says Eismeier. Roughhousing on a trash burial mound would wear down the turf and eventually expose the trash within.

"All that matters to me is that when I throw stuff out it goes away," says Annapolitan trash-maker Richter.

But as with Edgar Allen Poe's telltale heart beating beneath the floorboards, entombment is not the end of the story. The trash within is always stirring, shifting and festering. "We'll be worrying about that garbage a long time," Eismeier says. "Monitoring a landfill is a lifetime obligation."

Judgment Day

When you consign that old T-shirt or broken bottle to your trash, you doom it to an eternal, though restless sleep, be it in the hills of Millersville or in faraway King George. But when you put it in your recycling bin, you grant it a possible future. Once the recycling truck finishes its route, with a trail of emptied and overturned bins in its wake, it heads for the pearly gates: a recycling center. For Anne Arundel Countians this means Browning Ferris Industries' Elkridge facility. Here, your pickle jars, romance novels, old socks and whatever else you've - rightly or wrongly - dropped in your recycling box will be judged on its fitness for the waste afterlife.

By the way, if you're an Anne Arundelian and have been separating your plastics, cans and bottles, you've been wasting your time. At Elkridge, it all winds up a jumbled heap at the foot of a conveyor belt in Ferris' dim and cavernous recycling barn. The conveyor belt moves the whole mix toward the rafters. Clink, whir, growl and crunch is the song of salvation as a choir of eight workers stationed on a catwalk sort the good from the bad. Working furiously, they separate the mess rushing toward them into batches of glass, paper, aluminum, steel and reusable plastic. This is the stuff that's granted an afterlife.

Glass and paper get bulldozed into mountains, while plastic containers and aluminum cans are packed into huge bales. The whole caboodle is stacked outside the warehouse, whence trucks will spirit them to an industrial netherworld where they will be processed back to life as carpet, beer bottles or car parts. Everything else - your old socks, especially - is banished to the landfill as worthless "residue."

Behind the warehouse, Howard Carruthers, operations manager of BFI's Elkridge recycling center, stands a careful three feet from the yellowjackets swarming a wall of huge blocks made of compressed aluminum cans. "That's why we ask you to rinse things out," he says.

Carruthers then pokes through a waist-high heap of odds and ends dropped by recycling trucks at the center's door. He picks up a frying pan in which a popcorn-making session clearly went awry, its Teflon coating charred and crusted over. "We can use this, actually," he says. It's good scrap metal. He tosses it back in the heap, then almost trips over a pink and yellow Big Wheel. "This we can't. Some people just assume if it's plastic, it gets recycled," says Carruthers, nudging the Big Wheel out of his path. "They'll try to recycle anything."

Which is testimony to how well Southern Maryland has heeded the call to recycle. In 1991, when Anne Arundel County's curbside recycling program began, homes and businesses put aside only about 12 percent of waste. Nine years later, the familiar navy blue or canary yellow tubs loaded the night before with soup cans, coke bottles and junk mail have nearly quadrupled that amount to 36 percent - among the state's highest. But the average customer still throws away a lot of recyclable paper and plastic, and the county hopes to shift ever more of the mighty garbage carrier's burden to the recycling brigade, boosting this noble showing to 51 percent.

Calvert countians have no curbside pickups. They cart their recyclables to one of six drop-off sites around the county and still recycle almost 20 percent.

Sorting Good from Bad

Market forces rule the recycling universe. What separates good recycling from bad trash is whether it can be turned into a sellable product.

"They're all commodities, just like gold, oil and soybeans," says Carruthers.

Aluminum is good. Requiring tremendous energy to produce from raw bauxite, aluminum had a strong market long before the first recycling program. That's why Al Gore's senior citizen, strapped for cash, redeems aluminum cans to supplement a pension. On the open market, aluminum fetches $1,200 a ton – composed of about 66,000 cans. Mills melt the cans to make car parts, among other things.

Also good is corrugated cardboard. Its long fibers are ideal for making more cardboard. That's why you commonly see dumpsters stenciled "Cardboard Only." It's baled and sold for $100 a ton.

Paper, heavy and easy to collect, is the most common recyclable. A ton of newsprint goes for $30, the same price as glass.

When it comes to plastic, the path to redemption grows sticky. The now-famous little triangle stamped on a plastic item deems it recyclable. Potentially. The problem with plastics is that there are so many kinds. That's why there's a little number inside the triangle: to identify recyclable plastic subspecies. But as yet only plastics numbered one and two - which includes many household containers - have a reasonably strong and steady market. Those root beer bottles and detergent jugs might reenter the world as part of your next polar fleece jacket or as carpeting.

Most communities, including Calvert County and the City of Annapolis, accept only these two grades. Anne Arundel County now accepts grades No.1 through 7, even though markets for anything above No. 2 are weak.

Try telling all this to the average home-grown recycler.

"I can't keep track of what I can and can't recycle," says Lynn Saunders of St. Margarets. "If it's got that little triangle on it, it goes in the box."

Finally, Anne Arundel County has bowed to popular will. They've heard enough versions of this complaint to loosen their policy. "We've learned there were way too many rules about which kind of plastic we can use," says Anne Arundel County public works spokesman John Morris.

Kim Benz, marketing manager for Partners Recycling of Baltimore (an operation similar to Browning Ferris) agrees: "It's not worth the outreach effort, especially for a situation that may change any time. It's easier to just handle it all." So some of what you try recycling boomerangs back to the landfill. Such is the destiny of about a quarter of everything sent to Browning Ferris.

You can also forget the numbers. "Just look at the shapes," says Morris. The narrow-necked bottles and jugs include most of what you use: soda and shampoo, milk and detergent. The upper grades are mainly variations of Styrofoam, which nobody seems to want.
Born Again

At judgment day, it's up to recyclers like Browning Ferris and Partners to sort the sheep from the goats, the bottles from the jugs, the transparent from the colored - and bale them separately. To be profitable, the mills they sell to need to produce clean, reusable batches of a single type of resin.

Any plastic that reaches the mill is on its way to reincarnation. The mills break open the bales, grind the jugs and bottles into flakes, then melt them down into tiny pellets.

From a shelf behind her desk at Partners, Benz pulls out a ziplock bag full of what looks like a helping of translucent lentils. "This came from a batch of milk jugs," she says. They are destined to be reborn as brand new milk jugs. Mills also sell their pellets to companies that make polyester carpet or insulation for winter coats. Mohawk Carpets of Owings Mills skips the middleman. Mohawk mills its own pellets from bales of plastic soda bottles bought from Partners.

Nowadays, you can recycle paper of any kind or color: junk mail, gift wrap, greeting cards, cereal boxes, fax paper and telephone books. Wondrous advances in paper milling have taken us beyond the white-only recycling era when you pulled out the color comics and ad inserts from the newspapers before stacking them neatly and tying them with string.

Anne Arundel County recyclers suspect many of us haven't kept up with those wondrous advances. When Anne Arundel County waste services looked through some sample household trash last year, they discovered to their horror it was mostly paper. "I think the trouble is that a lot of people don't realize how much has changed," says Eismeier.

Calvert County's magazines and catalogs become newsprint for The Washington Post. "I visited the magazine plant," says Steve Kullen. "They take the print off the pages by soaking them in hydrogen peroxide. If you look in the vat where the papers are soaking you can see letters lift right off. It looks like alphabet soup."

Nowadays, a mixed recycled batch can reincarnate as high-grade white paper. In olden recycling times, it was hard to get anything but yellow or brownish paper.

Mixed batches of Calvert's paper and cardboard go to Partners, which ships it overseas to Asian nations where trees are scarce and paper quality low. "So they're lenient," says Benz. "We fill a container and take it down to the pier. They pulp it down and reuse it."

Partners and Browning Ferris do more than just process waste items for rebirth. They also act as halfway houses for the marginally marketable, helping find takers for waste products, leftovers and mistakes. Kim Benz is helping BGE find a company to recycle its old hardhats. Howard Carruthers warehouses a stack of crumpled plastic dumpster lids waiting for takers. And in Annapolis, a company called Manner Resins emerged to specialize in this type of matchmaking. Manner found a match made in heaven in their own backyard, turning up a company that can turn boat shrink wrap into plastic lumber and garden edging.
Amazing Grace

To spare cast-off articles, creative reuse takes over when even the most innovative remanufacturing fails. Think old tires. "Before we opened the Calvert County landfill in the '50s, people took care of their own leftovers," says Kullen. "Everything that couldn't be burnt, composted or eaten by something was tossed into a gulley. It's still done locally. We just hope they don't throw toxic waste in these gullies."

What for sure gets tossed is old tires. "Sometimes farmers will actually, for a fee, allow some remote corner of their property to be used as a tire dump," says Rachel Allen of the Maryland Environmental Services' Scrap Tire Program. As part of a state-ordered tire cleanup, Allen hunts for these dumps and finds uses for the recovered tires. "Sometimes it's hell to get those tires out," she explains. "It's always satisfying to have accomplished these feats."

One such hell was a barn basically being held up by tires stockpiled within. "It turned out to be an established historical site," says Allen. "We had to get the tires out without collapsing the barn."

So why not leave them there? What's a few tires, after all? "Tires are a real fire hazard," Allen warns. "Once a tire gets going, you can't put it out. They're also real mosquito breeders."

Every time you buy a tire in Maryland, a dollar is set aside for the Scrap Tire Program. So far six million tires have been recycled through this fund. What can you do with six million tires?

After sacrificing their treads through miles of noble service propelling T-birds or tractors, retired tires get a second career as the basis for cutting-edge playground design. Visit Calvert Cliffs State Park for a close-by encounter with creative reuse. Here several thousand car, truck and tractor tires reappeared as a scrap-tire playground. It turns out there's a lot more you can make from a tire than just a swing on a rope. You can jump off the swing into a bed of tire chips, which are much easier on the knees than the usual gravel. There are tire tunnels, tire towers and tire jungle gyms. Tires are also cut and crafted to make the bases for the picnic tables.

Born again in such parks are not only threadworn tires. "It revives playgrounds that have fallen by the wayside," adds Allen.
Awaiting Grace

Lying in a gulley or an old barn, those cast-off tires haven't fallen by the wayside. They're just waiting with our other detritus - be it Coke bottles or Coors beer cans - to be released from Purgatory. When those trucks roll through the neighborhood emptying cans and bins left and right, it may feel like a cleansing ritual in which our excesses of the last seven days are swept away. But our cast-offs never truly leave us. They are simply transferred to a twilight realm from which they'll eventually return, in one shape or another: as a rug, as a plank or even as a hill.

New Age Recycling

In a suit and tie, John Morris tips the truck handle of a plastic trash can in gleaming metallic blue to roll its built-in wheels. "It even has a flip-top," he notes with seller's pride. Behind Morris, other spanking new bins, crates and hampers of various size, color and shape await demonstration.

Morris would make a great floor salesman at a housewares outlet. But wearing his hat as environmental affairs manager for Anne Arundel County, Morris sells only the ease of the county's loosened recycling policy. Freedom to pick your own container is only one among its virtues.

"We've found one size doesn't fit all, so we'll let you find the size that fits you," chimes in recycling projects manager Beryl Eismeier, also on hand for the show. If you love the standard bright yellow bin, you'll still get one free from the county. But if you opt for a hot-pink milk crate, a laundry hamper in forest green or a two-tone 10-gallon trash can, your recyclables will still get picked up - as long as you mark your new container with a big X.

Wouldn't it be hard to keep the stuff sorted in, say, a round waste-paper basket?

That's the other news: You don't have to sort. Just dump your cans, bottles, jars and papers together, says Eismeier. Let the county do the rest.

"This is a pretty major change for us, she says. "We used to be pretty rigid. Now we say, go ahead if you want to put papers in an open bin instead of tying it or putting it in a paper bag." If you want to go bagless, the county only asks that you try to keep the papers somewhat anchored so they don't blow all over the street.

Speaking of paper, what did you do with yours all those rainy recycle-eves? Did you (a) fling a tarp over the bin, (b) stockpile your paper until it hit the ceiling awaiting the dry pick-up day that never came or (c) just park the bin on the street, papers and all, rain or not?

If you did (c), you actually did right.

"We don't care if the paper's wet," says Eismeier. "At the mills, they have to wet it for processing anyway."

Last year, volunteers at Millersville picked through heaps of wet paper while sifting through samples of household trash to check what county residents were throwing out. People were throwing out their magazines and junk mail. In today's new recycling age, you can recycle all paper and cardboard - except paper that's waxed or food-stained. Recycle all your junk mail, gift wrap, greeting cards and - after flattening them - cereal boxes.

If you're a typical Anne Arundel County resident, you cast off about three pounds of trash a day, two of which are probably recyclable, according to county statistics. So consider this advice from Eismeier: "Before you put that thing in your trash, remember there's a better place it can go."

-Christy Grimes

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly