Please welcome today’s guest writer, Stephanie Bradshaw (’17). Stephanie majored in writing and geography. After graduating, she’s been following her heart wherever her feet can carry her. From the trails of upstate New York to the landfills of the Pacific Northwest and the many places she will walk in between, she is living out her passion for environmental stewardship. She is inspirited by globes, compasses, trails, mountains, leaves, dream-catchers and the ideologies these symbols represent.
We stood on an extension of a natural butte, but under the topsoil was a thousand feet of trash. Downslope, Bobcats plowed a field of bursting plastic bags. But rather than the scent of rotten trash, our senses were overwhelmed with the smell of dried onions.
When I was living in Michigan, my friends and family considered me an expert on recycling. But now that I’m living in a new place, I’m finding that the waste systems here are a bit different. There’s no unified or designated method for waste control or recycling besides a few general rules for health and safety.
I remember being in awe of the Grand Rapids recycling sorting facility. Metal tubes sucked up plastic bags. A magnet pulled out metals. A high-tech light machine scanned plastics and zapped them onto the right lines. Bundles of material taller than me constantly dropped out the other end. But if I was holding my breath, it wasn’t because of my fascination but the smell of lingering sour milk and fermenting orange juice left in jugs among other contaminants that littered the floor.
Now, standing atop ten-years’ worth of trash, all I could smell was onions. Pipes protruded from the fake butte, piping methane a half mile to three generators which create electricity. The collected heat from the generators is piped next door to dry onions for a company that produces any dried onion product you can imagine.
My current job is with the Solid Waste Environmental Outreach department of Clark County, Washington. One of my tasks is to educate the residents on how to recycle properly. Many people consider putting anything in the recycling as a good deed. But if that thing isn’t recyclable, it just ends up in a longer journey to the landfill, racking up a bigger carbon footprint and costing the whole system more in time and labor and possibly fees for the recycle companies. And sometimes, the landfill it ends up in isn’t even in the same country.
China is one of the biggest buyers of raw recycled plastics. They take those big bundles of squashed jugs and melt them into plastics to be used for all those cheap kiddie toys, disposable razors, and all of that unnecessary plastic that we ultimately bury in a landfill and forget. However, the United States doesn’t just sell China our recycled plastics, we also sell them all of the trash that hides in the recycling. China’s sick of pulling out dirty diapers and other trash from recycled material and burying it in their landfills. Due to a new program called China’s National Sword, the quality standards for China’s imported materials is increasing. Soon, they will only accept recycled material with a maximum of 0.02% contamination. My county was proud of our 2% contamination rate, but now recyclers are scrambling to find other buyers because getting plastics that clean, they’re saying, is impossible.
My team toured another landfill an hour away from the first. As we got out of the van, a valley of cherry trees and vineyards spread out before us. In 45 years, someone may be passing through those orchards and look up at this slope covered in hay, not knowing that the core of this mountain is a plastic ravioli stuffed with trash. Though both landfills are being built into natural landscapes, Wasco Landfill doesn’t have an onion factory like Finley Buttes. The methane is released into the air or flared, and the leachate is piped into a pool to evaporate.
Unlike Grand Rapids, the Clark County recycling facilities cannot process as much. Their machines get tangled with plastic bags and wires like a vacuum wound up with too much hair. They must shut the line down and pull the debris out of the machine by hand. Bottle caps and anything smaller than a tennis ball slip down and get caught in the gears. Any plastic not shaped like a bottle, jug, or tub is unrecognized by the sorter.
While it’s good that recycling has increased in recent years, residents are trying to recycle too much. They see a hose and think, “Oh, that’s plastic and metal,” and throw it in with their recycling. But wishful thinking isn’t going to save the planet or make you a better person.
To be truly environmentally conscious, you must research the specific systems around you and support the businesses who are acting in ways that support sustainability and reduce waste. Not all landfills are mounds of unorganized chaos, and not all recycling facilities are magic boxes that convert one hundred precent of their intake into reusable material.