By Gilee Corral
Jeff Krump, the City of Hayward’s new Solid Waste Manager, invites me to tag along on his tour of one of Hayward’s recycling facilities. We’re greeted at the front window by a robot made of trash. It’s guarding a glass case displaying newspaper from the 1970s – recovered from a landfill where the facility is now located. The newspaper is browned but quite legible for being compacted in the earth for four decades. Some clever person has arranged the newsprint to display waste-related topics near the front of the case. The office is spotless and smells lightly of air freshener. I’m not sure what I expected – grungier perhaps, considering we are visiting a waste facility built over a landfill.
Our guides for the day are Vanessa Barberis, Public Sector Manager, Erika Solis, Construction & Demolition Diversion Manager, and Osvaldo Jauregui, Construction & Demolition MRF Manager. They fall into easy conversation with Jeff, their chatter peppered with intriguing acronyms and jargon: dirty merf (an unruly cousin of a Smurf?), dirty line, ballistic separators, bag openers. The “merf” word is used so often I reckon it must be important. It is, actually, MRF –for Materials Recovery Facility.
I’ve dressed as Jeff instructed – closed toed shoes, clothes I wouldn’t mind getting dusty. Jeff snaps the tag off his brand new florescent safety jacket and dons his new hardhat – I borrow some PPE (personal protection equipment, if you must know) from a row of hard hats and vests hanging in a line on the wall.
Erika leads us to a white van lined with immaculate floor mats. We pass the “Garden Center,” a corner of mulch. The Davis Street station sorts out grade A wood from its collections, sends it to TriCities in Fremont to be mulched, and the mulch gets returned to Davis Street, where it waits in neat piles for residents to purchase.
After the Garden Center is a building where green waste is dumped and loaded into transfer trucks. There’s an alley next to the facility that dips into a tunnel. The transfer trucks pull into the tunnel, and loaders dump the waste from above through a big window into the trucks below. I pop out for a quick photo of the mounds of pale green waste, scuffing the spotless floor mats with mud as I slide back in the van. It smells a bit like a barn, but more sour. Finally, this tour is starting to get messy!
This is where your green bin waste goes
The green waste gets sent to Blossom Valley Organics to be processed and returned to Davis Street as usable compost. Twice a year, the City of Hayward holds a Compost Giveaway where residents can pick up the good stuff for free. Onward, we pass an I Love Reuse corner, where residents can dump their cardboard, books, scrap metal, and mattresses be sorted and transferred to plants and get a second life as new products.
Next, the cardboard corner. Cardboard recovered from businesses and multifamily recycling bins get bundled up and taken directly to a port to be shipped to China! “Really, China?” I ask. We pause here for a mini discussion on macroeconomics and the effects of China’s growing middle class on the recovered cardboard market. As its middle class increases, China has begun to produce its own cardboard waste, inflating the Chinese domestic market for cardboard and shrinking the demand for foreign cardboard, such as the bundles I’m looking at in San Leandro, California. With China’s reduced demand, the cardboard has fewer places to go – our domestic paper mills have quietly disappeared, and now there’s not enough mills to accept our mounting piles of cardboard either. Thus, facilities like Davis Street have seen the demand for cardboard fall.
Cardboard bundles, destination: China
On with the tour – we pass a pile of tires, awaiting a second chance at usefulness as road base, and stop in front of piles of what Erika calls “dirty wood.” Clean wood, or grade A, gets mulched, and dirty wood, or grade B, goes to biomass plants to be burned as fuel. Here we dip into economics once more, discussing the dwindling demand for grade B wood. As Jeff informs me, biomass plants began popping up in the 1970s, fueled by subsidies from the government, keen to create energy independence during the energy crisis. These subsidy contracts are starting to end and are not being renewed – thus fewer plants, thus less demand for the grade B wood.
Rounding the corner, the final destination of our tour and what I’ve been waiting for – the recycling facility! I’ve heard from Erika and Osvaldo of its many gadgets, bells, and whistles, and I’m ready to see it for myself.
What hits me first are two impressions – the mounds of junk and seagulls. I had this image in my head of individual piles of glass, paper, and so on, but these mounds on first glance look like haphazard piles of trash. But they are not trash, as I’ve been gently corrected a few times. It’s recycling, or green waste. They’re a bit sensitive to the “t” word, so I try not to use it. As we file out of the van, I brace myself for an olfactory onslaught. Smells like (sorry) trash, but not as strong as you would expect, considering I’m looking at roughly 3,000 tons of it.
Materials Recovery Facility, or MRF
At the MRF, we climb up a metal ladder and over a catwalk, a few stories high. The catwalk leads into a big room where some loud clanking and humming has started – the morning shift is back from their break and the foreman is cranking up the machines. Osvaldo leads us into the office, a room suspended above all the action, which he calls the “control room”. It looks like a tornado picked up an office and plopped it in the middle of a trash factory. Plush rolly chairs and computer screens, large windows where supervisors can oversee operations. Once Osvaldo shuts the door, the noise is muffled, but the vibrations from the machines hum under our feet through the metal floor. On one of the screens is a 3-D layout of the plant – Osvaldo shows us how sections of the digital plant light up in different colors depending on the status, i.e. red indicates a fault or required maintenance.
Osvaldo has been with Waste Management for over 20 years, starting out as a sorter and working his way up. He speaks proudly of his workforce – roughly 75% of whom are women, including the MRF’s foreman. We hear a bit about the workforce dynamics and trends that shaped his industry – how the waste sorting and other jobs were taken up by wives of construction workers many years ago, because waste jobs had benefits while construction work did not. As pay rates increased and benefits improved in recent years, Osvaldo has seen people – men and women – “lining up” for jobs at Waste Management.
The conversation shifts from workforce dynamics to management techniques. Plant workers do ergonomics to warm up before starting their shift. Erika tells us how she is incorporating Lean Management principles into production to increase plant efficiency.
Waste Management staff sorting waste
Out of the control room and into the plant. Below us, metal claws are reaching into the huge piles of recycling material and loading clawfuls of it onto the conveyor belts. Above us, sprinklers spray fine mists of water over the piles to control dust. The streams of waste on the conveyer belts flow up the lines and into the plant, awaiting a maze of clanging machines, sorters, filters, and gloved hands. We climb up and down metal stairs, along rails, peek over metal walls, Osvaldo and Erika calling out explanations over the mechanized din. People and machines are hard at work sorting, shaking, shifting, and dropping waste into buckets and streams. Osvaldo points out the optical sorter – it scans the material and the computer program tells the machine what is plastic, paper, etc. Another machine is equipped with upside down magnets; as the waste stream passes through, the magnets pick up metal strips.
Crossing back across the catwalk, we take a minute to admire the construction site across the road, where a brand new MRF will open in 2018. This MRF, Osvaldo tells us with pride, will be “state of the art” and one-of-a-kind here in America, with equipment imported from Europe. “Now it’s turning out to be a mini-Disneyland of transfer stations,” Osvaldo says. I can only imagine what sort of Disneyland that will be!
Back in the City van, Jeff asks, “What did you think?”
A million images fly through my mind, but one sticks out the most.
“So many seagulls!” I add, “And it didn’t smell as bad as I thought it would.”
He chuckles. “That wasn’t a lot of seagulls. You should see the landfill!”
From the rooftop of a solar installation [hyperlink to previous blog] to a pile of trash (ahem, recovered waste) – you never know where an AmeriCorps fellowship will take you!