Editor's note: Express columnist Betty Bell recently sought an answer to the question, "What really happens to the things I put in my recycle bin?" With a reporter's nose and a columnist's wit, she composed this account of her findings.
A couple of weeks ago, while I was depositing my recyclables into their proper bins, a dismaying thought came upon me: Would these newspapers, this plastic mayo-lite jar cleaned of every trace of mayonnaise, this collection of beer bottles that needed no after-care, actually end up recycled? Or would they all end up at the dump—landfill—in a hole in the ground?
Being congenitally suspicious, I decided to follow the trash, so the next morning when I heard sounds of advanced technology noisily meshing out back, I grabbed some dirty clothes from the hamper and put them on in time to get out there and see a Clearwater Disposal truck squirt a robotic arm from topside, arc it down, and then bear-hug one recyclables container after another—glass, aluminum, plastic, newspaper—before raising and tipping each unerringly into a compartment specific to the contents. It was all so efficient, so tidy, as was the driver in a crisp, two-piece uniform. "Javier," he told me when he checked to see that everything was ship-shape before he climbed back into his truck. I was embarrassed—I shouldn't have worn dirty clothes.
Years ago, our family of five made do with a single garbage can, a can never hosed out to dislodge a crusty layer or two. Once a week, the "garbage man" coaxed his wheezing truck into our alley, got out and hefted the can over his shoulder and dumped its smelly contents into the smelly bed. When he was back in his truck and got the engine going, my self-assigned responsibility was to suck deep and hold my puffed-out cheeks and bugged-out eyes until the truck made it around the corner where I was sure it died.
Now the garbage man is as Smithsonian as the ice man, and a good thing, too. Today's throw-aways don't have much for a worm to recycle. I'd hate to be a worm mother trying to raise a passel of wrigglers now that we're close to being composed entirely of dead computers, dead cell phones, dead microwave ovens, Styrofoam peanuts, construction stuff, demolition stuff, tires, plastic, plastic, plastic, etc. etc., stuff that doesn't even include my lifetime throw-aways. We're just in time, maybe, our new offshoot species, we Conscientious, Really Nice-Guy Recyclists doing what we can to make the world worm-friendly again. And the garbage trucks are trying to keep apace with our messes. They're "solid waste disposal" behemoths now like the one that picked up my offerings.
I decided to change into clean clothes and drive to Clear Creek Disposal headquarters and ask if I could look inside one of their trucks. Their headquarters is a couple of miles south of Ketchum, and they have the contract for our Wood River Valley towns and for Stanley and Fairfield, too. The general manager, Mike Gibas, graciously said yes, and graciously did he turn away as I gracelessly hoisted myself high up to the cab of a brand new, unblemished white side-loader, a just-delivered truck that cost about $200,000. Recycling is no penny-ante game—the truck's eight tires, each big enough to squish an elephant, cost $400 a pop.
In the cab, I confronted so many controls I felt like I'd walked into an Allen & Co. cockpit, every space filled with gauges and buttons and levers. I figured I could learn to work the two-way radio, but when Mike tried to simplify the hydraulic system for me the only thing that got through was what to do if I wanted to make the truck's huge blade/guillotine slide through a filled-up bed and push everything out the back.
A veritable hall of mirrors allows the driver to see every space around the truck except for the small one at dead-center in back, the very space where a toddler might wander, a vital space that a TV in the upper right corner zeroes in on precisely.
A truck is only as good as the man in the cab. More than a hundred times in a shift, he must maneuver his truck through crowded streets, narrow alleys and tight cul-de-sacs where we relinquish just enough space for Javier and others to gather our offerings unto the truck. When Javier finishes a pick-up, he must exercise a lot of shifting fore and aft before he's maneuvered into a position to vie for a spot in the always heavy traffic. I speak from experience here—Mike took me on a route—and routes, incidentally, are specifically designated in daily, computerized read-outs given to every driver every day for every route. We tailed a truck through the easy places but didn't try to play a spot-on game of follow the leader when space got dicey. The men who drive these trucks deserve a worthy moniker—how about "Pod Commander"? "Driver" doesn't do it—I'm a driver.
I drove to the Ohio Gulch Solid Waste Transfer Station between Ketchum and Hailey, and found a whole other world. I spotted Brett Gelskey, the man in charge, in a hangar-sized building where only his head and shoulders showed above the lip of the huge bin in which he stood, a bin at the end of a long, rickety-looking conveyor belt used to transfer recyclable cardboard. The operation was jammed. Brett was coping with it.
"That looks dangerous," I said. He grinned.
Brett handles all the recyclables sent to the Ohio Gulch Transfer Station, a station under the management of Southern Idaho Waste Management, the company for which Brett works. His tasks looked like more than a one-man job to me, and when I told him so, he admitted that at quitting time he's beat. But he said the pay and benefits are good, and he lives in Bellevue so he doesn't have a long commute.
You might think that when a Clearwater side-loader rolls up to off-load our mayo jars and such that the offload would be as efficient as the on-load. It isn't. Brett has to forklift a huge bin up to each compartment of every truck, and then the Pod Commander does his fancy pod-control work to tip the individual bin's contents into it one category at a time. It takes an hour to offload a single side-loader, and that's a big glitch in an otherwise high-tech operation, though even as I write, Southern Idaho Waste Management is seeking bids to upgrade the entire Ohio Gulch Station. I'm glad for Brett.
From the recycle side, I drove over to the landfill section. First I had to get by a young lady in a toll booth like the one at the airport. She wasn't keen about letting me enter when I had nothing to dump, but I led her to believe I was a bona fide reporter, and she evidently holds reporters in higher esteem than does the White House, for she let me go by after I promised not to get out of my car, not that I'd have dared to—there were more trucks tooling around Ohio Gulch than on the highway, trucks delivering all sorts of unwanted things. The charge for a deceased sheep or goat is $5; a deceased horse or cow—or a giraffe, should you have one—are interred for $15 a cubic yard.
Back here in our sheltered world, when we switch over to mode green and get at the task of sorting our recyclables into proper bins, all we need to worry about is doing it right. If we're careless, if we add a no-no cast-off that "contaminates" a bin, none of that bin gets recycled—it isn't worth any more than your passed-on giraffe.
You might feel let down to learn that neither your Bud bottles nor your exquisite wine bottles ever get a chance at reincarnation. All the glass, even the pretty glass, is clinked and clattered onto the tarmac where any piece that survived the fall is mashed into mush along with old asphalt, concrete and dirt. It's recycled, but not as something fetching—it becomes backfill.
Our Ohio Gulch Transfer Station is the only recycle center in all of southern Idaho, so we're doing OK here—doing much better than in a certain city I won't name where my sisters live and where they looked at me funny when I asked where they keep their recycle bins.
Let us pat one another on the back, fellow conscientious, patriotic, seriously green pilgrims—we try. And what we recycle doesn't end up in a hole in the ground.