Waste: Where It Goes and Why It’s Sorted

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“Waste” is first and foremost an action, not a verb, according to Richard Hsu, USF’s sustainability coordinator. “Landfill waste does not get sorted. Anytime you toss compostable or recyclable material into a landfill bin, you are wasting a recoverable resource,” he said. “Waste is only waste if you waste it.”

 

Hsu oversees waste management on campus in collaboration with the city of San Francisco’s municipal waste management system, Recology. He explained that to meet San Francisco’s “zero-waste” policy, USF has to meet a diversion rate of 90 percent, meaning 90 percent of the waste the school generates is composted or recycled. A huge part of this process of eliminating waste is the preliminary effort done by students when they sort their trash into the bins provided by the school.

 

Paul Cook is a junior environmental science major and an “Eco Educator” – a student who helps people sort their waste in the cafeteria. He said, “This is currently one of the large focuses of the Eco Educator position. The fight is making people care.”

 

After going into the compost, recycling or trash bins at school, USF’s waste is not necessarily “sorted.” For compost, truck loads of organics waste is taken from bins on campus to Recology’s transfer station, where it is routinely inspected. If a load is more than 10 percent contaminated, meaning more than 10 percent is not compostable, it is considered to be in poor condition and sent to a landfill. If it passes, it is taken to a composting facility to naturally decompose. According to Hsu, this process takes about six to eight weeks, and the compost is “cured to create an end product that gets blended with other soil amendments to create a variety of soil blends that are sold to local farms, vineyards and gardens.”

 

One example of matter that is commonly missorted is the different types of plastics. While “hard plastics” are recyclable, “soft plastics” are not. However, Hsu explained that the “hard” plastic utensils used in the cafeteria are indeed compostable. The utensils are labelled “BPI certified compostable” and should not be thrown in the trash or recycling bins. This kind of bioplastic, he explained, does not decompose in time to meet Recology’s 45-day cycle, so there are often chunks in the end result. “Disposable utensils are not ideal, and it’s almost always better to stick to reusable silverware,” Hsu said.

 

Cook added that with recyclable plastic, the quality of the material decreases with every use. “So while a plastic bottle may have another life as a plastic bag, it will be unusable for another cycle due to the low quality that it would create,” he said. “Composting and recycling remove sheer mass from landfills, but nothing is better than simply reducing ones individual consumption.”

 

San Francisco’s compost is taken to various compost facilities in other parts of the state, including Jepson Prairie Organics in Vacaville, according to Hsu. Those facilities are where metal, large plastics and glass are “screened” out before they are aerated and turned into soil that is sold to local farmers. At Jepson Prairie Organics, the emissions from the compost pile (which are mostly methane) are captured and turned into energy that powers nearby homes.

 

Recycling is sorted at the Recycle Centers in the city, where machines and people divide it into 16 different items. The groups of items are packaged and shipped to manufacturers around the world to be made into new products, Hsu said.

 

As for trash, landfill matter is “compacted” on campus, picked up by Recology, then taken to a holding pit where it is compressed by bulldozers. After this, it is taken to Hay Road Landfill in Vacaville – without any sorting, according to Hsu. Cook said, “While the amount of time it takes for compost to break down depends on various factors such as amount, content, surface area and oxygen saturation, most organic matter only takes a few weeks to break down [at composting facilities] in comparison to the tens of thousands of years it would take to decompose in a sealed landfill.”

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