Do you ever wonder what happens to all the stuff that gets thrown away in this world? Actually, there’s no such thing as “away.” Everything has to go somewhere. And around here, that somewhere is the Davis Street Transfer Station in San Leandro. Recently, three of Oakland Zoo’s education department staff visited the facility to learn what goes on there. For one of these employees, this trip was like a step back in time. In 2010 Katie Garchar spent a year interning at Davis Street as an environmental education associate, where she taught school kids about the importance of waste management. But this time around she and her zoo coworkers, Felicia and Dan, were acting as chaperones for a class of fourth graders visiting the facility for the first time.
Along with a similar site in Fremont, the Davis Street Transfer Station holds these fieldtrips twice a day and generously provides free bus transportation to make it easier for local school kids to attend. These classes are one of the many aspects of StopWaste.Org, the public agency committed to reducing waste in Alameda County. In the onsite classroom the kids learn all about the Four R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot, the concepts that form the basis for reducing the amount of waste that we humans generate. After class, it’s time for a tour of the facilities. But first, the kids suit up in their protective gear: hard hats, safety goggles and bright reflective vests. And then they learn all the safety rules.
The first stop on the tour is the massive “MRF,” the Materials Recovery Facility, where all of the recyclable material gets sorted out. The idea here is to put as much of this stuff back into circulation as possible. Luckily, all of it can be recycled into new raw materials, such as aluminum, glass, plastic, cardboard and paper.
There’s another area called the C&D MRF, where material from construction and demolition projects is sorted and recycled. Lumber, concrete and metal all get broken down here or shipped to other facilities for further processing. Then, at the composting area, organic waste from kitchens, gardens and yards is recycled into compost, mulch or woodchips and then sold to the public and local cities for reuse.
The rest of the material goes to a place known as the Garbage Pit, where unfortunately, it’s destined for the landfill. From here, large capacity trucks known as “possum bellies” (each capable of carrying the weight equivalent of four full-grown elephants) take this trash to the Altamont Landfill facility near Livermore. One hundred of these trucks leave Davis Street each day, transporting a mind-boggling five million pounds of trash to that facility, where it sits and takes up space for a very long time, creating an ever-increasing burden on the environment.
During the tour, the kids get a chance to visit the Garbage Pit. Here the teacher leads them out onto a bridge that overlooks all the action, where big loaders move the material around. Then the kids are asked to point out anything they see that doesn’t belong there. It’s a fun exercise that gets the kids to remember what they learned and to use their powers of observation. For safety reasons, rummaging and salvaging by the public is not allowed,
but it’s amazing what sorts of things show up in the trash—accidentally or deliberately. Katie said that if you’re ever unsure which bin to put something in at home, simply put it in the recycling. At least that way, it gets sorted and properly categorized. But anything you throw in the garbage goes straight to the landfill. So the next time you find yourself getting ready to throw something “away,” give some thought to where it might be going, and where it might end up. The decision you make today could easily have repercussions for generations to come!