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the Waste Chain

What happens to your municipal solid waste after it leaves your curb? It travels down what we like to call the waste stream. (Another term I like is the ‘Garbage Cycle’, but I’ll talk about that terminology in another post.) Along the waste stream is a sort of hierarchy of different groups of people working to pluck things out of it, or what I like to call the “waste chain”.

The term “waste chain” is meant to echo and be used interchangeably with the term “food chain”. Your waste is a kind of nourishment to many other people after it leaves your house. (And as more and more people are beginning to realize, waste equals food.) Once anything is produced, it is immediately, potentially waste. You could almost look at our entire economy and conclude that the thing we’re so hellbent on producing is not food or goods, but waste. (Every parent knows that feeling that what they’re buying for their kids is already garbage, and us haulers can confirm that many toys have a longer life as garbage than as toys.) And when something gets salvaged, it would be wrong to think that it exits the waste stream; rather, it just gets put back higher upstream, its eventual return to the landfill merely delayed.

The term “waste chain” also implies a certain pecking order or ecosystem that fits nicely with the way “dibs” get passed down to different groups of waste workers as waste travels downstream. Read on for a brief description of some of the different groups that play important roles in the waste chain: JUNKERS – COLLECTORS/HAULERS – MRF WORKERS – TRAILER DRIVERS – DOZER OPERATORS – SCAVENGERS…

Co-first dibs goes to JUNKERS, the people who travel down neighborhood streets at night with trucks or trailers, shining their lights on trash heaps and taking what they can. Cities with certain densities and collection laws can count on the valuable public service Junkers perform. Before I found out about a job that would pay me for hauling stuff right from out of people’s houses, I was a curbside Junker. And let me tell you, some of the best stuff I’ve ever gotten was from the curb. I felt equal parts camaraderie and competitiveness with the other trucks that I’d see every week.

Then there are the people who your city pays directly or subcontracts to take stuff from the curb, the GARBAGE COLLECTORS – also known as “sanitation workers,” “trashmen”, or any number of names. They’re known to have lockers or dedicated rooms back at their stations where all sorts of treasures are piled to overflowing. Then there are HAULERS, or private companies like ours who individuals and businesses pay to take things directly from their homes or businesses. Since these are three distinct ways of getting waste away from building and curbsides, JUNKERS, GARBAGE COLLECTORS, and HAULERS all share first dibs in the waste chain.

Most cities have a “MRF” (Materials Recovery Facility, pronounced “murf”) where garbage is sorted before being recycled or landfilled. When a garbage truck unloads there, the MRF WORKERS who work there operating the machinery or maintaining the facilities/grounds have second dibs on the stuff that Junkers and Haulers declined to take. However, since their job is working at one location all day rather than driving around from place to place, they often have an easier time salvaging bulky items that they can set aside in some corner of the building and then continue working.

The next person to handle your waste is the TRAILER DRIVER who transports it from the MRF to the landfill. They don’t come into much contact with the contents of their huge trailers, but since theoretically they could stumble upon something salvageable while climbing up to secure the tarp or something, third dibs goes to the Trailer Drivers.

Fourth dibs goes to the LANDFILL DOZER OPERATORS. It’s always a special treat when I see a bulldozer guy climb down from one of their gigantic machines to inspect a pile that’s just been dumped. You can forget there are people inside there. Or sometimes they won’t even get out at all, and – with a machine that can toss around a 300-lb fireproof safe like a kitten with a ball of yarn – ever so delicately tease a desk or a kid’s playset from out of a pile and set it off to the side to pick up at the end of the day. And it feels like a certain kind of fate has stepped in to ensure that whatever it is they’re salvaging has stayed intact this far along the waste stream, this low on the waste chain.

But fifth and final dibs goes to the LANDFILL SCAVENGERS. In America we hear stories about these landfill scavengers in other countries and think it couldn’t happen here. In Egypt the landfill scavengers – predominantly Coptic Christians – are called zabaline. In Mexico the scavengers – unionize, with some semblance of political power – are called pepenadores. But here in America, they’re called criminals. Scavenging at landfills is highly illegal and socially frowned upon. And modern mega-landfills can be heavily guarded or just very inaccessible places. Only some forward-thinking communities are just now beginning to incorporate some official form of end-cycle recovery beyond typical “recycling”, usually at the MRF stage. In the near future, US landfills – which preserve their contents remarkably – may be regularly ‘mined’ for fuel and raw materials in a resource-stressed economy. But until then, it will remain an underground activity practiced by a small group of desperate or just dedicated people representing the last dibs in the waste chain.

One Response to “the Waste Chain”

  1. on 26 Jan 2007 at 7:10 pmzcd

    Smidge – that was a great write up. I thought I was procrastrinating , but actually I was learning.

    I was wondering what you thought about the right to Make?

    One thing I saw in India this summer was the decline in the informal economy of mobile phone hackers, as mobile phone manufacturers moved from some analog parts to everything being on 1 chip.

    It may make green-design sense to move to 1 chip phones (although i am not sure, guess one would have to do a life-cycle analysis of all of the components), but, I wonder if there is an unintended consequence to to the ‘ephemeralization’ of consumables: they can’t be repurporsed or hacked, and consumers don’t take the time to recycle/upcycle anyway.

    Boy, that was a mouthful.

    Anyway here is a link to a mobile phone that disassembles itself from Nokia. The hard part of implimenting this kind of waste-to-food industrial ecology is not the technical aspects, but the social technologies- how do you price it, get people to buy in, create a regulatory regime where it makes sense and cents for companies to impliment, etc.

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