The trash trade | SierraSun.com

The trash trade

Jon Beckhardt
Sierra Sun

Photo by Ari Steffen/Sierra SunWorkers at the Eastern Regional Material Recovery Facility sort through recyclables.

Think you’ll be the last to see your confidential bank statement you just threw away? If so, you’re mistaken.

Before it ends up in a Nevada landfill ” if at all ” a conveyor belt will send it past the hardworking hands of workers at the Eastern Regional Material Recovery Facility off Highway 89 south at the end of Cabin Creek Road. There, transfer station sorters search for more valuable content, like plastic, metal and glass, all of which is plucked out and placed on the world recycling market.

In a given period, the sorters may only grab 30 percent of the potential recyclables in the black trash bags that speed past them, unlike the 99 percent of the contents in blue bags.

But every bit will help as Tahoe Truckee Sierra Disposal Company helps communities along the Interstate 80 corridor, like Truckee, avoid state-levied fines for not diverting enough waste away from landfills.

The effort to separate recyclables from refuse was spurred by the California Integrated Waste Management Act.

“The law changed the whole industry,” said David Achiro, owner of Tahoe Truckee Sierra Disposal.

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Passed in 1989, the law required all cities and counties to reduce the amount of trash sent to landfills by 50 percent or face $10,000 per day fines.

At the Material Recovery Facility on Cabin Creek Road, excavators and front-loaders dump 250 tons of residential jetsam a day from Truckee and North Shore communities on the conveyor belt. The trash then rumbles along, up 20 feet to 14, mask- and glove-wearing sorters.

Just how much is 250 tons? Imagine 100 African elephants lined up and you’ll get the picture. On the other side of the transfer station, 14 other sorters will pick through another 200 tons of commercial and industrial material.

In the summer, when more construction takes place and more tourists are in the area, the tonnage goes up drastically, said Achiro.

For communities to meet the state’s diversion law, they adopted a number of programs ” Truckee has 36 ” like source-reduction, education, and composting, but they also put contractual pressure on the transfer station operator to help them reach the goal.

As a result the transfer station replaced a buy-back center with sorters in 1994 to achieve a higher diversion rate. Up until January of last year, only residential, and sometimes commercial, waste was sorted with a conveyor belt, Achiro said.

Sorting this waste, though, is just one process that helps the transfer station keep communities at or above the 50 percent diversion rate while making enough money off the recyclables to stay in business.

The sorted material that piles up will go to a number of places. Woodchips get chopped for cogeneration power, while glass is crushed for fiberglass, landfill cover, and beverage containers.

According to Jeff Collins, general manager at the facility, trash is California’s No. 2 export.

But it can take a while before any of the material goes anywhere.

Recycled cardboard, as well as the other materials in the warehouse, are commodities, and Sierra Disposal will wait until the price is right ” or there is no more room in the warehouse ” to sell off the bales.

Working these markets, though, barely allows the company to recoup its expenses on the whole recycling process.

“We’re not getting rich off of recycling,” says Andrea Lafineer, manager of the recycling station, noting the wage and infrastructure costs.

Achiro said reaching the diversion rate is not always compatible with making a profit. Because the state Legislature monitors weight rather than volume of material sent to the landfill, the company needs to balance potential profit on the recyclables with the need to recycle as much weight as possible.

“We could pull aluminum cans until we’re blue in the face,” Achiro said, “but our diversion will still stink.”

Achiro said that aluminum is a very profitable commodity for the company because manufacturers use 95 percent less energy when they use recycled aluminum in their products.

However, Achiro said the company still needs to focus on pulling glass because it helps reach the diversion requirements.

Nonetheless, actions such as these are helping Truckee reach far beyond the state-mandated diversion goal. In 2004 Truckee sent just 18,967 tons to the landfill, whereas in 2000 the town sent 53,493 tons.

Roni Java, spokeswoman for the California Integrated Waste Management Board, said of Truckee’s 74 percent diversion rate in 2004 said this is “one of the highest in the state. I applaud their efforts.”