One Trashy Saturday
So what happens to your trash after you take it to the curb? Writer Sarah Lichtner
follows the long but not-so-smelly trail.
PEANUT BUTTER M&Ms changed the way I view trash. While shoveling them into my mouth after a stressful workday, I noticed a blurb along the bag seam: “Mars is turning used candy wrappers into eco-friendly products.” When I turned to the Web, I learned that trash like my snack bags is being turned into neat stuff like coolers, kites and handbags, and that what I throw away and never think of again supports charities that reduce carbon dioxide emissions and provide food and clean drinking water. Knowing that jumpstarted my obsession to make more conscious decisions about disposing of waste. I was not quite convinced that a single individual could make a significant difference, so the M&Ms wrapper ended up in the trash and I spent a brisk autumn Saturday morning a week later following its path and the path of other things I discard without thinking about where they might end up.
All of Montgomery County’s curbside trash ends up at the Shady Grove Processing Facility and Transfer Station, so I drove there expecting to see trash tumbleweeds blowing from one decaying and repulsively smelly trash heap to the next. I imagined having to dodge birds and rats scavenging for food.
Instead, I drove through a dense maze of concrete roads and buildings, past dozens of smiling neon-yellow-vested employees and around the vehicles of residents dropping off trash and recyclables. I parked in front of the transfer station office, stunned by the station’s apparent popularity. Stepping out of my car, I feared I would get a whiff that would rival the smell of my garage that time I forgot to put the trash out in the heat of summer. But I was greeted by the crisp autumn air – the refreshing smell that’s released when the first leaves drift to the ground.
Here on these few acres, tucked away amid the mess of I-270 and I-370, county workers decide the fate of all Montgomery County trash. This is the starting point of my M&Ms bag’s adventures that includes intense pressures, spinning blades, temperatures of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and months of sunbathing.
“Hop on,” says Ralph Piscitelli, my moustached tour guide. Having spoken the day before to arrange my tour, he had his golf cart at the ready. As we zoomed past “Authorized Vehicles Only” signs, Piscitelli proceeded to give me the rundown of the processing facility and transfer station as if he had studied its every inch. And after 22 years as a county employee and five years in his job at the transfer station enforcing county recycling laws, that’s probably close to reality.
THE POINT OF NO RETURN
I breathed in the only rank odor of my whole tour as Piscitelli stopped the golf cart in the middle of a massive concrete warehouse. The smell still wasn’t nearly as gag-inducing as I had expected, nor was it attracting swarms of scavenging animals. On my right, a pickup truck was unloading trash onto the concrete floor in front of a sign warning, “Danger Open Pit.” This building – the Tipping Building – is where all the commercial haulers dump their trash loads. Around the corner, county residents can dump trash for free at the Public Unloading Facility.
On my left, a front-end loader, which looked like a scoop-equipped bulldozer, pushed garbage into a square hole in the concrete about the size of our golf cart. These holes lead to the trash compactors – solid municipal waste’s point of no return – which compact the waste into industrial 40-foot-long gray trailers. Everything I’ve thrown out this week, including the M&Ms wrapper, food scraps and packaging materials, will come through here. They are part of the 56 percent of Montgomery County’s 1.12 million tons of annual garbage that will never be reused. The other 44 percent is recycled.
“There’s someone coming to pick up a load now,” says Piscitelli, further proving his transfer station omniscience. Sure enough, as we reached the other end of the garbage warehouse, a driver pulled up to take a trailer to the rail yard.
Piscitelli headed toward two Mi-Jack cranes at the back of the transfer station. One yellow and one white, they towered above the rail yard like four-legged spiders. While these cranes are not as tall as those used to build skyscrapers, they are the only parts of the transfer station noticeable from the surrounding car dealerships and nearby Shady Grove Metro Station.
Piscitelli slowed the golf cart as he approached the first of the two cranes. By straddling their load and distributing the weight down the legs, these cranes can stack the trailers three high. They load two trains a day with 30 to 40 of the surrounding trailers (one trailer per car), with each trailer carrying about 15 tons of garbage.
The trains carry the trailers to the Montgomery County Resource Recovery Facility in Dickerson, Maryland – 20 miles northwest of the Shady Grove Processing Facility and Transfer Station. There, the trash is burned at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and generates enough electricity for 40,000 homes, while also reducing the volume of waste by 90 percent. Throughout the United States, about 12 percent of waste is used to generate electricity like it is here in Montgomery County.
PLAYING MY PART
It was mildly comforting to know that all the trash we produce in Montgomery County serves a purpose once it leaves the transfer station. But I was still overwhelmed by the volume funneled through the few acres of the transfer station each day.
In 2012 the United States produced more than 251 million tons of trash, nearly three times the amount produced in the 1960s. That’s 4.4 pounds a day per person – about the weight of a laptop. That didn’t seem like much to me until I considered the 1,600 pounds of trash I’ll generate this year.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, only one-third of this total U.S. waste – 87 million tons – is recycled and composted. But even this little bit of recycling can go a long way. Recycling just one 20-ounce soda bottle could save enough energy and raw materials to power my laptop for 2.5 hours. And every 50 magazines I recycle save enough energy to run my air conditioner for half an hour, or a 60-watt CFL lightbulb for 54 hours.
Though recycling can save significant amounts of energy, the most effective way to reduce the environmental impact of garbage, like the waste that passes through the Shady Grove Processing Facility and Transfer Station each day, is to reduce the amount we generate in the first place. In an effort to reduce my contributions to the trash heaps, I started growing some of my own vegetables, bringing reusable bags to the grocery store and even buying yogurt in larger containers so I had less plastic to recycle. I started reusing more products, like the tin tea canister that holds change on my desk, to delay their entrance into the waste stream. I made more conscious decisions to donate clothing and electronics to extend their usable life, and I used Craigslist to sell unwanted furniture. I even put larger bulk items, like two broken push lawn mowers, at the curb a day before pickup so people with the skills and time to fix them could snatch them up before they head to the transfer station.
With seven billion people now living on our planet, thoughtful waste disposal is a critical part of our future. To reduce the waste we transport, we need to cultivate a habit of thinking twice. Can I use this for another purpose? Could someone else? If not, trash can or recycling bin? These are important questions. Once the trash hits the curb, there’s no turning back.