Natural Perspectives: Time to recycle, reduce, reuse

While Lou is busy with Christmas preparations, I decided to take a crack at writing this week's column. The Christmas holidays are a good time to think about trash. That sounds odd until you think about the amount of trash that this holiday generates.

Fortunately, cards, envelopes, cardboard boxes and Christmas trees can be recycled or composted. To reduce the amount of stuff that eventually ends up in a landfill, Lou and I try to think of presents that don't generate trash. Edible presents, like cookies or homemade jams in reusable jars, are one option. Services, such a gift certificate for a spa, are another trash-free option.

You might wonder how I came up with this topic. I teach a class about environmental problems for the adult education program at Irvine Valley College. I lecture about air pollution and water pollution, about human overpopulation and over-dependence on fossil fuels.

And I lecture about trash.

Whether you call it trash, garbage or solid waste, most of us don't spend much time thinking about it. We hurry to get our trash cans out to the sidewalk on our assigned night of the week and pull them back to the side of the house the next day. Once it's gone, it's no longer our problem. Right?

Wrong.

People pay a lot of attention to trash in cities that experience trash collector strikes. When that happens, the trash piles up on the streets week after week — as is happening right now in one town in Italy. It's disgusting and unhealthy.

Here in Huntington Beach (and Fountain Valley), our trash is collected by Rainbow Disposal, a company that has served us faithfully for many decades. Because it does a good job, we tend to take it for granted.

But remember, Rainbow (and the other companies that operate in other towns) only collect and transport the trash. They can't make it disappear like stage magicians do with coins, cards and rabbits. Material from the blue bins is recycled. Material from the green bins is composted. But material from the brown bins goes to one of three landfills operated by the county.

Last week, I took my students on a tour of one of those landfills. We visited the Prima Deshecha landfill just outside San Juan Capistrano. There, the trash from south Orange County gets buried. Perhaps "interred" would be a better word.

Each load of trash gets crushed by the largest bulldozer I ever saw, a machine with giant solid steel wheels with blunt teeth like cleats on track shoes. Each load of trash is flattened on top of the trash from the previous delivery into layers about 12 feet high. At the end of each day, the expanded layer is carefully covered with dirt or wood chips or any other available material, sealing in the trash practically hermetically. At Prima Deshecha, excavation into the oldest (30-year-old) levels of trash found newspapers that were still intact with the print still legible.

Of the three county landfills, Prima is the largest in one sense and smallest in another. It's the smallest in terms of amount of trash buried each day — "only" 1,300 to 1,500 tons per day. The others deal with twice that volume per day. But Prima is the largest in area, 1,500 acres in extent.

These two figures have an important relationship. They mean that Prima Deshecha will be able to continue in service the longest of the three county landfills. The other two will fill up and need to go out of service in the next few decades. Prima won't reach that point until (it is estimated) the year 2060.

What happens after that? Where will our trash go? Nobody knows.

There is no plan for beyond that time frame. If society continues with its current practices, the County of Orange will need to pony up for another 1,500 acres of land somewhere on which to build yet another landfill.

The land on which Prima Deshecha lies was purchased back in the early 1970s for $1.3 million. What would 1,500 acres of Orange County cost today? Or in another three or four decades? I don't want to think about the price.

What the county is hoping is that another landfill won't be needed. A county agency called OC Waste & Recycling is aggressively pursuing recycling as a way to reduce the amount of trash that needs to get buried. It works with Rainbow Disposal and the other trash haulers to convince the public that recycling is in our best interest, not just environmentally, but economically as well.

Last week, my students and I stood on a mountain overlooking San Juan Capistrano. I've experienced magnificent views from mountaintops before, but never from an artificial mountain — a mountain of trash. This was a pile of trash 30 years old and 200 feet high.

An enormous valley off to our left was busy with men and trucks and bulldozers. In a few years, it will be filled to the height at which we stood.

We all went home determined to reduce our consumption, reuse our possessions as thoroughly as possible, and then to recycle the rest whenever we could.

If Orange County does need to buy more land for yet another landfill, that is going to hit each and every one of us in the pocketbook. Unless you really want to pay more money in taxes and service fees, think hard about the things that go into those three different colors of bins.

Rainbow will take all cardboard, all paper, all glass, any kind of plastic, and all aluminum, tin and steel. It even takes aluminum foil and empty aerosol cans for recycling.

So wash out those empty glass bottles and cans and put them in the blue bin. Recycle your Christmas cards and envelopes. Flatten and recycle those gift boxes — or reuse them if possible. Our landfills are filling up.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LMurrayPhD@gmail.com.

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