I had just visited the Santa Monica Recycling Center, which lies between Michigan and Delaware near Cloverfield, when I read in last week’s edition of the Mirror of the impressive numbers related to our city’s garbage output. As reported by the Mirror’s Parimal M. Rohit, Santa Monica “exports” 250 tons per day of waste, yard waste, and construction and demolition debris. Over the next five years, Santa Monica will spend about $9.5 million a year to get rid of the stuff. Although it’s not being rocketed off the earth so the idea that we are getting “rid’” of it is wrongheaded, at least environmentally.
I was impressed by a statistic I heard once in an episode of public TV’s “Frontline” stating that the city of New York makes enough garbage each day to fill the Empire State Building, if it were hollow and if that was something New York wanted to do with the Empire State Building. That image gets your attention. Can we create a similar image to help us with our mountains of garbage?
Even a compact car weighs between 3,000 and 4,000 pounds. 250 tons would be 500,000 pounds and taking an average car to be conservatively 3,500 pounds, that means Santa Monica is creating roughly 142 “cars” of garbage a day. If you pulled out the chairs and stage, could you stack 142 cars inside our Civic Auditorium? Probably not, and I’m asking promoters of “Car Jam 2012” not to call me about this. What I am asking you to do is to walk by the Civic Auditorium, look at it… and then imagine it crammed with garbage. Now, multiply that times 365 days a year.
Waste has dichotomously become both better defined and yet even further out of mind than it was in the rousing early “Earth Days” of the 1970’s. Back then we were into rubbing our own noses in it, documenting it, and coming to understand landscapes like the massive Fresh Kills dump site on Staten Island. Fresh Kills has since been closed and now its 2,200 acres—three times the size of Central Park—is slowly being converted into a park. New York City hasn’t stopped creating garbage; it’s just dumping it somewhere else… at the rate of about one Empire State Building a day.
“Waste” has better definition now in that more people realize that medical and toxic waste can’t just go anywhere, although too often it does, and that sewage treatment is icky to talk about but it must be discussed. Recycling efforts have become institutionalized, but we’re still creating enormous amounts of garbage. Every single day.
I was at the Santa Monica Recycling Center because I had hit a dead end with two pieces of electronic waste. Both of the items, a computer printer and a surge protector with battery back-up, still functioned but they were so aged that there was literally no interest in them from others. The batteries in the surge unit were old enough to be unreliable, and the printer wouldn’t work with anything other than extremely outdated versions of Windows. They weren’t really garbage, except for having lasted longer than the systems they had once supported.
As a society in general, we don’t seem to be curbing our appetites for the new or tempering the drive of manufacturers to create new and in doing so create mountains of outdated old. We’re buying crackers at Whole Foods that come in cartons made of recycled paper, but the template of individual consumer goods sold in boxes and packages that then must be disposed of… that continues. Styrofoam use may be fading, but the cartons and plastic wrapped around a new consumer purchase … all that still has to go somewhere.
Lately there’s been vigorous debate over food trucks, and whether they take business away from local restaurants. I can tell you one thing foods trucks are delivering: more one-way disposals used in vending their tasty fare. I have no idea what the collective mass of used napkins, paper and styro trays, cups and plastic forks looks like after even one evening of food truck vending but I wouldn’t want it dumped in my backyard. Or even near my home if I was located close to the Puente Hills landfill where until 2013 Santa Monica will continue to be dumping its physical waste.
As I mentioned, we’re not blasting our 250 tons of waste per day deep into outer space. It’s staying down here, with us and our neighbors, somewhere. Our city has addressed smoking and we’ve decided not to do business with Arizona because of its harsh approach to immigration. We have a good recycling program, but what are we doing to simply create less garbage in the first place? Could we take real steps toward generating less garbage here in our beautiful city by the shore? I’m not sure what that would look like; maybe everyone lugging their own cloth napkins to the food trucks. The fact is, we want what we have in the convenience of consumer-generated waste and yet we know that we can’t just keep making more garbage. Maybe we’re one progressive city that could be looking to break this chain.