Norcal Waste System, Inc's
Solid Waste Transfer and Recycling Center

Fieldtrip: 2007-10-23

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The group gathered in the classroom in the environmental education building after putting on our bright vests, hard hats and goggles -- required wear for the tour.

Once we were all accoutred, Bob Besso, Norcal Recycling Program Manager, San Francisco Region, and Robin Schidlowski of San Francisco's Department of the Environment introduced themselves and some other staff as well as Laura Tam from SPUR, who was the person who'd organized the tour.

Besso asked us to introduce ourselves and explain why we were here. The civilian introductions started with me.

"I'm Sal Towse and I love garbage and dumps and stuff thereto pertaining."

"Oh, and we're also here because we live off the Filbert Steps, so the garbage process in San Francisco fascinates me."

Besso explained to the others that the garbage guys pick the garbage up from homes on the Filbert Steps by hauling down large squares of burlap and loading them up with the contents of the garbage cans, then slinging the full burlap bundles over their shoulders and hauling them back up the steps to the garbage truck. No lie.

Well, these days, some of the guys bring down large wheeled carts and then haul the carts back up the stairs, but a good number still use the burlap method.

I added that although Norcal (actually their wholly-owned subsidiary Golden Gate Disposal) picks up the garbage down at our place, we have to take our recycle up to Montgomery for pickup and some of the neighbors up at Filbert and Montgomery have issues with that.

One of the staff said, "Montgomery and Filbert? I've talked to a woman there who is very unhappy with the recycling pickup. One of your neighbors?"

Oh, yes.

The group turned out on the whole to be an interesting collection of environmentally-connected folks and architect-like folks and people who were professionally concerned with recycling and sustainable development. We seemed to be the only people who were there strictly out of curiosity.

Bob Besso gave us a quick briefing on what we'd see and an overview of the transfer station. SF Recycling and Disposal, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Norcal, runs the facility.


There is no dump at the dump.

The transfer station sorts [2500]* tons of material a day, retrieving recyclables from the public tip, separating out usable bits from construction debris and handling hazardous waste. What remains after the retrieving and separating -- the garbage garbage -- is loaded into long-haul trucks and driven to the Altamont landfill.

The trip to the Altamont landfill is 120 miles, round-trip. Norcal trucks make one hundred roundtrips a day. All this hauling of garbage to Altamont racks up fuel expenses, equipment expenses and labor expenses, not to mention the dumping fees that Waste Management, which owns Altamont, charges Norcal to dump there.

To save fuel costs, the long-haul trucks are as stripped and light as possible. The cab has only a driver's seat, none for a passenger. Fuel tanks are filled with only enough fuel for one round trip to minimize weight and fuel consumption.

What Bob Besso wants most of all -- not only because it's good for the environment but also because it's good for Norcal's bottom line -- is to get closer and closer to zero waste, to eliminate the trips to Altamont. Oh, did I mention that Altamont landfill is filling up?

Keep it out of the landfill.

Norcal's trucks collect garbage and residental compostables and yard waste and bring their loads to the transfer facility. The transfer facility also runs the iMRF (integrated Material Recovery Facility), which sorts and scavenges from the construction drop boxes. Construction debris, by law, must be delivered to a certified construction demolition recycling facility if it isn't reused/recycled/sorted on site.

The facility also handles public disposal and is a recycling buyback center, for people wanting to turn in cans, bottles &c for cold hard cash.

(Besso made no mention of how much Norcal, and by extension the city, hands out in reimbursements for cans and bottles. How many of the cans and bottles processed are raided from recycle bins left out for pickup? If Norcal/the city got the CRV credits that are snitched from the bins, it would be a pretty penny, but how to stop the snitching?)

I asked Besso why the south bay recycles plastic bags and San Francisco can't. Where does Safeway take all the plastic it gets for recycle? I also wondered about styrofoam and peanuts, other items that are picked up in the south bay. How can the south bay offer that sort of recycling and San Francisco can't?

Besso said they would certainly start recycling that sort of thing if they had a market for the items.

Until then ...

(For what it's worth, we had dinner with an old friend, who lives in the south bay, the day after our fieldtrip to the dump. He loves his local "dump" because they not only pick up styrofoam peanuts, but they then turn around and, rather than looking for a buyer for the peanuts, offer them for free to anyone who shows up to pick them up. Our friend does a lot of eBay business and picks up free styrofoam peanuts to package his wares. Win-win it seems to me.)

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These bales of recyclables found behind the environmental education building are examples of the activity that is centered at the Norcal recycling facility at Pier 96.

Pier 96 handles over [700 tons]* of recyclables -- metals, glass, certain kinds of plastic and paper -- every day. For everything they process at Pier 96, Norcal has found a market. As Besso said, it doesn't make any sense to collect "recyclables" if you have no market for them once they're collected.

Norcal provides free recycle and compostable pickup for residential customers. Commercial customers get a discount on their recycle and compostable collection.

Norcal tries to make it worth people's while to recycle, but the city is still far from zero waste. Somehow Norcal and the city need to light a fire under those San Francisco residents who don't recycle.

Renters, a majority of the city's residents, as a whole don't have any financial incentive to recycle because their landlords usually pay the garbage bill. The city/Norcal need to find some other way to get them on board.

Landlords in turn don't get enough financial incentive from reduced rates for recycling and compostables to make it worth their while to monitor the recycle bins and make sure their tenants are stepping up to the plate.

Worse yet, in many large apartment buildings, each floor has a garbage chute that dumps into a drop box at the bottom level. How much easier is it to dump your garbage down a chute rather than sort out the recyclables and compostables and carry them down to the recycle bins at the bottom level? How can we convince people to go to the extra effort?

What can the city and Norcal do to get tenants more involved and to get the landlords and other property owners on board?

Will it take Al Gore talking about the carbon load of all those trips to the Altamont landfill, which is filling up?


These photographs are from inside the public dump building, where the public dumps their loads of junk and garden waste and mattresses and what-all. As much as possible, Norcal tries to salvage reusable/recyclable pieces from the public dump.

Disposal rates for the public are a minimum charge of $20/car with a higher fee for larger vehicles and pickups. There's a surcharge for TVs and computer monitors (unless delivered separately for electronic recycle), tires, refrigerators, mattresses and box springs.

The rate per ton is $117.51 for general refuse.

Not cheap.

Keep it out of the landfill.

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Yard debris and misters

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Mattresses and box springs are saved and sent to a company in the east bay that tears them apart, salvaging the wood and the metal, using the stuffing for other purposes.

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Batteries are supposed to go in the household hazardous waste but sometimes are dumped with the public debris and have to be retrieved.

Norcal also drains freon from old refrigeration units and detours other hazardous wastes before they wind up in the landfill.

Norcal doesn't just worry about keeping mattresses and hazardous wastes out of the landfill. People bring "good" stuff to the dump too. We saw some attractive pictures in frames and other like items. Norcal attempts to salvage useful items from the public dump.

Unable to interest San Francisco thrift outfits in their salvage, Norcal contracts with St Vincent de Paul in Eugene, OR. SVdP had trucks coming down here already on separate business and, rather than send back an empty truck, they now pick up the items Norcal has salvaged from the public dump and take them back to Eugene to sell in SVdP thrift stores.

Keep it out of the landfill.

Norcal doesn't have the staffing or the means to salvage from collected garbage. Don't expect them to. By the time the garbage trucks arrive at the transfer station, the loads are a mishmash of dreck and slime and unsalvageable.

Do NOT throw "good" items into your garbage thinking Norcal has people at the transfer station going through the garbage looking for salvageable items. They don't.

Keep it out of the landfill.

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Norcal does make a best effort to salvage things from loads dumped by the public at the transfer station, to get to the goods before the bulldozer does.

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The Department of Public Works has a separate area where they keep their debris boxes.

Notice the sculpture garden up on the hill that serves as a buffer between the transfer station and its northerly neighbors. Employees amuse themselves by adding odd items to the mix.

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San Francisco residents can drop off household hazardous waste at the Tunnel Avenue transfer facility. Hazardous wastes accepted include batteries (large and small), paint, chemicals, motor oil, used oil filters, fluourescent bulbs, antifreeze, &c.

The household hazardous waste dropoff program is staffed 8 a.m. - 4 p.m. Th-Sa.

Norcal now offers household pickup of hazardous waste on an as-available appointment basis. Call to make an appointment.

Small businesses can also use the hazardous waste drop off, but need an appointment and are charged fees for most types of hazardous wastes.

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Norcal tries to reuse as much of the "hazardous waste" as possible. Collected latex paint, for example, is available free to anyone who stops by (sometimes remixed, sometimes as donated) in large buckets.

Need to paint a fence? Get your paint here!

Customers can drop off up to 30 electronic items per month for free if they are delivered separate from any other garbage.

Electronic items are not allowed in your garbage but can be dropped off during regular open hours. You don't need to wait for the special "hazardous waste" days and hours. If all you are dropping off is electronic items, you can bypass the line of people waiting to use the public dump facility.

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The gulls were everywhere.

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Here's the view on our way up to the upper facility -- the garbage dropoff and the iMRF. The household hazardous waste area is to the left and the driveway down from the garbage Pit and the iMRF to the right. Caution signage.

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Gulls fly up as a truck emerges from the garbage handling facility.

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What a dump. The gulls are all over the garbage in the Pit. They do keep down the flies, though. I didn't see much of any.

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The way the Pit works, as I understand it, is as follows.

The garbage trucks with full loads wend their way up to the building and dump their loads into the Pit inside. The long haul trucks that drag the loads to Altamont pull in on the lower driveway, which is fifteen feet lower than the base of the pit floor. Bulldozers crush the garbage and push it off the edge of the Pit and into the trucks. Each truck carries twenty-five tons when packed to the gills -- which they are -- to maximize the amount of garbage carried per load.

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Above is a collection of pictures of the Pit, of garbage trucks dumping their loads in the Pit, pictures of gulls swarming all over the Pit like a bad Hitchcock movie. Pictures of the equipment, squishing and shoving garbage over the edge and into the long-haul trucks.

Note the seagulls -- a dead giveaway that there is far more organic waste in that pile than there should be if customers were using their green bins. The only stuff that should be in that pile are plastics that can't recycle, busted sneakers, non-flourescent light bulbs and such like.

What can you put in the green bin for composting? All food scraps, food-soiled paper, garden clippings and cuttings, pizza boxes, paper milk cartons, tea bags, coffee filters, banana peels, food-soiled paper napkins, wooden crates, tree trimmings, sawdust. Oh, the list goes on. Fish bones, lobster and crab shells, oyster shells, bones, wine corks.

The only things that shouldn't go in the green cart are (1) things that are already recycled in the blue bin: newspaper, clean paper items, bottles and cans, empty spray cans, aluminum foil, plastic bottles, tubs and lids, &c. and (2) things that belong in the real garbage:
  • Styrofoam
  • plastic bags
  • plastic flower pots or trays
  • diapers
  • kitty litter or animal feces
  • rocks, stones, or dirt
  • &c.
Yes, that's right. Practically everything can be put in either the recycle bin or the compostable bin.

Go forth and use the blue and green bins.

Keep it out of the landfill.

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The iMRF, where debris boxes from remodeling and construction sites are handled, is also at the top of the hill. The mixed construction debris passes through several processes after the debris box contents are dumped on the tip floor. First any hazardous wastes are removed.

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Then the material gets screened. The fine particles that are screened out are used as daily cover at a landfill, instead of a layer of dirt.

The area is constantly misted to keep the dust under control, which is why there are dazzles on some of the photographs.

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The open bunker areas pictured above are used by the sorting crew, above, sorting debris off a conveyor belt.

Each sorter is responsible for separating out a certain type of recyclable/reusable material and drops it into the bunker below their station. One hauls out unpainted lumber. One grabs plastics. One is responsible for ferrous metals. Another for nonferrous metals. And so forth. And on.

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The separated materials are hauled off.

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The Norcal facility is forty-one acres, straddling San Francisco County and San Mateo County. San Mateo County won't allow Norcal to scavenge or handle garbage on their side of the county line so Norcal can only use the San Mateo County side of the property for storage, vehicle parking, offices and the like.

Can you spot where the county line might be? (And another shot of seagulls.)

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Red valerian

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Miscellaneous pictures.
Here's a debris box coming in.
The sign on the overpass says "Check position of truck bed, door, tail gates before passing under this bridge. (Good advice, I'd say.)

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Garbage truck arrives at the upper level.
Full bin arrives.

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Some pictures of the truck cleaning operation and gulls in flight.

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Gulls just want to have fun.

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A bin
Long-haul trucks waiting to be filled before heading off to Altamont.
The truck on the far right has dual bins so that recycle pickup can stay separate and be off-loaded separately.

The next stop on our tour was the Organics Annex where the contents of the green bins land.

I think the city's compostable recycle program is extraordinarily cool. Read all about it here.

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Walking up the drive to the Organics area.
The gulls don't like the disturbance.

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Organics area.

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Anita grimaces at the non-compostable stuff she finds.
No plastics. no food bags. no pots, sez Anita.
We REALLY don't want them in the green bin.
Look! A green bin in with the Organics!
Anita hauls it out.

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Gulls out for a stroll.

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Sludge trucks carry the sludge from the sewage treatment plant. Because sludge is so much heavier than ordinary garbage, the trucks are smaller.

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For a few years, [20]* of Norcal's long-haul trucks have run on liquid nitrogen gas. Norcal decided to run the remainder of its San Francisco truck fleet on B20, a biofuel made of 20% vegetable oil and 80% low-sulfur fuel.

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A long-haul "possum" truck (note how the belly drags in front) stops before it enters the Pit loading area. The driver gets out and uses a long pole to open the mesh roof covers that keep the garbage from flying out during transit. The clang sets the gulls a-flutter.

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San Mateo County. Easy to tell where it starts and San Francisco County ends.

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Looking back, while walking back to the environmental education building. The garbage handling and iMRF to your left. Organics handling to your right. The righthand picture is a view north.

Back at the building we chatted about garbage and recycling issues and how to bring people on board.

We also got a chance to look at some of the work created during the Artists in Residence (at the dump!) program. Another very cool program.

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The dump is a wonderful place. Well worth a visit.

Norcal should use tour guide headsets and receivers. The tour is really NOISY because of all the big machines and heavy equipment. I probably missed 90% of what Bob Besso said out in the yard and on the floor. The tour is stenchy too. You've been warned.

Maybe I'll catch up by signing up for another tour. Public tours are available the third Saturday of each month at 10:00 a.m. Canceled if there's rain. Contact information is available at the sculpture garden link above.

* note in to Norcal to confirm that my notes are correct re #tons processed, #trucks using LNG, &c.

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