Every week, you wheel containers to the curb -- trash, recyclables and green waste -- and the next day, you wheel them back. Do you ever stop to think about what happens to what's inside them?
Tim Argenti has been consumed with the topic for more than 40 years, or since he worked his first garbage route in Walnut Creek for the old Valley Disposal Service.
"Those were the days when we were packing 120-gallon aluminum barrels with hooks on them," he said. "We went into backyards empty and came out full. We flipped the contents into the back of the truck and went on to the next house. I was in shape back then."
Argenti is now general manager of Allied Waste Services, overseeing disposal service for a dozen East Bay communities as far north as Benicia and south as Danville. He marvels at the evolution he's witnessed.
"The most dramatic change is the focus on diversion," he said, noting that more than half is what's on the curb winds up recycled, not in landfills. For Allied Waste, that's about 2,500 tons a month.
"In my day, you picked it up and dumped it in a landfill. What's changed is sensitivity to the environment."
Technological advances have reshaped the business, too. Manual collection was slow and physically draining. The wear and tear on workers' bodies made for short careers. Trucks with mechanized lifting arms changed all that.
"It's not unusual for one of our trucks to drive by 1,000 homes in a day," Argenti said, "and the drivers now can retire healthy. All they're doing is handling a joy stick."
Perhaps nothing has changed more, though, than what happens to our refuse. Green waste is ground into compost, recyclables are repurposed and nonrenewable waste -- garbage, to you and me -- goes to meticulously engineered landfills.
The Keller Canyon Landfill in Pittsburg, where huge transfer trucks bring the garbage collected by route trucks, is a classic example. It's projected to have a 50-year life. A six foot deep, multilevel liner system of engineered clay, soil, gravel, permeable textiles and high-density polyethylene prevents liquid waste from leaching into the ground and ground water from percolating into the refuse.
An extensive groundwater monitoring network guards against contamination, and a gas-extraction system collects methane from decomposing waste, which fuels a 3.8-megawatt power station that generates enough electricity to supply 3,000 households in Alameda and Palo Alto.
Your garbage goes to an extremely impressive resting place.
"It's not the dump," said Republic Services General Manager Rick King, who manages Keller Canyon. "This is the newest landfill in the state, and it has the latest and best of everything."
If not for an entrance sign on Bailey Road -- and the 200 trucks that come and go every day -- passers-by might not know it's there. The landfill sits amid rolling hills nearly a mile from the entrance, occupying only 200 of the 2,600 acres owned by Republic Services.
Multiple fences prevent waste paper from escaping. A booming propane canon discourages seagulls from scavenging. At the close of business, the landfill is sealed with a six-inch covering of soil or green waste -- in preparation for tomorrow, when it all happens again.
So go ahead and wheel your containers to the curb. Your trash is in good hands.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.