Home » Eve Pearlman

Eve Pearlman: Hello, Alameda

Submitted by on 1, October 2, 2009 – 6:00 am10 Comments

23It’s good to be back after a summer’s break from writing about our town.

While most of the rest of the country gets colder (East Coast friends write of rain and first frosts), our sunny coastal town peaks in temperature in September – with October not far behind. Here, bougainvilleas flower, grasses grow, and the sun shines marvelously. Supremely warm fall days, elsewhere odd, are normal here.

Now that school is back in session, I have spent many lunch hours helping the students at my children’s elementary school sort their lunch trash into the bins in the school’s courtyard. I do this because last spring the Alameda Unified School District won a grant to start a program to divert recyclables and compost from landfills. While eventually this system will be in use at all the Island’s public schools, right now it’s getting its sea legs at a few pilot sites. Noble and essential as it is, on the ground I have found it to be a touch grouchy-making. I return from lunch with my hands sticky from pulling little plastic straws from the compost containers, from fishing recyclable single-serving applesauce cups from the trash. Seems as though there has to be a better way?

I e-mail a friend who moved recently to Switzerland, imagining that in a sophisticated European nation they’ll be light years ahead of our good-old-brazenly-big-box USA. But, writes my friend, not so: Their systems are not at all streamlined. Plastics, she writes, have to be brought back to the grocery store; to get yard clippings hauled off, you must call in advance to arrange for city pick up; glass, tin cans and batteries must be brought to a local recycling site. “For compost,” she writes, “we take our green bucket to the neighborhood compost garden every Saturday between 10 and 11 a.m. – not exactly convenient – and people are expected to take turns mixing up the compost.”

Hmmm, so much for my dreamy idea. I guess here in Alameda we are pretty lucky to have three bins picked up weekly at our curbs. And thank goodness we can mix cardboard, metal, and plastic in one blue bin – no need to bring it anywhere. By e-mail, my friend agrees: “California is way easier!” she writes. “I think Europeans have been recycling this way for a long time so it’s not seen as a burden to them.”

I print out two articles to bring to my daughter’s class when I go in to talk to them about helping with the new lunch waste disposal system. One article describes the miles-wide swirl of plastics in the Pacific Ocean. The second is about the ozone-destroying methane gas produced by landfills. It is bleak.

But then one afternoon as I help the kindergartners sort their lunch detritus – they’re five, and earnestly doing their very best to get the system right – I have a minor epiphany there in the courtyard sunlight: The project is indeed practical, they’ll learn, and soon enough this three-bin method won’t be a big deal. It’ll be what they’ve always done. It’ll be the new normal, as normal to them as warm fall days – as normal as sleet and freezing rain is to our friends in colder climes.

Normal, it is easy to forget, is very often simply what is. Take for example health care, with which we’re currently obsessed. Right now, it is our national normal that people lose their insurance if they’re laid off – and that they then may or may not be able to find insurance coverage on their own depending on whether or not they have a “pre-existing condition,” depending on some profit-making insurance company’s arbitrary decision. It’s normal now for people to suddenly find themselves uninsurable when they need care the most – when they have a chronic illness or an acute injury.

But I wonder if someday this curious situation will no longer be normal – that instead it’ll be normal to expect access to health care even if you have a chronic disease, a disability, or work for yourself.  What is normal changes, and this gives me hope. Maybe reliable health insurance will be normal, just like it will be second nature of kids of the coming generation to sort through their waste.

And so our fall days go on, sunny-sunny, with Alamedans ever-eager, despite the chaos on the national level, and chaos in many homes, work-and-bank-account-related, to enjoy the weeks and months in our fair city, of this fall of 2009. More next week.


  • Frances says:

    Hi Eve,

    Welcome back! Your column is a breath of fresh air, and the most hopeful statement about both waste management and health insurance reform I have seen on either topic in a long time. Thanks! I am looking forward to reading your work on a regular basis.



  • Mark Irons says:

    The solid waste at the sewage treatment plant is turned into compost. We don't have a garbage disposal here because I thought it was bad to tax the capacity of the sewage treatment plant, but as it turns out, the plant actually purchases green waste from our collection system to mix with the solids from the sewer in order to have the right mix for good compost. Kind of crazy. So the bottom line there is it's more efficient to send food waste via the garbage disposal, although the water used in transport is yet another factor to weigh. Yikes!

    But I've been reading about compost from sewage treatment plants which process chemical waste people put down the drain, like paint and other products which have heavy metals and toxins, so I'm not entirely sure about where the stuff ends up. There was a compost from the sewage plant called Comp-Grow which was for use on ornamentals like roses, but not to be used on edibles, but I have heard about massive use of toxic compost on agriculture too, especially in the south east.

    It's interesting the European systems seem less "convenient" to us, but as you point out Eve, it's all relative. They seem to have made less of a disconnect to begin with in regard to the personal responsibility and effort required to make things work, or keep them working.

  • Alana Dill says:

    My family recycled papers to raise funds for my brother's boy scout troop; we recycled aluminum cans and glass bottles, and my mom kept a compost bin in the backyard. I used to HATE going out back with the old milk carton full of god-knows-what. My family was weird and embarrassing for all these activities, but when I left home, the habit stayed with me when at all practicable. Dealing with the 3-bin system is downright easy compared to hauling cans and bottles around. But, since cans and bottles often have food or drink residues on them, I hope that eventually paper is recycled in a separate bin as well – makes a lot more sense than having to sort out clean from dirty (I presume you'd need pretty harsh solvents to clean chili grease from office paper).

  • alameda says:

    Good stuff … but why is temperature (in the 2nd para) hyperlinked to an article on medical bankruptcy? :)

  • Eve Pearlman says:

    Yikes, thanks for pointing out that bad link…I fixed it.

    And Jill S. I'm working on getting you an authoritative answer from ACI about milk and juice cartons.

  • Jill Staten says:

    Whenever I go somewhere outside Alameda I am freshly grateful for our great recycling program. It is just so easy! I sort-of remember the days when I put all the kitchen green waste down the garbage disposal, but it is really no big deal to put it in a container on the counter instead. Biodegradable bags that fit in the container make it REALLY easy to do.

    The only down side is that I don’t have as much motivation to utilize my compost pile (which is in the back of my yard, as opposed to the green bin right outside my kitchen door) , which would benefit my garden.

    I have a question for you in your capacity as a recycling expert: Can we put juice and milk cartons with plastic spouts in the blue waste? I cut them out and put the carton in the green bin but it’s a pain in the neck to do.

  • Kerry P says:

    Eve – Welcome, and great article on the schools’ food waste pilot program! I share your celebration and frustration. And yes, just like education’s 3Rs, the children will learn the 4Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot) as it is gradually normalized in the classroom, and with the comforting reinforcement in our thoughtful engagement of the curbside program at home.

    Jill – Backyard composting is indeed the best use for those food scraps, but since I don’t have much of a garden I also toss them in the green cart. Milk/Juice (gable top) cartons go in the green cart, not the blue. In fact, I use milk cartons to collect my food scraps, and drop the whole thing in the green cart. If there’s a plastic spout, I rip it out just before I put it in the green cart.

  • Teresa Montgomery says:

    Plastic spouts? It's best to avoid purchasing the paper milk and juice cartons that have them. But if you must buy them, they should go in the green cart. Spouts are a pain to tear off but they aren't organic and we consider them a contaminant. Pulling off the plastic spout and placing it in the trash is the right thing to do since plastics don't breakdown into compost. If the spout does make it to the compost facility, however, it will eventually be screened out and sent to the landfill. Resources are actually saved if the spout goes directly to the landfill with no detour.

    This was a great question! Thanks Eve for uncovering it. Should any Alamedan have a question regarding what should go in each of Aci's carts, I recommend looking at the list on our website: http://www.alamedacountyindustries.com/alameda/cu….

    Or emailing your question to askozzie@alamedacountyindustries.com.

    My best to all,

    Teresa Montgomery for ACI

  • Ruth Abbe says:

    Hey Mark–Just to clarify a few things:

    1. Our food scraps and yard trimmings go to the Newby Island Composting Facility in Milpitas where they are composted and sold as soil amendment to landscapers and farmers. Our food scraps and yard trimmings are not purchased by the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), our water and waste water utility.

    2. The sanitary sewer system IS NOT the best place to dispose of food scraps. Loading solids into our sewer system is not the most efficient way to handle them. While our sewage sludge is treated through anaerobic digestion (which creates biogas used for energy), the digestate (solids coming out of the treatment facility) is land applied or used as alternative daily cover at landfills (as you point out, our solids are mixed with industrial sludges and can contain chemicals that we do not want in our compost). This is not the "highest and best use" for our food scraps or our waste water system. Also, EBMUD discourages folks from using garbage disposals because it wastes water.

    3. EBMUD does have a pilot program for digesting commercial and industrial food scraps, but these materials are delivered to the treatment facility in trucks (not through the sewer system). EBMUD does not pay for the materials, they receive a fee for accepting them.

    4. The most efficient thing to do with food scraps is to clean your plate (eat all your veggies and don't throw them away!). The second most efficient thing to do with food scraps is to compost them at home and use the compost on your garden. The third most efficient thing to do with food scraps is to put it in the green cart — we are extremely fortunate to have such a convenient way to get our food scraps composted and returned to the soil (which reduces pesticide use and saves water and energy). This program is not common across the state or across the country.

    Kudos to Eve for helping to change the norms of behavior at our schools and investing in the next generation of recyclers and composters. Best, Ruth

  • Mark Irons says:

    Ruth, thanks for the clarifications and corrections. I was told by a biologist living on the island the EBMUD was buying waste ( not specifically ours), I was speaking generically that "our" waste was being used, I meant somebody's, but it's important because reconnecting the disconnect is what it's all about. I'm a stickler for detail, so I welcome all your information on EXACTLY where all our waste ends up because we should all know that.

    I read a book called "The BIG Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters". We're talking fecal material. There is a chapter on the misuse of bio-solids containing heavy metals and toxins in agriculture which was shocking. Some of it is not sterile and has caused death from massive bacterial infection. This is far a field from our local recycling, but world wide sanitation is a huge health problem and for all the attention given to clean water there is far too little attention given to the source of the problem which is human body waste, a subject people don't like to think or talk about. Because of density cities pretty much require water born disposal which for years has been inefficient and a problem itself.

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