Opinion | Explore the secret life of your garbage

It was my idea to go through the trash. All Jeff Borgida needed was a little prompting.

Once I opened the blue bin, Borgida, Eastside general manager for Allied Waste, started pointing out the little mistakes—bagged paper, lids on bottles—and showing how I could recycle more stuff, better.

Until a few weeks ago, I had rarely considered what happens to garbage, post-Dumpster. Small town news is so often consumed with the future—growth, education, votes, movers and shakers—that there’s not always time for the grimy stuff like trash.

But the basics are important, too. For our health, and to understand our own place in the world, we should all know where our water comes from and goes, where our trash winds up, and how our streets are managed. As citizens, not just residents, we take these things for granted at our peril.

Watching Borgida, I realized that my own habits needed changing. By simply rinsing out a milk carton, or pulling a plastic bottle out of the trash can and putting it with the office wastepaper, I could help with diversion—recycling something, rather than wasting it (isn’t that why it’s called waste?).

Each effort helps save room in that big county landfill that’s going to fill up sometime after 2020. It saves resources, and I’ll bet it also saves us money and time in the long run.

It’s also very easy. The contents of nearly every Valley recycling bin’ wind up at Allied’s high-tech Materials Recovery Facility in Seattle, there converted into recyclable goods for sale, offsetting the cost of collection. If you don’t know whether to recycle something, just throw it in. Technology has reached a point that if something can’t be recycled, the system removes it.

Another lesson: Don’t bag your recyclables, leave them loose. The computerized cameras and blowers that sort the contents need it to flow freely to get all the cans and paper and bottles to their final destination.

I was amazed to learn the story of local garbage. Accustomed to old forms of garbage disposal—self-hauling to the dump, or simply letting the two-man garbage teams haul it away—I hadn’t realize how the situation had changed. In the Valley, there are no longer garbage men—it’s one person, in a truck, assisted by a robot arm and sophisticated cameras and motion sensors, piloting a natural-gas-powered truck around tight corners more nimbly than I could have believed if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.

The secret life of garbage was, at least for me, eye opening. And we’ve only told half the story of local trash. Some pieces of the puzzle that didn’t turn up last week included some numbers: How much trash or recycling local communities generate, and how those numbers compare with other cities. Do we in the Valley have a better ecological footprint than most? I’m optimistic that we do.

What’s next? Perhaps, a look at the secret life of water, streets or sewers. If you’re interested, let’s keep digging down into the supposedly mundane.

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