At my kid’s elementary school I led the recycling program. I stuck labels on bins: blue for Recycle, green for Compost and any-old grey for Trash. I marshalled adorable little “waste-watchers” and hyped the privilege of putting on a green vest and then spending lunch hours directing left-over lunch trash into the right bin. The painstakingly prepared contents of packed lunches: Bento box, Bhp-free, stainless steel- so much went straight to the trash. For the nannied kids and some from big, double-income and busy families – it was school lunch from Sodexo, the same company which does the jails. There are no proper kitchens at school only microwaves. The Sodexo food is vacuum packed, preservative heavy, and served in non-recyclable polystyrene and microwavable plastic clamshells. Fruit and vegetables – mandated by the state, consist of token slices of apple or carrot in plastic bags – all straight to the trash because to recycle the wrapping would involve opening the plastic sachets and eating the plastic tasting fruit first and no one is prepared to do that.
Where does all this trash go? To the recycling plant, off the freeway in Milpetas, under the San Jose Airport flight-path, near the factories and Ping-Pong Dojo where first generation Asian American kids hone lighting reflexes and de-stress from math coaching and the knowledge that without it could mean work in a factory. Where real estate is relatively cheap because you can smell the Silicon Valley “Toxic Coalition” sludge on its way into the bay. Outside the plant there are half a dozen Mexican men and women sitting on upturned plastic bins, massaging their sore feet. I say “Hi” and they don’t reply or smile. The first Mexicans I have ever met who don’t. They seem stunned and very vulnerable. Soon I find out why.
I turn into the yard. Fork-lifts proudly stack Wall-E cubes of plastic, glass, paper. This is the end product embodying, undeniably, less carbon than making it anew. My guide leads me inside. He, himself, spent 5 years on the factory floor until he was promoted. “Dont worry”, he says, as I remark about the non-smiling workers “They all have benefits.” Inside the air is sickly sweet with air-freshener. Air-freshener is for the tours but I can still smell the trash. It comes in on large conveyor belts at ceiling level, and then drops through shutes to other waist height conveyor belts at which dozens stand, eight hours a day with a short break for coffee, and the same for lunch, if they choose to forego the income. Sneakered, helmeted, goggled, fluorescent green and yellow jacketed, unsmiling and“sorting” which involves waving their arms rapidly back and forth across the conveyor belt pushing trash into the right container below. The air is putrid. Little bits of garbage float in the air sticking on everything and my camera lens.
Our guide shows us and those on the conveyor belt his smart-phone. “From the trash” he says. After a year or so the workers earn the right to be upstream at the conveyor belt and it is there they can hit the jack-pot , the right to treasure amidst the trash “theirs to keep.” Hope springs eternal. He is a clever motivator. His job is to decide upon just the right speed for the conveyor belt. Fast enough to make money, slow enough to give them a chance of actually sorting. It seems very fast to me.