Economist Compares Recycling Techniques of Impoverished Mumbai, High-Tech San Francisco. Guess Who's Recycling More?

Categories: Environment, Media
Joe Eskenazi
Inside "The Pit," where all San Francisco's trash ends up
In a fascinating story in the March 6 edition of the Economist, the lives of a rag-picker (kabari-wallah) in Mumbai and a bulldozer operator at "The Pit" in San Francisco are contrasted -- as are the recycling practices in the third and first world, respectively. Tara Bai Hiyale earns 100 rupees a day (about $1.93) while Greg Ruiz takes home more than 10 times that amount every hour. While the Indian slum-dweller manually picks through filthy piles of trash, Ruiz operates heavy machinery or sorts through piles of rubble on conveyor belts and other costly, mechanized sorting devices.

And yet for all San Francisco's investment in heavy machinery -- and immeasurable good intentions -- we're not able to do the job Hiyale and her colleagues do in India: "the sorting at Pier 96 is much less elaborate and precise than that performed by Mumbai's rag-pickers. Plastic and paper is separated into fewer colours and categories; indeed, many types of plastic are not accepted at all. The conveyor belts move too fast to catch everything and the workers and machines both make mistakes that they cannot correct."

What's more: "No one knows Mumbai's recycling rate, but it seems likely to exceed San Francisco's, for a simple reason. In Mumbai recycling is a profitable pursuit for all involved, whereas in San Francisco it costs most residents money. Indian rag-pickers require no wages, equipment or electricity. By contrast, Norcal has invested $38 million in the materials recovery facility (or MRF, in the industry jargon) at Pier 96 and keeps paying out on running costs."

I personally visited both Pier 96 and "The Pit" for a recent SF Weekly cover story (and still have the stains on my garments to prove it). What the Economist notes is true: Norcal Spokesman Robert Reed told me that his company simply couldn't afford to recycle plastic bags -- they had to maximize their expenditures and go after heavy stuff like metal and slate used in construction sites. In fact, he put it thusly: "These are Teamsters making a Teamsters' wage. They need to go after the heavy stuff." Hiring a legion of Tara Bai Hiyales would be more effective -- but not more cost-effective.

This situation has only been exacerbated by the bottom falling out of the recycling market. During my visit right around New Year's, Pier 96 Plant Manager John Jurinek told me that the prices he was getting for scrap metal were only 20 percent of what they'd been even a few months earlier. They're feeling the pain even more acutely over in India, by the way: When folks here stop building things, folks over there who recycle (or, let's be honest, steal) scrap metal have their earnings slashed from slim to none.

Two points anyone reading the Economist article should know: First off, whoever wrote this article (and you just can't tell, as the magazine doesn't use bylines) must have done much of the work prior to October of last year -- because Jared Blumenfeld is quoted as the director of the Department of the Environment, despite leaving that job to head Rec & Park long ago

Secondly, the Economist notes that a Norcal study revealed that "70 percent of the material going into the pit could have been recycled." I happen to have that study sitting on my desk, and that's not what it says. It found that 67.5 percent of material in the pit could have been recycled or composted. Quite specifically, 31.3 percent of the material San Franciscans throw away could have been recycled while 36.2 percent could have been composted.

There is a difference: If not for that rotting, compostable waste, the lives of rag-pickers like Hiyale would be a lot less pungent.

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