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Dumpster diving

Tom Boyd

“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”– Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (Act II Scene II)Garbage, trash, rubbish, refuse call it what you will, waste is waste and that’s as far as most people ever take it.But Angel Herrera knows better. A few months ago he was going about his daily duty riding in the back of a Vail Honeywagon trash truck, hauling away the waste produced by another week of life in Eagle County, and that’s when he found the money.Apparently somebody figured that a set of coins weren’t worth their weight in metal, so they threw the mix into their trash, where Herrera was savvy enough to find them. His surprise bonus ended up being worth about $100.”There were coins from all different countries, especially Canadian,” he explains. “I took the money back to Mexico and gave it to the poor people there.”Herrera has a wife in Juarez, but he has worked for Vail Honeywagon for the past four years, and in that time he says he’s collected a lot of coins that people throw away. Finding treasures in the trash is one of the benefits of the job, he says, and coins are just one example of the valuables that the people of this valley get rid of prematurely.Persian rugs, electric guitars, brand-new skis and snowboards, $2,500 mountain bikes, Christmas presents with the bows still around them some of the folks in this valley seem to have a different definition of what’s trash and what’s not.”We had one guy find two laptop computers with Pentium 3 processors,” says Vail Honeywagon’s Byron Harrington. “I thought there was going to be a glitch somewhere, but they were running perfectly.”Harrington says the upper-end neighborhoods are usually where he and his co-workers find the most abundant booty, but just about every neighborhood in town has produced some treasure or another.”When people are moving in and out, that’s when you find the most stuff,” Harrington says. “People like to travel light.”Private putrescenceRich or poor, transient or deeply rooted, everyone produces trash and everyone wants it hauled away. And underneath the lids of every garbage can, wrapped in plastic, is the archeological record of the past week in a household’s history.”It’s interesting to me that trash is kind of a personal thing,” says Diana Donovan, whose family has owned Vail Honeywagon since 1983. “People get mad at their spouse and throw away a truckload of their clothes, clean and folded and fresh from the cleaners.”Spousal spats, fraternal in-fighting, or gargantuan gluttony, chances are the trash man knows more about the neighborhood than any other public service worker.And as the drivers get to know the people, the people get to know the drivers. During the holidays customers bring gifts of chocolates, cookies, cash or beer to the drivers.”I don’t know if they feel sorry for us or if they’re thankful that we’re taking away their stinky trash or what,” says Harrington. “But people in general are very appreciative.”And in turn, the people of Honeywagon take on a kind of guardian role in the community. They can tell (or smell), if a house is known for its parties (bottles make it absolutely obvious), its feasts (leftover caviar or TV dinners?) or its burgeoning family life (decomposing diapers!). In some ways it is their job to wrap up our secrets and carry them safely away, never to be seen (or smelled) again.So where does it all go?The dump funkIt’s 8 a.m. and the sun is rising over Ute Creek north of Wolcott, home of the so-called “most beautiful dump on earth.” Ron Rasnic, Eagle County’s solid waste manager, is just rolling into work, where he will spend his day navigating the nuances of negotiating with 24 acres of the seeping, smelly, eye-stinging refuse which is collected and buried here at the Eagle County Landfill.”Trash is something that people don’t think about too often,” he says. “They put it on the curb and it’s gone, but there’s a lot of work involved in taking care of it.”That work begins in homes and construction sites and ends with brusque burial at the landfill, where Rasnic sees about 95,000 tons of garbage come over the scales each year. Under the beautiful backdrop of the Sawatch mountain range, workers at the weigh-in station have seen the average daily influx of garbage double from about 130 tons a day in 1994 to about 260 tons a day in 2002. About half of that, Rasnic says, is construction waste, and the other half is municipal waste: also known as plain ol’ garbage.”With the area provided by the state right now I’d say we have about 14 to 17 years left before this landfill is full,” says Rasnic. “But that depends how much comes.”There’s no crystal ball to say how much garbage will come to the dump over the next decade and more, but when Rasnic looks to the future he doesn’t see a problem with solid waste storage coming anytime soon in Eagle County. Sixty-one acres of land directly adjacent to the current 24-acre plot await landfill status when the current pits are full, and Rasnic doesn’t seem worried that Eagle County, Colo., or Western states in general (except California) will run out of places to put their putrescence in the coming century.”In the last couple of years things have kind of leveled out,” Rasnic says. “When the existing dump is full it will be covered, re-vegetated, and it’ll probably just set here.”And, says Rasnic, the image of a landfill as a seeping, reeking, heaping environmental nightmare isn’t really accurate. Pits are lined with thick layers of hard clay so that liquid garbage can’t drain into the water table. The stinking stream that trickles from beneath the pit is drained into a holding tank, allowed to evaporate, and the solid remains are buried along with everything else.What’s interesting to Rasnic, and seemingly everyone else in the local garbage business, is the nature of what people in this county throw away.”I can’t say for certain,” he says. “But it seems like people in this county tend to produce more waste per-person than in other places.”The honey in the wagonLike many industries in North America, the waste management business has fallen almost entirely into the hands of one or two large corporations. Allied Waste Industries, which owns BFI, services about 10 million homes nationwide. Waste Management, the other corporate garbage giant, services a whopping 25 million residences and about 2 million commercial sites.The folks at Vail Honeywagon say that it’s difficult to know exactly how many households the company serves because of second homeowners and seasonal residents in the valley. And a significant number of business owners haul their personal trash to the work site. But Vail Honeywagon services the majority of residential accounts in the upper Eagle Valley, and is continuing to expand annually.Back in 1983, Diana and John Donovan Sr. were looking for something to do. Donovan’s Copper Bar had been shut down, and Diana and John began running the small trash collection co-op that operated in town during the late ’70s.Driving a truck and hauling trash became part of the Donovans’ routine. After a summer of operating what Diana calls a, “typical, closer-than-most kind of company,” the Donovans bought out the other partners in the co-op and took charge of the company, working without vacations for more than six years to establish a solid customer base.Now under the guidance of the Donovans’ second son, Matt, the company has grown to a fleet of about 15 trucks, and their garbage canisters and logo are ubiquitous in Eagle County.But being the underdog has its advantages in the waste management world, says Honeywagon manager Byron Harrington.”With some of the other companies it’s a cookie-cutter service,” he says, “You’re either within the cookie-cutter or your out.”And, as Diana says, “For them it’s just a business. For us it’s our name.”Problems and solutionsIt’s a bumpy road from here to the dump and back again in more ways than one. But waste management companies, perhaps more than any other business group in America, are working for a cleaner, more environmentally aware nation.Part of this is because cost effectiveness, consumer awareness and environmentalism go hand-in-hand-in-hand in the waste management industry. If carriers can find a way to operate more efficiently, then both the environmental and financial interests of the company come out on top.And there are some surprising ways to make this happen.A BMW plant in South Carolina, for example, is using gases from decomposing trash in a nearby dump to fuel four turbines that produce electricity and hot water. Nearly a quarter of BMW’s needs at the South Carolina plant are met by this method.And specially-treated yellow grease, usually discarded by fast-food chains or drained from hearty kitchen meals, can be filtered and made into a replacement for diesel fuel.These are only two examples of how waste can be recycled in new and innovative ways. But building infrastructure, says Matt Donovan, is the key to keeping environmentalism and efficiency alive. And the federal government not the free market will be the deciding factor if recycling is to truly succeed locally and nationally, he says.Does recycling work?Rumors have abounded in this community for years that recycling is a waste of time and that the energy spent isn’t worth the energy saved. Some locals have even suggested that recycled bottles and cans end up mixed in with the rest of the garbage and thrown into the dump.”That’s 100 percent false,” says Matt Donovan of Vail Honeywagon. “It does get to a point in some places where a big company will be losing money on recycling, and they own the dump, and they’ll mix the recycling in with the trash, but that definitely doesn’t happen here.”Honeywagon’s recycling amounts to about three or four semi-truckloads each week, which are hauled to Denver and sorted through by Tri-R Recycling. Then the recycled material is sold on the world market, generally to countries that encourage the use of recycled materials.”We would need a processing plant up here to really make it work,” says Donovan, who admits that his recycling operation often comes at his company’s expense. But bottling companies lobby the feds to keep recycled material quotas low, so they can continue to make new bottles a cheaper process than creating bottles from recycled materials.Here in the United States, says Donovan, federal law doesn’t encourage the use of recycled materials enough to create a steady market and support a steady infrastructure.”The customer wants to do it, and that’s the only way it really makes sense,” he says. “It’s not a profitable thing.”Bear proofing you garbageGarbage industry pundits say that there are lots of ways to keep your garbage bear-proof without building a bear-proof garbage can. Here are some ways to keep bruins from cruising the neighborhood in search of grub. Bears get three shots at going for trash before Division of Wildlife officers are forced to kill them, according to mandate. So these steps will keep the neighborhood safe and the bears alive. Keep garbage indoors until trash day. If indoors isn’t an option, then keep smelly refuse indoors and use a bungee cord to keep the trash upright. Also try a bungee over the lid. Sprinkling a little cayenne pepper over the lid of the garbage will give bears a nasty snoutful of GO AWAY! Try a semi-bear-proof container from Honeywagon with a metal clasp. Move somewhere where there aren’t bears!


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