When we stop next to our first bin, he warns me, “These trucks are very jumpy. When the arm goes up, the truck has a rhythm of its own.” The motion reminds me of the rocking and jolting of an amusement-ride car as it returns to the passenger-loading area.
Every time Allison dumps a load, he glances at a compact monitor to his left. It shows what a camera at the top of the truck is revealing: whether each bin’s contents have been expelled. (Sometimes people jam the recyclables too tightly, and they get stuck.) Every time a load goes in the hopper, a mechanism pushes it toward the front. Allison says the recyclables don’t compress as well as the regular trash; the newspapers and cardboard and bottles tend to be bulkier.
We roll down Mount Acadia, a wide boulevard without much on-street parking. Allison points out that it’s ideal for curbside recycling. “You can run right along the curb and pick [the bins] up in one sweep.” Far more commonly, complex maneuvering is required. One of the biggest problems bedeviling the trashmen, it’s quickly clear, is that most homeowners don’t set their bins three feet apart, as they’re supposed to do. So when the truck arm reaches out, it’s easy to knock over an adjoining receptacle. “I do it myself!” Allison confesses with a shout of laughter. “When I put my trash cans out, they’re together.” It’s a normal human foible; not the sort of thing to rile Allison. He says whichever driver — trash or recycling — works a given street first, he’ll usually set his bins down so as to allow more room for the man who will follow.
I note another common infraction: some people stuff their blue bins to the point of overflowing, so full the lids won’t close. This increases the likelihood that the contents will spill out as the mechanical arm hoists the receptacle skyward and dumps it. Whenever this happens, Allison sets his emergency brake and leaps out to scoop up the fluttering newspaper inserts and empty 7UP bottles, an inconvenience he shrugs off. Still, he nods with appreciation at the white-haired man on one long cul-de-sac who, instead of overfilling his receptacle, parks it across the street from his house, waits and watches for Allison to dump it, races across to retrieve it, fills it again, and repositions it for Allison to dump a second time as he makes his way back up the street.
With the bin lids closed, Allison and I can’t glimpse what items people are offering up for recycling, but Allison claims the contents vary from one neighborhood to another. “Barrio Logan people have a tendency to put anything and everything in the container,” he says. “And it’s often real junky.” On the other hand, he says, he covers areas “where you can best believe it’s all recyclables.” Some of those people wash every container they discard, he marvels.
He hazards a guess that the items most often wrongly placed in the blue bins are plastic bags. People store their recyclables in them, then toss the entire package, even though the plastic bag isn’t supposed to go in. Allison has the option of reprimanding anyone who breaks the recycling rules. There’s an informal and a formal way to do this, the latter involving tagging the rule-breaker’s bin. No fines are ever imposed, but anyone who’s tagged gets a letter and a follow-up visit by a code enforcement officer. Allison says, “If a person steady does something that’s wrong, I’ll tag it and tell my supervisor.” But Allison’s more often inclined to cut the homeowner slack. Recycling is voluntary, and if people feel too hassled, he thinks, they’ll get exasperated and quit.
By 11:30, Allison can tell from the action of his truck’s compressor that the hopper is getting full, so he secures the cover and we head back north on 805. All the curbside-recycling items collected by the City of San Diego pass through one of two sorting centers. Our destination now is the one located on a frontage road off Miramar Road. Just inside the front gates, Allison halts the truck on a scale, where the truck’s loaded weight is recorded. Then he dumps the contents inside a gigantic warehouse and drives back to the scale. A receipt testifies that our morning rounds have gathered some 10,400 pounds of discards. After a brief stop back at the truck yard, Allison will return to the streets of Clairemont for a few more hours.
Besides Allison’s conscientiousness, what has impressed me most about the ride-along is how widespread recycling participation appears to be. It’s obvious to me why most people want to jettison their garbage. It takes up space, it’s unsightly, and it often stinks. But curbside recycling asks the average person to take several extra, optional steps in sorting and storing rubbish before the garbage truck arrives. The hundreds of stops Allison and I made this morning seem to demonstrate that a whole lot of people find this worth doing.
My subjective impression, I later learn, was confirmed by a survey conducted by the city’s Environmental Services Department. The department selected eight neighborhoods, four in higher-income areas (Point Loma, Sabre Springs, Tierrasanta, and University City) and four in low- to moderate-income ones (North Park, Paradise Hills, Skyline/Encanto, and South Crest). Two city recycling specialists then drove along selected streets in each community on its curbside-recycling pickup day, recording how many homes had set out blue bins. After the first visit, the surveyors returned on two more consecutive pickup days.
They found that participation varied considerably between the neighborhoods. On any given day, an average of only 29 percent of the South Crest homes had a blue bin in front, compared with 76 percent of the homes in University City. But when the surveyors tallied the numbers from all three days, they found that 1603 of the 1969 households included in the study had set out their recycling containers at least once, an overall participation rate of 81 percent. (Again this rate varied from a low of 59 percent in South Crest to a high of 95 percent in Point Loma and University City.) The 81 percent rate is “one of the higher participation rates, compared to other communities,” the study report states.