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161 20 Seeking the Proverbial Black Box for Waste Disposal Houston and New Orleans My infamous speech at the California Academy of Sciences in 1966, with the now especially infamous commentary—“Madam, until you have had the joy of inhaling a fly, live maggots crawling down your neck, and warm watermelon juice drizzling down the crack of your ass. . .”—gave me the confidence to speak in public, especially because I certainly knew my subject. In time, I became known as a leader in the newfound and complicated field that began to be called solid waste. My colleagues and I decided that it would be to our advantage to take time to look at facilities in other places, evaluate them, and possibly learn from them as we did when we built the transfer station for San Francisco. That transfer station worked perfectly from day one because we inspected other facilities before building it. By observing what other people did—both errors and successes—we learned. Through the auspices of the California Refuse Removal Council (CRRC), which I joined in 1966, we started to meet others in our industry. Because of the informal relationship between companies, we created a special bond among the garbage men, scavengers, and other waste haulers—the only real experts in the solidwaste management industry in Northern California. I started to learn more about the multitude of the alleged, proverbial black boxes, the answers to garbage disposal. I planned trips to Houston and New Orleans for a group of garbage men and politicians. In Houston, there was a “God’s Way” operation (composting garbage and putting it back into the earth) that was somewhat primitive although ecologically sound. Browning-Ferris Industries had purchased a composting operation that allegedly took municipal solid waste and converted it into usable compost and fertilizer . Our inspection of this system, especially by those who knew the industry well, found that the operation’s end product, as fertilizer , was negligible at best—and clearly no solution to a large city’s disposal needs. 162 Seeking the Proverbial Black Box for Waste Disposal Then Westinghouse Corporation, a big name in the corporate world, spent several million dollars developing a system to convert municipal solid waste (MSW) into compost. Westinghouse’s touted process consisted of a huge six-story digester with an engi­ neered moisture and temperature-enclosed environment.4 From the digester, the MSW was thrown into a grinder to open all the bags and run the ground waste through a magnetic field to extract ferrous metals. Westinghouse planned to use St. Peters­ burg, Florida as an example. What is common knowledge today—but only a few knew then— is that to make a viable compost byproduct, you need high per­ cen­ tages of two components: food waste (bugs) and biodegradable material such as paper and green waste (and no plastics, glass, etc.). The waste stream in St. Petersburg was less than 6 percent food waste and had an equally low percentage of biodegradable materials . The system also lacked an efficient front-end separation to recover materials not compatible with the compost process. While the system was a rather innovative concept, practically speaking it was seriously flawed. The methods used were too primitive for anything other than introducing the waste stream to a grinder, breaking up the bags of waste, extracting ferrous metals, and homogenizing the material. Far from producing the envisioned fertilizer, the new system created nothing more than a land “enhancer,” of which the primary and only value was to allow sandy soils to retain moisture. Westinghouse was undaunted and promoted their byproduct as a “soil enhancer,” which they used in cattle grazing areas. The livestock consumed the lush grasses, which grew as a result of the soil conditioner’s ability to retain water in the normally sandy soil. However, as the cows pulled at the grass they ingested the root system as well. As time went by, the cattle became ill. We learned later that the livestock were suffering internal bleeding. The grass’s root system was infused with glass particles generated from the initial grinding process when residential solid waste was introduced to the composting process. 4. A digester is a means to accelerate the normal decomposition of biodegradable materials, such as paper, leaves, and grass. This decomposition is a normal process in the forest, but in placing this material into a “digester” with putrescible waste, constantly moving it, and interjecting air in a confined environment, it is possible to accelerate...


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