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Waste Knot

[whitespace] Browning-Ferris' Wall of Trash stands as a monument to the valley's overproduction of garbage

By Jim Rendon

HOLDING A RED WORM in her outstretched hand, Amber Titus smiles big and broad. The worm pinches itself together and rolls sideways across her palm. "I like it," she says. "It's really slimy."

Titus gives the worm a last look, then turns her palm over and lets the creature drop. The red wriggler burrows back into the square of soil inside a blue box filled with rotting vegetables, worms and dirt. Titus turns and makes her way back through the crowd of classmates, each eager for their turn to check out the worms.

Pointing and gawking and climbing, the 19 kindergarten students from Cherry Chase School in Sunnyvale are learning about garbage, recycling and composting with a worm box from those who know best: the people at the dump.

Since 1991, Browning-Ferris Industries, one of America's corporate trash giants, has invited the public to view the centerpiece of its education center and Milpitas' second great landmark after the Great Mall: the great wall of trash.

Preschool classes and groups of Japanese businessmen alike have made the pilgrimage to Milpitas to see the 100-foot-by-17-foot trash display held at bay by chicken wire. Though it looks dauntingly large, it is a just a fraction of what shows up at the landfill every day and represents the amount of garbage generated every three minutes in Santa Clara County.

The wall contains more than just the sanitary stuff, says Heather Zinn, an intern who leads tours at the dump. There is real garbage, like 8-year-old leftover pizzas and dirty diapers as well as bottles, cans and toys. The whole display is chemically treated to keep the smell to a minimum, she says. Through the sharp odor of old beer cans wafting through the open building, the aroma of rotting pizza is barely evident.

Inside BFI's offices, an aerial photo shows the yellow dirt-covered landfill, which sits near the border between Fremont and Milpitas, spilling across its corner of the bay like a massive dollop of pancake batter flowing to the edge of the pan. Since the 1960s, this dump has taken in valley waste. But its days are numbered. With the exponential growth in the valley, and the continued use of throwaway products, the dump is filling and is scheduled to close by 2030.

By law, California cities need to recycle 50 percent of all their trash by the year 2000. According to Margaret Rands, program director for the county's Integrated Waste Management Program, Santa Clara County diverts 45 percent of its waste from landfills.

But residents could do better, Zinn says. While 90 trucks a day dump a mountain of recyclables on the ground, there are still 500 more that make their way to this landfill every day. Each hour, truckloads of things that could have easily been fixed and used again, recycled or composted are pushed into the landfill. Even with the curbside recycling that most communities now use, paper and cans still are still tossed into the garbage without a second thought.

The wall of trash, BFI representatives say, can help to change this. Through the time-honored method of indoctrinating children so they can pester their parents, the company hopes that the weekly school tours of their exhibit will encourage more families to recycle.

In a hallway encased on two sides by windows, the 5-year-olds, standing on benches, press their faces up against the panes of glass. "Ooh, ooh, ooh," one small boy says over and over while the others point, crowding each other for a good view.

Below them is a vast warehouse space. On one side bulldozers push around two-story-tall piles of paper, plastic bottles and glass. On the other are neat bales of the same material stacked 20 feet high. It's There Goes a Bulldozer on the really big screen.

Zinn explains which materials can be recycled and how they are picked up and brought here to the recyclery, where they are piled and pushed and sorted, some by hand, some by machine. Then she points out the bailer, where stacks of once-round plastic bottles are turned into fat rectangular bails.

Though the idea of a soda can miraculously being reborn as a can of beans is a little beyond these Silicon Valley 5-year-olds, the basics of what can be recycled and squished into a bail seem to stick.

But in this cash-driven valley, no lesson is complete without learning the financials of an endeavor. At the end of the tour, the whole class climbs on the scale used to weigh bottles and cans. As if part of a real-life word problem, the 19 kindergartners learn that if they were made of aluminum and someone took them to be recycled, the class would be worth $679. The kids like the theory and the numbers are solid. The kindergartners are sold.

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From the April 8-14, 1999 issue of Metro.

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