Photo by Isaac Miller.
Photo by Isaac Miller.

Craig Pearson hates plastic. 

It’s 9 a.m. on a brisk and windy morning at the Santa Cruz landfill, where a fence bordering an exposed mound of garbage is lined with Pearson’s archnemesis: single-use plastic bags.

“We just cleaned this fence off earlier this morning and look at it now,” Pearson said. “There’s gotta be hundreds more now.”

As Superintendent of Waste Disposal for the city of Santa Cruz, Pearson has been fighting an uphill battle against plastic, and everything else Santa Cruz residents throw away, for 20 years.

“Plastic, plastic, plastic,” Pearson said with a grimace. “There’s no reason people should be using that.”

But use it we do, and in massive quantities. 

According to a recent special report on waste by The Economist, the average American produces over 700 kg, or 1,500 lbs, of trash per year. Landfills house the remnants of our wasteful habits and consumption patterns, with every plastic cup, candy wrapper, popcorn bag, sushi container, toothpaste tube and plastic fork that we buy, use and throw away every day with little thought. 

With a growing population, increasingly threatened planet, and ever-shrinking supply of habitable land, it seems that wasteful habits cannot be sustainable forever. There simply will not always be enough space to cast off our refuse. 

Modern waste habits are driven by one-time-use convenience, said environmental studies professor Margaret Fitzsimmons, whose research focuses on resource management.

“In terms of domestic waste, packaging is the major component,” Fitzsimmons said. “People are too accustomed to the convenience of just picking a package up and then throwing it away.”


Photo by Isaac Miller.
Photo by Isaac Miller.

The Inner Workings of Waste

At the Santa Cruz landfill, Pearson is running an independent enterprise unfunded by tax revenues, and his precious commodity is space. He operates what is called a “sanitary landfill,” meaning the waste must be covered.

“If I can smash it, push it down, or put a ton of garbage in a cubic yard, that’s more profit for me,” Pearson said.

The fact that waste even has to be managed in such a space-conscious manner is somewhat of a modern phenomenon, and serves as a testament to how much waste we actually produce. The Santa Cruz landfill began as an “open canyon dump” in 1926, into which residents freely disposed of their waste. Because of the volume of trash today, the site must be carefully regulated, managed and spatially calculated to ensure room for future generations’ trash.

“I don’t think people really realize the ‘end’ of their stuff,” Pearson said.

That “end” is located just two miles north of Santa Cruz off Highway 1. If it weren’t for the persistent squawking of seagulls, a visitor to the area might not even realize he or she is standing on a literal mountain of garbage, over 80 years in the making. 

This constant barrage of garbage means that the more trash Pearson can divert, or keep out of the landfill, the longer the site will have open space to keep running.

“We’re so regulated and it’s so expensive to run a landfill, we find it’s cheaper to recycle,” Pearson said.

Santa Cruz has a somewhat efficient rate of diversion. Sixty percent of everything that is produced in the city of Santa Cruz is diverted from the landfill for beneficial reuses including recycling, composting, e-waste and scrap metals, Pearson said. 

The landfill is constructed in a series of “cells” that are engineered and subsequently filled with garbage one at a time and then covered. Carefully planned and measured, these cells are constructed by a team of soil experts, geologists and engineers who seek to maximize space and minimize environmental impact. One cell can be 40 feet wide, 100 feet long, and 100 feet deep and can last anywhere from five to 10 years before being covered. 

There are two major environmental issues that every modern landfill is forced to deal with: methane production and water contamination, Pearson said.

To tackle methane production, which occurs when garbage decomposes in an anaerobic environment, methane wells sequester the substance, which is then either harnessed in an energy facility or destroyed by flaring it off.

To prevent “leachate,” or contaminated water, from entering the groundwater systems, the bottom of the cells are lined with impermeable clay soil or plastic sheeting. Once the cells are full of trash, they are covered with clay soil, mulch and seedlings from organic compost matter to prevent soil erosion. 

The end result is a landscape that resembles rolling grassy hills, except the hills are massive piles of our trash.


Photo by Isaac Miller.
Photo by Isaac Miller.

Waste Watchers

People’s refuse has always served as an indicator of what day-to-day life was like at any given time in history. Anthropology professor Judith Habicht-Mauche, whose research focus is in archeology, explains that “garbology,” or the study of modern trash from an archeological perspective, is widely used to study the material culture of today’s society.

“I think that garbage tells a lot about who we are,” Habicht-Mauche said. “It tells us about the material remains of our day-to-day life.”

Just last year, Santa Cruzans threw away 52 thousand tons of trash — excluding recyclables and organics, which are diverted from the landfill. From a garbologist’s perspective, the contents of our landfill might reveal the underlying values and trends of our community. To Pearson, the contents of his landfill often reveal how careless people can be when kicking something to the can.

“I have to pay someone $20 an hour to clean up other people’s garbage,” Pearson said as he watched employees filter through what is supposed to be a pile of organic waste. “I mean, why do you throw [plastic] in a green waste can? Is it because you’re cheap, uneducated, lazy — it’s ridiculous.”

Habicht-Mauch explained that the carelessness people tend to have when it comes to their disposal habits, in addition to its universal presence in human society, is part of the reason why trash can be so informative.

“Archeologists will often say how democratic garbage is,” Habicht-Mauch said. “It tells us about everyone’s life because everyone gets represented in garbage. We can see rich people, poor people, men and women, young and old.”

Furthermore, when it comes to people’s consumption habits — what they eat, as well as what they buy and then don’t eat — trash is honest when people often are not.

“[Trash] tells us about what we do, not what we say we do,” Habicht-Mauche said.


Photo by Isaac Miller.
Photo by Isaac Miller.

Cutting Down the Crap

It is becoming increasingly clear to environmentalists that our unsustainable habits cannot continue unabated. 

As the Waste Prevention campaign coordinator for the Student Environmental Center (SEC), second-year student Nicky Chronis seeks to change the way that students think about what they buy and consume.

“Everyone is so busy that I think they feel justified in not caring about it,” Chronis said. “I’m taking into account future generations and I don’t want them to face the consequences of what I’m throwing away now.”

The SEC campaign encourages the university to make more responsible purchasing decisions, such as 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper. It also promotes waste-free campus events, starting with the summer 2008 new student orientation going zero-waste for the first time.

Silas Snyder serves as the resource conservation coordinator for university housing services at UCSC and works closely with waste reduction committees at the various colleges to reduce the amount of trash that we truck to the landfill. Snyder said that the solution is part individual, part systematic.

“Part of it is a global effort — don’t put anything in the trash, reduce, buy in bulk, etc.,” Snyder said. “The other part of it is providing individuals with the opportunity to properly process their waste through recycling.”

At the university level, the University of California Office of the President has outlined a systemwide waste policy that plans a zero-waste UC system by the year 2020. Snyder said UCSC is currently at a 50 percent diversion rate, expected to increase to 75 percent by 2012.

Zero waste is an ambitious goal for such a large system, and both Snyder and Chronis consider a comprehensive and in-house composting system on campus vital to achieving that goal. 

The recent introduction of trayless dining in the campus dining halls cut down food waste from 3 to 4 ounces per plate to 1.75 ounces per plate, Chronis said. However, only the College Eight dining hall is equipped with a food pulper to convert this wasted food into compostable material, which is then outsourced to a local farmer. Chronis explained that in order to achieve zero waste, the school cannot continue sending its compost off-site.

“We produce so much compost as it is that the city can’t even handle taking it all,” Chronis said.

There is a long way to go, but a rapidly changing planet requires our commitment, Snyder said.

“The students who are going to be here when we have to be zero-waste are second-graders right now,” he said. “Can you imagine all the climactic change, landfills filling up, and ocean pollution that’s going to occur until then? It’s going to be a very different place.”

It is this kind of mindful awareness of waste that Pearson hopes will become more prevalent. Indeed, for someone who spends his days surrounded by the trash of 60,000 people, Pearson has managed to not resign himself to the fact that humans are driven to degrade the earth. In addition to abolishing the reviled single-use plastic bag, Pearson hopes people will begin to think less about one-time convenience, and more about reuse.

“It’s a circle, you can’t have something that goes in a straight line and stops,” Pearson said. “People have to start thinking that way in everything they buy and use.”