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It's dirty, but it's not dirt: scientists in state policy

Published on: Sep 25, 2019

From my first day on the job at the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle), I knew that I was definitely in a non‐traditional career for an ecologist. I piled into a van with 10 of my coworkers and drove to a waste transfer station. From the confines of the van, I watched as large garbage trucks pulled through the gate and headed for the tipping floor, where they dumped their contents and then headed back out for another load. Meanwhile, smaller vehicles pushed the accumulated trash into a hole in the floor, loading it onto transfer trucks that would ultimately deposit the trash in a landfill.

We donned our safety vests and helmets and left the van, only to be greeted by the odor of decomposing waste and the cry of gulls overhead. A few feet away was our destination – a tented area where a small crew was sorting the trash into over 80 categories (paper, plastic, metal, glass, electronics, food, and so on) for California's periodic waste characterization study. It was smelly, it was dirty, but manual sorting is the only way to know what people throw away. And in order to make good, data‐based policies on recycling, composting, and waste management, we have to know what's there (Figure 1).

To read the rest of this article in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, please click here.