Repurposing Waste

by Alex Casbara

In 2012, Americans produced roughly 251 million tons of garbage; the weight equivalent of 282 Golden Gate Bridges. While our modern throwaway lifestyles produce staggering heaps of refuse, innovations in waste management focus on diverting discarded materials away from landfills and incinerators while simultaneously breathing new life into our trash products. How does garbage become repackaged as a profitable commodity?


The average American discards 1,700 pounds of trash per year. Photo Credit: khunaspix/  

Trash to Treasure

Recycling is a powerful tool to reduce landfill inflow, but also makes economic sense from a resource-conservation perspective. This method of repurposing discarded goods bypasses the mining and refining necessary to process virgin materials, which demands vast amounts of energy. Raw aluminum, for example, starts as an ore compound that requires open-pit extraction, chemical treatments, and heat-intensive smelting before it can be fabricated into beverage containers and airplanes. By comparison, it takes significantly less energy for recycled aluminum to start a new life. Similar efficiencies are also seen in paper and glass recycling.

California aims to achieve a 75% recycling rate, and recently passed a mandatory recycling statute for businesses generating more than 4 cubic yards of waste per week. To meet this goal, San Jose opened The Greenwaste Material Recovery Facility. Coined the largest recycling station in the world, the Greenwaste MRF handles waste from 8,000 San Jose businesses and 85,000 households with a reclamation rate of over 80%. As waste management technologies and corporate business models adapt to incorporate recycled goods, reusables will become instrumental in meeting the consumption patterns of our growing global population.


A recycled aluminum container results in 96% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a container made from virgin aluminum. Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Bert Hickman

Organic Matters

Approximately a third of landfill mass is comprised of food scraps and biodegradable organic waste. With a little human assistance to quicken decomposition, discarded meals and yard trimmings are transformed into a nutrient-rich compost for local food networks. Bay Area residents get to enjoy the fruits of their commercial food waste: Z-Best Composting Facility sold 115,000 tons of compost products to regional farmers and landscapers in 2010. The composting process does generate an unfortunate greenhouse gas byproduct, but waste managers are already transforming volatile landfill emissions into useable resources.

An emerging field of waste-to-energy facilities is now harnessing the methane produced by decomposing organic material. The Zero Waste Energy Development Company’s biogas facility in San Jose breaks down organic waste and collects the discharged methane. Annually, this facility will convert 90,000 tons of commercial organic waste into 1.6MW of renewable energy and 32,000 tons of compost. In a similar procedure, the Altamont Landfill in Livermore harvests methane and converts it into liquefied natural gas to power their fleet of garbage trucks. By acknowledging that organic waste is an unavoidable reality, these imaginative waste-to-energy enterprises transform human rubbish into valuable commodities.



Compostable organic materials represent over 30% of the mass in California’s landfills. Photo Credit: Witthaya Phonsawat/  


Choose to Reuse

Significant waste reform will ultimately require support from commercial sources, where manufacturing and industrial operations focus on diminishing their garbage output. To stimulate this ‘upstream’ approach, an emerging field of waste brokers seeks to establish inter-company exchanges by pairing unwanted waste with potential users. In its simplest form, by-product synergy occurs when one business provides its waste products for a second business to use as a manufacturing resource. This process reaps quantifiable benefits beyond waste reduction, including cost savings, energy conservation, and reduced virgin-material demand - at the expense of a little extra communication.

Still don’t know where your waste should go? One local organization, Resource Area for Teaching (RAFT), accepts non-hazardous bulk products for educational purposes as tax deductible donations. Check out the complete list of RAFT-ready materials and convert your scrap into inspiration for our next generation of waste engineers. There are also a variety of forums to help dispose of your architectural leftovers and artistic goods in the Bay Area.

As reutilization technologies and innovation maximize our use of post-consumer refuse, waste managers develop a market where resources are perpetually reused and recirculated instead of landing in landfill.

Further Resources:

San Jose Zero Waste Strategic Plan

Commercial Recycling Providers in Santa Clara County

Business Guide for Reducing Solid Waste

CALRecycle Business Resources

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