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Life Cycle of Junk 

Garbage in, garbage out—garbage stays about


Sundance Channel's new "destination" programming THE GREEN (yes, the channel insists on all caps), kicked off its second season April 1 with 13 new episodes of the series Big Ideas for a Small Planet. These full-length documentaries focus on everything from a maverick builder making homes out of plastic bottles to the Appalachian mountains of southern Virginia, where the above-ground mining of coal is destroying a way of life. The Big Ideas' "Wear" doc received the 2007 Environmental Media Award for Best Documentary, and the series overall revolves around various green themes, spotlighting specific innovators and innovations, from the fashion world to the garbage dump.

Because I don't have television, I will be denied the enjoyment of Tuesday-night showings from THE GREEN. I do, however, write articles about such matters, and so it was with great excitement that I opened my mailbox some weeks ago to discover a sample selection of Sundance DVDs, available for my previewing pleasure. When I discovered that Sonoma County figures prominently in the "Recycle" episode, set to premiere on May 13, at 6pm, I couldn't have been more pleased.

In honor of the coincidence, I met with local activist Ken Wells, who retired in January as the executive director for the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency. In "Recycle," Wells gives a tour of the 400-acre disposal site on Mecham Road, which features an electricity-producing landfill, some of the county's best compost and a place called Recycle Town, where savvy shoppers can find everything from paint and lamps to doors and windows.

Wells is featured with two Florida brothers who make fashion accessories out of recycled materials, and an e-waste program that refurbishes computers and then sells them to the public at affordable rates. Wells tells me he spent two and a half days, roughly 20 hours of filming, for what ends up being five to seven minutes of film, but he isn't complaining. For Wells, being able to share screen time with Dr. David Suzuki, award-winning scientist and geneticist, is enough to make up for the hard work that goes into making a snappy, TV-ready piece.

Wells and I don't spend too much time talking about the Sundance Channel, however, or about the making of Big Ideas. I'm more interested in Wells' ideas about trash, and lucky for me, he's more than willing to talk about it. Wells believes that we must begin to view solid waste as a resource stream, not something as pejorative as "garbage." We have to consider how we can reduce, how we can recycle and how we can transform the leftovers into an energy source, which is exactly what Sonoma County's Mecham facility is all about.

The Mecham "dump" serves as a transfer station for trash. Because all eight Sonoma County landfills are presently closed, garbage is brought in, consolidated, put into bigger trucks and then transferred out of county. The facility accepts household toxics and hosts weekly roundups at different locations. Such amazing compost is created from the food waste thrown into individual green bins that there is a waiting list of people who want to get their hands in the dirt. That which is known as "junk" is collected and redistributed to the public. The landfill itself generates enough electricity to run 7,000 homes, energy that is generated from the methane produced from our rotting garbage.

Diverting 61 percent of Sonoma County's waste, however, is not enough. Wells believes we must shoot for 100 percent diversion, but for this to be even remotely obtainable, we need what is known as EPR, or "extended producer responsibility." Extended producer responsibility requires the integration of environmental costs into products and packaging throughout their life cycle. Currently, EPR is in place in Canada, Japan and Europe.

The United States, however, has somehow managed to miss the boat once again. According to Wells, everything manufactured needs to come with EPR, which means that the producers are responsible for the products they are making and putting out into the world. The United States has a history of allowing businesses to get a free ride off of the consumers, and consumers are used to getting cheap stuff.

The time has come to start internalizing the externalities, which is, according to Wells, the key to the environmental movement. Until the consumers and the manufacturers are forced, by law or price, to take on full responsibility for consumption and production, that "Oh well, it's not my problem" mentality will continue to prevail and destroy our planet. Sundance Channel can keep producing eye-opening films, the landfill can keep making energy and compost, but until we let go of our dependence on production and consumption being cheap and easy, the situation remains grim, very grim indeed.

For a host of information regarding recycling and responsible waste disposal go to For more information about The GREEN, go to

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