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The journey of Stanford’s compostables: One banana’s afterlife

With the turn of its ignition, the behemoth wakes in early darkness. The vehicle rumbles as its headlights beam a soft yellow ahead.

The yard by Bonair Siding Road is where the workday begins before dawn, and where other industrial beasts slowly roll out, exit the metal enclosure and begin their route. Inside the cab of one of these monsters, driver Freddy Nava, in a thick grey shirt with orange stripes, turns and rolls its wide wheel with a hefty arm. He guides the massive machine toward its task of collecting Stanford University’s compost.

Dark as night, it is 5:54 a.m.

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Last year Stanford’s campus dining halls, student houses, public buildings and sports venues disposed of about 7,680 tons, or more than 15 million pounds, of food scraps, said Julie Muir, manager of Zero Waste at Peninsula Sanitary Service/Stanford Recycling, or PSSI. About 7,680 tons of food scraps a year translates to 452.6 pounds per person, about the weight of an adult female grizzly bear, on Stanford’s campus.

After discarding a banana peel onto a green bin’s growing mound of compost, we seldom remember that the peel will live on after us. Ultimately ground up and decayed into soil, the peel has a long journey ahead.

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For its first stop, the behemoth rolls onto the sidewalk beside the Arrillaga Gymnasium and Weight Room. The driver hops out of the truck, unlocks the dumpster enclosure and pulls out a 64-gallon, metal dumpster behind him. Stepping back into the truck, he presses the vehicle onward.

Lowering arms that have rested over its head, the behemoth extends its green forks. Slowly, the forks enter the pockets on each side of a dumpster whose mouth foams with liquid and slipping food. Raising the dumpster in front of its face, the truck pulls the dumpster over its head.

Gravity swings the dumpster lid open as the truck suspends it in the sky. Green bags tumble down into the truck, and cold air chills the banana peel, which lands in utter darkness.

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Nava, the driver for the “Organics Route,” will make about 86 stops and empty 111 containers on this trip. When nothing is in his way, he can latch a brown, 64-gallon compost dumpster onto the truck with ease.

But when there are obstacles blocking the dumpsters, Nava steps down from the truck to retrieve them. He repeats a similar drill for the 95 32-gallon compost carts by student residences and office buildings on campus.  

Nava works the entire year, including all minor holidays. He is given Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year’s off.

The cart begins a steady ascent once attached to the front of the vehicle, lifted as the beast arches back its arms. A glimmer of sunlight lights the cart’s plastic sheen as it levels with the truck’s green roof.

Nava cranes his neck to watch, a red Stanford baseball cap shielding his eyes. The cart traces a quarter-circle in the sky; the truck’s arms whir as they lift. Tilted at an 80-degree angle, the cart’s lid swings violently open.

Meanwhile, inside the truck, a hefty bag of compost plummets down and leans into the banana peel, pressing it deeper into slush. The bags are slick and cold like jellyfish, decorated here and there with errant trails of food scraps. For a human, the growing mound of compost emits a distinct tang — the sour kind that hooks the back of your nose.

But the peel doesn’t mind. All over campus, students’ alarm clocks nudge them awake.

It is 8 a.m.

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The truck makes it through the Main Quad and finishes its route around campus by 11:30 a.m. Sunlight now coats all of campus and its cement roads, brightening them with a yellow glaze.

Before the last leg of the journey, Nava will break for lunch, a time when many Stanford students are still sitting in their first class.  Having started at 4 a.m., Nava is only two hours away from completing his work day. He’ll get overtime pay after completing the 10-hour journey.

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Nava eats a lunch of fajitas that he made at home with the other drivers and PSSI workers who eat their midday meals together at picnic tables on the yard.  All wear the same grey shirt and a name tag above their right breast pocket. It’s like family, Nava said.

The workers finish their lunch quickly and their 30-minute break ends just after noon. Soon, Nava drives the truck onto the yard’s scale. The scale reads six tons: his load is heavy enough for departure yet not too heavy for the road. Nava also checks the sides of the truck, brushing away wayward pieces of food waste that might become projectiles when he takes the freeway. The truck exits the yard, takes Campus Drive, and turns right at El Camino Real.

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“La Raza,” or “the people,” 93.3 KRZZ FM, plays in the rumbling vehicle as it merges onto the freeway. Nava likes the “slow, romantic songs,” especially those of Los Temerarios, who sing nostalgic 90s ballads. The songs make him think of his first crushes, he said.

Nava takes the 237 Highway through Milpitas, which connects to the 880 Interstate. Soon enough, after a busy intersection, a blue sign comes into view, marking the exit for Newby Island/Resource Recovery Park, the destination for Stanford’s organic waste.

The park lives by the bay. The blue expanse of the shore, with land distantly beyond it, can only be glimpsed behind yellow cranes, rectangles of trash and the chain-linked fences that enclose them. The rectangles of tightly-compacted trash are neatly lined in rows. The green and white behemoth passes these landmarks on its left, in addition to the rows of blue, industrial Newby Island trucks that slumber to its right.

The truck rolls up onto the scale where it must weigh its load before entering the park. The scale sits beside a blue booth that is shaped like a one-bedroom house. Nava pays the clerk by the ton.

As the truck rolls up then down the scale, the banana peel’s tendrils settle deeper into mush.

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Driving toward the bay, the truck rolls up a dirt incline, passing an earthen arena. There, a few dozen feet to Nava’s side, a yellow CAT loader carries and moves around piles of dirt and soil. Plastic discards, which will likely be moved to a landfill, lie strewn across the dirt landscape. According to a poster that Muir keeps in her office, plastic bags take two to 10 centuries to decompose.

The truck rolls on.

Finally, at the arena for offloading, a mound stands to the left that is about five feet tall and 20 feet wide. The mound consists of plastic bags, whose contents include cardboard Amazon boxes, an empty Froot Loops carton, a styrofoam box, and a blue box of consumed Luna Bars. Behind the mound stand posts that are numbered 33, 34, 35, 36, 37 and so on. Beyond that lie prickles of green brush by the shore and a placid waterfront enclosed into perfect rectangles. Distant strips of land enclose these “ponds,” which collect stormwater discharge and prevent run-off from the recovery park from contaminating the bay.

Pressing on into the arena, the beast reaches its destination: the dumping ground where tall mounds of soil, yard trimmings, and ground-up pieces of food waste are piled high. There are many fantastic beasts here: other trucks that have come to offload their burden. Here they encounter excavators with long, yawning heads that scoops up dirt and a long-necked, yellow beast that resembles a feeding giraffe. Loaders offload into this tub grinder’s bowl-like back, from which it spews a homogeneous purée of yard trimmings and food disposal. Out of its head, piles of stewing, mulch-smelling grain accumulate.

Membership in one of these piles will be the banana peel’s fate, too.

——-

A man wearing a neon vest and white hard hat approaches the truck; Nava rolls his window down. The man directs Nava where to dump. Nava drives the truck forward, toward the piles of mulch, and then steers the beast around. The inside of the truck shakes as he presses a big button inside and the truck moves forward. Outside, a long blue metal pole slowly extends, raising the rectangular body of the vehicle from its shoulders. As its body punctures the sky, the gap between the pole, the bottom edge of the truck’s rectangular body and its bottom form a perfect equilateral triangle.

The banana peel, with all the mush, wetness and slippery plastic bags inside the vehicle’s body, slides out, tumbling into dirt. Streaks of brown and yellow remain inside the body of the truck, now a carcass from this trip.

Newby Island receives an average of 625 tons of organic disposal a day, according to its website. In turn, it markets more than 100,000 cubic yards of compost, mulch and wood chips each year to sell to landscapers and farmers, the site says.

After trucks drop off their contents, the facility shreds and dispenses ground compost into large mounds. They screen out contaminants and put the grounds into rows 100 feet long and eight feet tall before the final stage of allowing it to decay into soil, said Muir.

“It’s a partnership,” she said. “Yes, [Newby Island] can get the contaminants out, but I have to do the most that I can do to not have them there in the first place.” Muir’s first line of defense against contamination involves educating people on how to separate waste properly through annual trainings and outreach and participation in RecycleMania, said Muir.

Facility workers take the temperature of the rows, water them and turn them so that decaying compost on the inside ends up on the outside, she said. “When you pull the dirt back you see some of the microbial activity and it’s hot,” she added. “Steam is coming out of there.”

A billion of these microbes that help to break down compost could fit on a teaspoon. They consume the compostables bite by bite and, in turn, poop out soil. An entire ecosystem of millipedes, spiders, bugs and microbes can live in these mounds. At a commercial compost facility, it takes 180 days for all materials of the mound to break down.

Life will continue for the banana peel, but in an utterly different form. When its transformation is complete, it will become part of a rich dark compost that nourishes flowering and fruiting plants with calcium, magnesium, sulfur, phosphates, potassium and sodium.

Nava takes the 880 Interstate back to campus. It is around 1:10 p.m. Back on campus, many Stanford students leave for their second class of the day.

As Nava drives back, a grey highway and blue sky ahead, he thinks about plans for his daughter’s upcoming sweet 16 party. He arrives back at Stanford’s campus and drives home. After a nearly 10-hour day of work, he will go home and plop into bed at 8 p.m. For him, even waking up at 5 a.m. is a kind of sleeping in, he said.

Meanwhile, the banana peel left behind, browning, patiently awaits rebirth.

 

Contact Eliane Mitchell at elianem ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Eliane Mitchell

Eliane Mitchell

Eliane Mitchell is a junior from New York City, studying philosophy. In addition to writing for The Stanford Daily, she works as a research assistant for Philosophy Talk, a radio talk show hosted on Stanford's campus. Eliane enjoys running at night, reading, and connecting philosophy to the everyday.