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Talkin' Trash


Trash lines a section of the San Antonio River just south of the Mitchell Street bridge. Cleanup of the area, along with several others around the city, will be the focus of the 10th annual Basura Bash. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)
Basura Bash gives a glimpse of SA's throwaway culture

Swollen from recent rains, the San Antonio River cuts a wide swath beneath the bridge at the Mission County Park. The surrounding vegetation is bright green and the birds that live alongside the river's banks seem to be playing a game of tag. The river, when it ripples on top of the smooth rocks that lie on its bottom, is clear and swift-moving. From the picnic tables atop the hilly bank, the river seems healthy and vibrant: an unlikely candidate for a city-wide clean up.

But a closer inspection reveals that the banks are choked with trash: Styrofoam cups, a Kool-Aid Jammers drink mix, an Oak Farms milk jug, a broken Snuggle bottle, a Sun Chips bag, an Maruchan Instant Lunch Ramen Noodles soup cup, a plastic pill bottle, and a Styrofoam take-out container emblazoned with the flag and the logo "In America." The ghostly wisps of white adorning the branches of the plants are the remnants of plastic grocery bags. Everywhere are the leftovers of our Fast Food Nation, the products of our disposable culture, or, in more common terms, trash.

Trash, pernicious beast that it is, does not confine itself to the dumpsters and dust bins that are part of a regular collection cycle. For the most part, citizens will ignore public trash- but when it begins to clog the city's rivers, people begin to fight back. In 1995, about 400 people gathered for the first Basura Bash - a San Antonio River cleanup that has been repeated each year with exponential degrees of success. This year's cleanup will be held at four additional creek locations, and an estimated 2,000 people will attend.

The group came together because they "value the river as a resource, and they want to show stewardship of their environment," explains Mark Dobson, chairman of the Basura Bash planning committee. This year's Bash will be held on Saturday, March 20, and has expanded past the original Mission County Park, San Antonio River location to include San Pedro, Olmos, Leon, Salado, and Indian creeks. Although the Basura bash groups have the immediate and obvious goal of beautifying the river, their efforts serve a secondary purpose - a day-long, dirty education in the wastes of a modern consumer society. "We want people to see what happens when they dump stuff out of their pickups," Dobson says.

Ours is a throwaway culture - one addicted to the new, the shiny, the bright, and the clean. With a plethora of consumer goods and dining choices, we eat fast food, drink from one-use bottles, and toss what isn't fashionable. It's cheaper to buy new than to mend, and the continuing fast-pace of our technological growth ensures that our cell phones and computers will be trash in a few short years.

It's the American way of life - and it generates an enormous amount of waste. A figure generated by Integrated Waste Services Association puts America's annual trash generation at 225 million tons.

As social historian Susan Strasser notes in her book, Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash, the amount of rubbish generated by Americans is a result of the increasing amounts of "convenience, cleanliness, and disposability" built into our everyday products. Revolutions in how we eat generate "modern food waste - paper, plastic, and aluminum," instead of the biodegradable "corn husks and chicken bones." Modern materials like Styrofoam, plastic, and foil-lined paper are not easily recycled - and must be consigned to the trash bin. It's called an open system - materials from the earth are harvested, utilized, then discarded, instead of being reused.

This system is not without its costs. San Antonionians living in private residences are charged $12.21 a month for the city's Solid Waste Services. In addition to subcontracting the collection of 25,000 homes' worth of waste to private companies, the City maintains its own collection service. With a fleet of 130 trucks, the City goes about the unpleasant business of hauling away more than 400,000 tons of residential trash each year. "It's a horrible job," explains Steven Haney, the City's assistant solid waste manager. For $9.15 an hour, the average garbage collector manually lifts approximately nine tons of trash a day. "What people put out in their garbage would just floor you," Haney continues. "Out of sight, out of mind - our society, we don't care about it."

From the intersection of Covel Road and Old Pearsall, you can see a large dirt mound in the distance: a modern-day Kilimanjaro. This is quiet country, where you hear cars before you see them. The air smells fresh, and the grass surrounding the mound is a bright spring green. There is a bare-bones football field and baseball diamond, beckoning from behind a chain link fence topped with spirals of razor wire. If one were to pause in front of the menacing "No Trespassing" signs posted along the considerable length of the enclosure, after a few minutes, the origin of the lump in the distance would become clear. The sports facility is the "Coval Gardens Sports Park - Compliments of Waste Management"; the mountain is the accumulated trash of San Antonio, and the small black specks circling in the air are flies.

Coval Gardens is one of three landfills into which San Antonio trash is dumped. Private companies own all the landfills, as the city long ago left the expensive landfill business. Currently, the City pays about $7.4 million to the three waste companies - Waste Management, BFI, and Texas Disposal Systems - to dump municipal waste on these private landfills. The sports garden is part of a national trend to make landfills more community friendly, explains Haney. "They're trying to make `landfills` an integral part of the community." On the edge of city limits, edged by farms, trailer parks, and an Air Force installation, the mute mountain stands testament to those efforts. •

Next week: SA's recycling program

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