At least two dozen workers are constantly sorting through whatever goes into Mountain View, Palo Alto and Sunnyvale's garbage, pulling out large objects and recyclables before the loads enter complex mechanized sorters.
"A needle stick, those are really difficult to stop," said Rich Gurney, general manager of the Sunnyvale Materials and Recovery Transfer Station, or SMaRT Station. "If people see them on conveyor belts, we use special devices to get them off and not touch them."
Gurney said the facility has been evacuated several times because of toxics in the garbage. Containers holding solvents have been ripped open by the sorting machinery, which act like a massive blender for the garbage. "There were a few situations where we had to evacuate because of the fumes," Gurney said.
The facility is tucked away near the Bay on Sunnyvale's Carl Road, a site used for landfill for most of century before it became a garbage sorting center run by contractor Bay County Waste Services. The Voice toured the facility last week with a group of residents participating in Mountain View Reads Together as part of its month-long series of events on environmental awareness.
Last month a garbage truck came into the SMaRT Station with some muriatic acid on board, which creates a potentially toxic gas if mixed with other chemicals or organics in the garbage, Gurney said. It was caught before it was pushed onto a conveyor belt toward workers.
"We inspect the loads coming in," Gurney said. "If we see something out of the ordinary we wind up pulling it to the side."
"We do get biohazard bags that companies throw away. There might be a red bag that comes through," he added.
Unfortunately many hazards still get by this initial inspection, including syringes that have stuck workers. Fortunately, no one has contracted any serious diseases, Gurney said. As a precaution, workers are given hepatitis and tetanus shots. They also wear smocks and gloves, but "we haven't found anything that will protect somebody from a needle stick," Gurney said.
For all the risks of the job, the garbage sorters are paid $23 an hour, plus health and dental benefits, Gurney said. They rotate in and out of various jobs at the facility to reduce repetitive stress injuries.
The workers are the last chance a piece of garbage has before it is poured into huge rotating barrels with sharp points that rip into everything before it is filtered through variously sized holes and magnetic fields to pick up metal. Workers stood near bins holding what's been caught before hitting the machines: propane canisters, car tires and fire extinguishers.
This reporter had three small propane canisters to get rid of the same day, but was told by a SMaRT Station employee that they would have to be brought back later in the month. Getting rid of hazardous waste can be a challenge, which officials blame on the cost of collecting it.
"It's a very expensive program to collect hazardous waste," Gurney said. A gallon of household paint, for example, can cost several dollars to dispose of. He added that Santa Clara County has been working for years to improve collection methods.
Despite a mist sprayed over the garbage when it is first pulled off the truck, during the tour the smell of garbage hung in the air and a layer of dust was seen on the sorting equipment. Only three of the workers sorting the garbage had taken up the option of wearing a dust mask. Gurney said dust collection is incorporated into the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. While workers could be exposed to just about anything on a daily basis, Gurney said periodic testing of the station's indoor air found it to have levels of toxics within limits set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Detailed accident records were not available by press time, but according to records from the Occupation Safety and Health Administration's Form 300, the 129 employees of the Smart Station had 19 injuries in 2010, eight in 2009 and six in 2008.
To dispose of hazardous waste, call the Santa Clara County Household Hazardous Waste Program at (408) 299-7300). Those who want to dispose of some types of hazardous waste, such as old gasoline or solvents, may find themselves driving to San Jose after making an appointment to drop it off. But local residents are urged to make the effort for the sake of the workers at the Sunnyvale SMaRT station, and the environment.
The City of Mountain View reports that the closest place where needles and syringes can be disposed of is in Sunnyvale at the Valley Health Center Pharmacy at 690 S. Fair Oaks near El Camino Real. At the SMaRT Station, needles can be dumped into a designated red dumpster, no questions asked.