Down in the Dump

One of Buzz's favorite episodes of the TV show South Park introduced characters called "underpants gnomes." They're dim, vulgar pixies who steal little boys' underpants as part of a grand business strategy. The plan? Step 1: Collect a big pile of underpants; Step 3, the profits. The joke is that they don't really have any clue about what Step 2 should be, but they're certain that a big pile of underpants will someday lead to profits.

That, to Buzz's mind anyway, makes a pretty fine metaphor for Dallas' recycling program.

In November, with the usual hoopla, the city opened what it calls the "Citizen's Convenience and Recycling Center" at the McCommas Bluff Landfill. The center, which amounts to a concrete pad and open building with a metal roof, originally was supposed to be an elaborate garbage sorting facility. It was supposed to be a place where valuable garbage like aluminum could be salvaged. The North Texas Council of Governments awarded the city a $250,000 grant in 1998 to build a recycling center, and the city purchased several 20-cubic-yard containers.

Regular readers of this column will note how we printed "supposed" in bold, and guess where this is going. Feel free to skip ahead to our feature presentation.

Last fall, when the council of governments was just about to start looking into how the grant money was spent, the city decided to open the "center." One official said at the time, yes, it is true that the center was much different than originally planned, but it would still help the recycling effort.

In the months since, the center has been less than a raging success, recyclingwise. The city has yet to fill even one of its containers with plastic, glass, newspaper or aluminum, says John Barlow, waste diversion manager for the city's sanitation department. In fact, there aren't even containers marked for aluminum or newspaper.

Of the 12 containers waiting to be filled, eight are marked for "waste," two are marked for wood, one is marked for plastic and one for glass. The glass bin, which contains all of the glass collected since last fall, is about a quarter full, mostly of beer bottles. The plastic bin is about half full.

Barlow concedes that according to his reports, there does not appear to be much traditional recycling going on at the center, and that's being kind.

"So far the report that I've received hasn't shown anything [recycled]," Barlow says. "If it's not showing on my report, it's possible that we haven't received a full container, but we're talking about a 20-yard container."

A worker at the center who did not want to be identified says the center mostly gets loads of regular household waste, along with a lot of Sheetrock and a little newspaper.

The truth is that the center has largely become an alternate transfer station, something even Barlow seems to concede.

"A lot of the citizens aren't really aware that this is available for them to recycle, so we're just doing our best to get the word out. Right now, they are seeing it as a convenience center for them to take their trash so they don't have to go to the main site...That's the convenience part of the center; it keeps them out of the mainstream of traffic going up to the main site."

As for the recycling part of the recycling center? Well, Buzz supposes the city is still working on that part of the system. Perhaps they should consult with some underpants gnomes.

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Patrick Williams is editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer.
Contact: Patrick Williams

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