Heather Maloney thinks of herself as an environmentalist but, as a working mother, doesn’t have the time to create a backyard compost heap. The little bucket for food waste that Napa’s recycling authority sent her offers a more convenient way to keep her leftovers from lining a landfill.
“You’re already scraping plates and rinsing them off to put in the dishwasher, so it’s a pretty easy system,” Maloney said, standing in her kitchen. “It’s definitely cut down on our trash.”
Barbara Barstad is less enthusiastic. She gave up after being repulsed by the bugs and odor, two of the top three reasons Napa residents offered for declining to participate (the third came from people accustomed to putting food scraps in the garbage disposal).
“It just made a big mess,” said Barstad, 76.
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Those reactions can be expected to echo across California. Napa County, and a few select jurisdictions such as San Francisco, are incubating a policy that will take hold statewide in the next decade.
In a little-heralded move with potentially sweeping implications, the California Air Resources Board last month announced a push to halt disposal of nearly all organic waste by 2025. The shift would likely require building new processing facilities, prod cities and counties to develop ways to collect it, and add an extra trash-sorting step before Californians drag bins to the curb.
“People in California are pretty well-versed in sorting out those things that can be put to a higher and better end use than just being put in a hole in the ground,” said Mark Oldfield, a spokesman for CalRecycle.
Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic lawmakers lost a high-profile fight this year to halve the amount of oil and gasoline burned in California. But vehicles are not the only sources of climate-altering emissions.
Left to decompose in a landfill, food scraps and yard trimmings spew methane. But a composting facility, where smaller heaps of organic matter are regularly turned over and exposed to oxygen, emits much less. The Air Resources Board released its new proposal after Brown, stung by a defeat in the Legislature, vowed to flex his executive authority.
“Methane is a very potent pollutant,” said Californians Against Waste lobbyist Nick Lapis. “We believe that every Californian should be given the option of recycling their organic waste.”
The Air Resources Board is building on existing mandates. Bills that Brown signed into law set a statewide goal of recycling or composting 75 percent of waste by 2020 and compel businesses to recycle their food waste starting in April 2016.
“There will be some challenges in the back of the house and kitchens in terms of separating food, but those doing it already are finding they’re having far fewer trash pickups and are saving money already,” said Matthew Sutton, a lobbyist for the California Restaurant Association.
Starting next year, cities and counties will be required to have plans in place to manage the flow of commercial organic waste – everything from plant matter from nurseries to food scraps from restaurants. That obligation illuminates a broad underlying need: finding a place to put it.
Organic matter makes up nearly half of California’s solid waste, the total volume of which is projected to reach 80 million tons by 2020. Unlike such raw materials as glass and metal, it can’t be exported easily.
Facilities scattered around the state can absorb only a third to half of the 10 million tons of food and plant matter annually ending up in landfills, according to CalRecycle, and the amount of infrastructure has barely budged in the past decade.
“Figuring out where to take it is the hard part,” said Tim Dewey-Mattia, recycling and public education manager for Napa Recycling and Waste Services. “That’s probably the biggest challenge, is having the capacity in California to handle all this material that isn’t going to the landfill.”
The lack of space is especially acute in Los Angeles, argued Los Angeles County Integrated Waste Management Task Force member Mike Mohajer. His agency opposed the restaurant mandate, and Mohajer said a dearth of places to absorb solid waste – he estimated the county generates about 5 million tons of compostable organics annually but can process about 500,000 tons – requires shipping it elsewhere.
“The idea is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Mohajer said, but trucking waste across long distances means “you have generally created more greenhouse gases.”
In Alameda County, large volumes of organic waste are already barred from entering landfills. Many businesses must recycle their food waste, and residents are provided special food scrap bins. Waste managers say they have enough space for now, but they recognize that could change.
“We’re aware it could be a problem if the whole state mobilizes, so we’re going to continue to talk to people about facility development,” said Gary Wolff, executive director of StopWaste, Alameda County’s public agency focused on reducing waste.
Building waste-processing facilities such as composting sites entails navigating a complex regulatory process that includes specific siting rules and protections for local water supplies. Mohajer said “it is next to impossible to get an air permit” for an outdoor composting facility.
It also costs money. Some of the funding could come from California’s cap-and-trade program, which requires businesses to purchase carbon emissions permits and then allocates the proceeds to emission-curbing products. Legislators submitted a raft of proposals for carving up that pot this year, requesting funds for everything from port improvements to clean trucks, and $30 million has been allocated to CalRecyle.
“I think we’re certainly going to need investments using cap and trade dollars for creation of these facilities,” said League of California Cities lobbyist Jason Rhine, but even with that outlay, the initiative is “going to require additional money either from those developing these facilities or from our ratepayers.”
Composting the waste is one option. Napa has the advantage of a county-owned composting facility. Davis, which collected 255 tons of food scraps from businesses and schools last year and is planning to have residents separate their food waste into special carts starting next summer, sends its organic matter to a private composting outfit in Lathrop.
Other cities and counties could turn to technology that tries to spin garbage into gold.
Anaerobic digesters convert organic waste into biogas that can be used for fuel or electricity. Michele Wong, CEO of Sacramento-based digester manufacturer CleanWorld, described ballooning interest in the machines, which sell for $3 million to $12 million.
“Beginning this summer, we’ve seen incredible activity from the various municipalities as well as large waste producers starting to figure out how they’re going to handle the recycling of those organics,” Wong said. “There’s just a complete lack of infrastructure to deal with organic waste recycling.”
Proponents of getting organics out of landfills argue it’s not just an environmental necessity but a potential economic boon. If you can convert food scraps or lawn trimmings into compost or fuel, “you can really capture a lot of value,” said Ryan McCarthy, policy adviser for the Air Resources Board.
“To put organic waste streams in California to good use, and to tap into this resource which right now we’re burying in landfills and letting evaporate into the air in the form of a potent greenhouse gas” makes sense, he said. “It’s not a matter of the state or the industry needing to pony up the full capital cost and there’s no return here. There is a return.”
Allowing residents to recycle their organic waste can mean they pay higher collection costs at first, Wolff said. But he said shipping garbage to the landfill carries costs of its own and noted that converting carrot peels to compost “creates a revenue stream.”
“In the short term it might have a rate impact or cost more to add a service, but in the long run it keeps the cost down,” he said. “Getting organics back into beneficial reuse is a strong, important thing to do economically in the long run. It’s not just an environmental issue.”
Can it be composted?
- Fruits and vegetables
- Meat and bones, seafood
- Solid fats and grease
- Rice, beans, grains and pasta
- Dairy products and eggs, including eggshells
- Pet food
- Napkins, paper towels, tissues and cotton balls
- Paper cups and plates
- Coffee grounds and filters, tea bags and loose tea
- Waxed paper, butcher paper and waxed cardboard
- Paper take-out boxes & containers, including pizza boxes
- Greasy pizza boxes & paper bags
- Leaves, grass, branches, stems and flowers
- Sawdust, chopsticks and toothpicks
- Hair, fur and feathers
- Plastic bags or wrap, straws or other plastic items
- Styrofoam, glass, metal, aluminum foil
- Cat and dog waste, kitty litter
- Hazardous waste
Source: Napa Recycling and Waste Services