How California might make its 75 percent recycling goal

This longform was published in The Desert Sun July 6, 2015 and ran A1 Sunday.

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Bales of recyclables are stacked outside the Materials Recovery Facility in Fontana. (Lucas Esposito/The Desert Sun)

CALIFORNIA LANDFILLS ARE FULL OF BUSINESSES’ RECYCLABLES AND ORGANIC WASTE. LEGISLATION MIGHT HELP CHANGE THAT.

In a heap of waste destined for a landfill on the Edom Hill Transfer Station floor lies the root of California’s recycling problem: tons of recyclables and yard and food waste lost in the trash.

Half-eaten and spoiled food leaks into unsalvaged cardboard and paper, leaving a stinking sop on the dusty cement floor in Cathedral City.

“We could pull a lot of stuff out there,” said Pat Sherman, a transfer and compost operations general manager for Burrtec Waste Industries, Inc., looking out over the watermelon rinds, cardboard and metal mixed in with the trash.

Back in 2011, state legislators set a policy goal that California would reduce, recycle or compost 75 percent of what would have been trash by 2020.

But California is nowhere near its trash reduction goal. Since the recycling goal was announced, California’s source-reduction, recycling and composting rates haven’t improved from 50 percent.

However, with upcoming legislation targeting exactly what’s wrong with landfill trash heaps like the one at Edom Hill, California may still make it.

The state of garbage in California

Landfills in California are overused, full of wasted materials that could have been recycled or composted.

Other states’ landfills are worse.

California, long considered a sustainability leader, already recycles more than the nation on average. Only 36.6 percent of waste in the United States was recycled, composted or sent to energy facilities in 2013, according to a Columbia University Earth Engineering Center report.

The state’s 75 percent policy goal is more to encourage further improvement than due to an immediate landfill need.

At current trash rates, California has enough landfill permitted until 2057, according to the Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle). However, if California makes its goal to source-reduce, recycle or compost 75 percent of its would-have-been trash, that same space will last until 2080.

Ironically, California recycling centers aren’t where you’ll see the future of recycling.

“That’s all tried and true,” said Richard Crockett II.

In a conference room in Fontana, Crockett looks out at the Burrtec facility he manages where recyclables are sorted, packed and sold.

The giant warehouse smells like dust, noisy with the beeping of forklifts and the mechanical whir of conveyor belts that push, bounce and crush 300 tons of recyclables a day.

Trucks dump their recyclables into a mountain on the floor. There are turkey breast boxes, coffee creamer and water bottles, newspapers, Styrofoam plates, a broken lamp and a baby high chair, but also electronics, fabrics and needles. It’s all pushed onto the first conveyor belt by a tractor.

“So here’s our recycling,” Crockett says. “Not beautiful, but.”

Employees in yellow vests, hard hats, face masks, protective glasses, gloves and earplugs pull out the materials that should never have been put in a recycling bin in the first place and toss recyclables together by hand — brown beer bottles in the brown glass pile, milk jugs in the heavy plastic pile — as a conveyor belt pushes it past them at speeds of up to 200 feet per minute.

Most speak Spanish, so the giant sign over the primary conveyor belt lists priority contaminant materials in Spanish.

Glass and scrap metal get chopped up and sent to another processor for cleaning. Aluminum, plastic bottles, styrofoam and paper are crushed into bales. Everything recoverable gets packed into trucks, sold and shipped out to manufacturers.

“Generally speaking,” Crockett said, “we are recycling well.”

If a water bottle is put in a recycling bin, facilities like Crockett’s turn it into profit. But a lot of recyclables end up in landfills instead of facilities like Crockett’s.

And it’s mostly businesses that are putting them there.

About two-thirds — 66.6 percent, according to a 2008 CalRecycle waste characterization study — of everything thrown into California landfills is from the commercial sector.

The same bill that announced the 75 percent recycling goal required most businesses — any that produce more than four cubic yards of waste a week — to set up recycling services. It also requires most apartment and condominium complexes — any multifamily residences with five or more units — to set up recycling.

But having a recycling bin doesn’t necessarily mean businesses separate their recyclables well.

Nearly a third of everything thrown into California landfills — 32.4 percent according to that 2008 CalRecycle study — is organic waste.

That landfilled organic waste poses a unique environmental threat.

But, as the trash beneath the clay and synthetic cap decomposes, the landfilled yard and food waste releases methane — a greenhouse gas the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says has a global warming potential at least 28 times worse than carbon dioxide.

To mitigate that pollution, Riverside County burns the Edom Hill landfill methane. The gassy smoke leaving the chimney glows blue at night.

Composting and other organic waste services don’t pollute methane like landfilled organic waste does.

Which is why new legislation will require businesses, governments and apartment complexes to set up composting or anaerobic digestion services that turn organic waste into fuel.

The law starts phasing in April 1, 2016, but will only affect California businesses that produce eight or more cubic yards of organic waste a week. It won’t be until Jan. 1, 2019, that it will apply to most California businesses in general — any that produces four or more cubic yards of any kind of trash a week.

The bill will actually target the biggest landfill sinners: businesses that produce a lot of organic waste.

Plus, with organic waste out of businesses’ dumpsters, said Mark Murray, what’s left is mostly recyclable. Without wet food waste and other green material making paper and shrinkwrap look like soppy, gross trash, businesses might start doing a better job of recycling those, too.

Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, a pro-recycling nonprofit advocacy group, is optimistic when he looks at how overused California landfills are. He says all the materials that get thrown into landfills instead of recycled, composted or digested just means there’s room for improvement.

A 75 percent goal with no bite

There is no punishment looming if California fails to make its 75 percent recycling goal.

Simply put: There are no recycling police.

Trash, recycling and, soon, composting and anaerobic digestion state laws are enforced by local governments. That means there’s no big fine coming down on city governments and no state cop handcuffing a restaurant owner for dumping half-eaten fries in with plastic to-go boxes.

Instead, local communities get some leeway to figure it out.

Not forcing every local community to follow a one-size-fits-all recycling mandate means more progressive communities can take the lead, Murray said. Communities that are lagging behind can wait to follow suit until someone else figures out the best recycling practices.

Which leaves the Coachella Valley doing just about average — not bad, but not spectacular — on recycling.

All nine Coachella Valley cities meet diversion mandates — CalRecycle’s old way of measuring recycling from 2000. The Coachella Valley is doing well in recycling when considering how much trash each city would have otherwise produced, but is not yet collectively meeting the 75 percent statewide goal.

Local city governments take an education and outreach approach. They send out pamphlets and letters and have a recycling coordinator go door-to-door to houses and businesses they notice haven’t been recycling.

“People care here,” said Michele Mician, manager of the Palm Springs Office of Sustainability and Recycling.

Businesses usually comply.

It’s cheaper to recycle or compost than it is to throw your trash into a landfill. Though sorting out your waste may have an upfront cost, it’s cheaper by the ton to drop waste off at a recycling center or a compost center than it is at landfill.“It’s pretty easy to show them the cost-savings,” Mician said.

As businesses and cities realize recycling and composting is the cost-effective, sustainable and legally required thing to do, they generally start doing it.

“It’s not the fastest way to get things done, but it’s the policy model that has worked in California,” Murray said.

So will we make the 75 percent recycling goal by 2020?

Yes, as a state overall, with commercial recycling and green waste disposal targeting the things that actually get put into landfills, Murray thinks the 75 percent goal is achievable.

But he doesn’t think every individual jurisdiction will meet the goal.

While urban areas can get their businesses to start recycling and rural areas can start composting their green waste, there isn’t as much waste that suburban residential areas can cut down.

Residential trash is just less consistent. A household might produce more trash on one day — the Fourth of July or if they bought a new couch — than they did in the entire previous month.

But it doesn’t matter if every jurisdiction recycles a certain amount, because the goal is statewide. Communities big on sustainability such as San Francisco can compensate for communities that don’t cut down.

What this means for the future

If the cardboard lost in the pile of trash at the Edom Hill transfer station had been recycled instead, a recycling center would have made it into a sellable raw good.

“Absolutely,” said Chris Cunningham, Palm Springs Disposal Services recycling manager. “It’s just — who’s going to buy it?”

Right now, it’s mostly not Californians.

While most other states keep track of more recyclables, CalRecycle actually only tracks about 4 percent of the state’s recycled materials: beverage containers, covered electronics, tires and oil.

But the vast majority of California’s recycled materials get exported. Only 10-15 percent of recyclables recovered at the recycling facility in Fontana — mostly water bottles, aluminum cans and glass — are sold to American remanufacturers, Crockett said.

The rest goes overseas, Crockett said, mostly to China and other Asian markets.

“It makes economic sense and environmental sense to cut out the middleman and not export raw materials then import the packaging,” Murray said.

In the future, Murray hopes innovative remanufacturers will realize there’s opportunity to cash in on recycled materials in California and set up shop here.

The market for green waste is even newer. For example, there is no anaerobic digestion servicing the Coachella Valley yet.

“That infrastructure is being developed as we speak,” Crockett said.

But Burrtec’s Coachella Valley Compost Facility in Coachella would be happy to intake more organic waste.

They make about 150 tons of compost a day but Coachella Valley consumers want more. There’s so much demand for compost and mulch that their wait list is until March.

In the winter, the whole facility smells fresh as disposed Christmas trees are ground. While yard waste is lighter, food waste compost is the color of chocolate and is hot to the touch as it decomposes.

Letty Vasquez came from farming fields to work at the compost facility 15 years ago. Now the site manager, she sees how would-be trash like banana peels and dried out palm leaves can improve crop and retain water.

“If we don’t do this, all this beautiful material would be sent to the landfill,” Vasquez said. “It’s a waste.”

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