BioCycle Magazine

Next frontier of organics recycling in California

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

In California, we’re understandably proud of our tremendous success in recycling and reuse. Committed communities, enlightened businesses, and individual households have embraced the recycling ethic so vigorously that daily per person disposal has plunged from 8.4 pounds to 4.4 pounds.

Such lofty achievement begs the question: What is the next frontier in recycling? The answer is simply and undeniably, organics. Recycling food scraps, yard clippings and other materials into compost or bioenergy is critical to achieving the state’s new goal of 75 percent source reduction, recycling and composting by 2020. How do we get there? At CalRecycle, we have a vision for the next generation of solid waste facilities: An advanced statewide infrastructure that not only expands on the accomplishments California has made so far, but leverages new technologies that offer better environmental performance and that heavily target organics.

Not that organics is a new focus, or one that hasn’t taken steps forward in recent years. But for all our progress, organics still comprise one-third of material going to California landfills each year — and most of it, including 6 million tons of food, is compostable. Lumber and wood make up an additional 14 percent of landfilled waste that could instead be a resource.

To achieve our 75 percent goal, CalRecycle estimates California will need to move about 22 million more tons of organics and other recyclables from disposal to recycling annually. Aside from other challenges this presents, including dramatically steeper commitments by the residents and businesses of our state, additional diversion of this magnitude will require doubling the current organics infrastructure and expansion of recycling and remanufacturing in California.

Compelling Case For Organics Recycling

The arguments for aggressively supporting organics recycling go far beyond reducing the volume of material in our landfills. The formidable nexus of economic, environmental and sustainability benefits are undeniable:

Recycling produces clean domestic energy. In Europe, more than 200 anaerobic digestion facilities process the putrescible portion of organic materials in the municipal solid waste stream and produce biogas that is used in a variety of ways. In North America, however, only a handful of these facilities are now in operation.

Organics recycling significantly lowers greenhouse gas emissions. As organic material decomposes in our landfills, it creates methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2). Recycling rather than landfilling organics means less methane generated at the dump. We know that compost created from recycled organics improves soil health, increases soil carbon storage, prevents erosion, reduces the use of herbicides, and increases water retention in the soil. This in turn lowers the need to use emissions-producing machinery for pumping water, tilling the soil and applying herbicide. Additionally, when compost application reduces the amount of nitrogen-based fertilizers needed, it not only helps reduce emissions of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas with a global warming potential 298 times greater than CO2, but it can also improve California’s drinking water supply by reducing nitrate concentrations in agricultural leachate.

Recycling creates jobs. In California, the business of recycling supports more than 140,000 jobs. What’s more, recycling our waste creates more than twice as many jobs as when we dump it in the landfill. The 58 million tons of waste recycled in California in 2009 equates to as much as $6 billion in salaries and wages. If the materials we collect to reach the 75 percent goal are used to make new products, CalRecycle estimates more than 100,000 new jobs can be created in the state. Many of the jobs associated with expanded organics infrastructure are sustainable, because these facilities must be built and operated locally.

Recycling is good business practice. When we throw organics away, we are wasting a valuable, low-cost, easily accessible production material. It’s woefully inefficient and, frankly, just bad business to treat useful feedstock as trash.

Strengthening The Infrastructure
There are now about 120 commercial composting facilities across our state, although the volume of material they process has been static over the last several years. Besides traditional open windrow composting, anaerobic digestion (AD) is gaining acceptance as an organics platform in California. As more and more AD facilities are developed, they could eventually process millions of tons of organics each year.

CalRecycle has long supported commercial composting operations, and we’re eager to support the development of more AD facilities. Since its inception in 1993, our Recycling Market Development Zone loan program has provided more than $15 million for California organics recycling companies, including AD facilities. Clean World, a new AD facility in Sacramento that will eventually process 100 tons/day of food, launched recently thanks in part to a $2 million RMDZ loan.

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