The goal of Assembly Bill 939, the landmark “recycle” legislation that required Californians to divert 50 percent of the trash from the landfills, has been achieved. In fact, San Luis Obispo County is currently diverting nearly 70 percent of the historic waste stream away from the landfills. A new Assembly bill, AB 341, sets a statewide waste diversion goal of 75 percent, while San Luis Obispo County has set a goal of 100 percent. Let’s consider what it’s going to take to divert more than 70 percent of the waste stream currently diverted from the landfills.
In San Luis Obispo County approximately 200,000 tons of waste per year is considered uneconomical to recycle, and is buried. The burial of the unrecycled component of the waste stream is looked upon by some as a troubling fact, and by others as a mortal sin. If you are in the latter category, consider the following:
1. There are two privately owned landfills and one publicly owned landfill located in San Luis Obispo County. These three landfills are the primary recycling centers in the county. At these three sites, the revenue from landfilled waste pays for the recycling — since in most cases it costs more to recycle a commodity than the commodity is worth. As the landfills recycle more and more waste, and bury less waste, they lose the revenue stream that funds (the otherwise uneconomical) recycling activities.
2. No existing recycle facility (or combination of facilities) is permitted to accept the 1,000 trash-bearing vehicles per day that currently enter the landfills. So if the landfills shut down, there is nowhere else for those trash-bearing vehicles to go. And there aren’t too many neighborhoods willing to accept new traffic if we attempt to enlarge existing recycle facilities.
3. Even if we permitted new recycle facilities capable of accepting 1,000 vehicles per day, no recycle process exists, and none is currently planned, that can process the portion of the waste stream (approximately 800 tons per day) that is currently being buried. This un-recycled, uneconomical-to-recycle waste fraction includes: styrofoam, fiberglass, mattresses, plastic, contaminated farm waste, treated wood, contaminated paper, dead animals, modular homes, boats, etc.
In 2008, Chicago Grade Landfill, located in Atascadero, proposed a state-of- the-art waste-to-energy plant that would convert all waste (not currently being recycled) into electricity. Chicago Grade’s project died when the cost of navigating the county permit process was pegged at $400,000.
In 2011, Cold Canyon Landfill closed its 100-ton-per-day green waste recycling facility, due to neighbor concerns and what the landfill owners describe as the Regional Water Board’s zero-tolerance attitude toward stormwater runoff from the compost facility.
So, as we sit here today, even if the landfills decide to risk hundreds of thousands of dollars to design and permit new recycling projects, they are left with two problems: finding the funds to construct the recycling project, and operating the new recycle facility within the new permit restrictions.
Chicago Grade’s “100 percent recycle, green energy” project was estimated to cost 50 million dollars. But unlike the solar or wind “green energy” projects, there are no federal grants or tax incentives for waste-to-energy projects like the one proposed by Chicago Grade. Without federal grants or subsidies, Chicago Grade’s North County customers would have experienced a 50 percent increase in waste disposal fees. In the South County, at Cold Canyon Landfill, a proposed green waste recycling project (green waste converted to methane gas) is expected to double the cost of green waste disposal. So it’s a little like getting rid of the coal-fired power plants: the technology is available, and most people are in favor of it, but few are willing to pay the cost of the new technology.
In the North County, the landfills have approximately 40 years of site life left, so there is little political or public support to increase trash disposal rates to pay for new recycling activities that would extend the life of the landfills. In the South County, the Cold Canyon expansion was recently approved, so the need to go beyond the current “70 percent recycle” is lessened. So whether we like them or not, the landfills are going to be with us for a long, long time. One could therefore characterize the public sentiment toward landfills using the lyrics of a popular country song: “I want you, I need you, but there ain’t no way I’m ever going to love you.” As a landfill operator, I respond, as singer Jamey Johnson did: “Two out of three ain’t bad.”
Mike Hoover is General Manager of Chicago Grade Landfill in Templeton. He holds a masters degree in geology from UC Santa Barbara.