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Why are we tossing organic waste into landfills?

Blog: 
Date: 
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Author: 
Jeremy Drake

One-third of all the stuff we throw away in L.A. and Orange counties could help improve the health of our communities, prevent climate change, nourish local soils and create good green jobs.

Meet organic discards, the single biggest class of materials in California’s waste stream. Why not take this 31 percent of garbage that the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery says can be composted or mulched and redirect it away from landfills and incinerators and toward responsible organics processing facilities? But we don’t, and there are consequences to this missed environmental opportunity.

We’re polluting our communities and the environment.

Every day, organic material is dumped into Southern California landfills. As it decomposes, the fugitive air emissions released impact the health of adjacent communities, while liquid emissions jeopardize precious local groundwater resources.

The impacts are also global. Air emissions contain methane, a fierce climate-polluting gas. Methane’s flammability makes the practice of converting the gas to energy quite popular at California landfills. The inclusion of landfill-gas-to-energy projects in the state’s Renewables Portfolio Standard has sparked considerable controversy. Proponents call landfill gas a renewable resource. Opponents call such projects inefficient at best and environmentally destructive at worst.

Even though California is the state with the most stringent guidelines for managing landfill gas, wouldn’t keeping organics out of landfills—thereby not creating the toxic gas in the first place—be the most responsible and effective way to manage it?

We’re depleting our soils.

Disposing organic material in landfills and incinerators also impacts our food system. Agricultural dependence on fossil fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides stems from a need to fill the fertility void that is created when nutrients are pulled from the soil but not returned to the soil. Those nutrients come out in the form of plants, therefore they should go back in the form of former plants, aka compost. We have to drill for more oil because we treat our organic discards like trash instead of like valuable, soil-enriching resources? It’s clearly an unsustainable scenario. How long would a forest ecosystem last in which all of the fallen leaves and branches were swept up and carted off every day?

We’re burning and burying jobs.

The Institute for Local Self Reliance studied the job creation potential of recycling, reuse and waste reduction and concluded that such practices “offer direct development opportunities for communities.” (Check out http://www.ilsr.org/recycling/recyclingmeansbusiness.html). The management of organic materials by composting creates four times more jobs than the management of organic materials by landfilling.

We have the opportunity to create green jobs through the development of a local composting industry. However, it is important that those jobs are good jobs. The untimely passing of workers and brothers Eladio and Armando Ramirez at a composting facility in Lamont, Calif., who were overcome by lethal gases on the company’s property highlights that responsible waste diversion hasn’t necessarily equated to responsible labor practices. It must.

What is this stuff with such high potential?

Half of the organic material we toss out comes from our kitchen as highly putrescible (solid waste that contains organic matter capable of being decomposed by microorganisms) food scraps. An equal amount comes from our yards. While they are materially the same—given time, they rot—they are handled very differently. The food scraps go into the garbage can and are collected by a garbage truck as part of our municipal solid waste stream and hauled off to a landfill.

For the most part, they make garbage trucks smell, well, like garbage. In most cities in L.A. and Orange counties, the yard trimmings go into a different can to be collected by a different truck as a clean “green waste” stream. That material must be going somewhere other than the stinky landfill, right? Wrong. While some of it may be mulched or composted, the dirty secret is that, despite the care taken by residents and municipalities to keep green waste independent of garbage, much of it ends up in landfills all across Southern California as something called Alternative Daily Cover. At the end of each day, the dumped garbage is covered with a thick layer of grass clippings and tree prunings to keep birds and other critters out and to prevent the
garbage from blowing in the wind.

The next morning, more garbage is dumped on top. We didn’t always do this. We used to cover our trash with good old dirt. But as a result of a series of legislative actions in the 1990s, the state began encouraging this counterintuitive practice of using organic material as a daily cover—under the auspices of “beneficial reuse”—to meet its own recycling goals. Of course, other stuff is also used: shredded cars and tires, crushed concrete, and sewage sludge, for instance. However, composting is clearly a more beneficial form of reuse than landfilling for the clean organic materials currently being collected. In fact, 23 states across the country have enacted bans to ensure yard trimmings are used only for compost feedstock, not for
landfill cover.

What makes our state different?

The L.A. area is coming to a crossroads. In late 2013, the largest landfill in the area is scheduled to reach capacity and close. The Puente Hills landfill, just southeast of the junction of the 60 and 605 freeways, accepts nearly 6,500 tons of garbage and 1,000 tons of green waste each day. At half the rate for garbage, the low tipping fee for green waste is what guaranteed landfills that steady stream and municipalities those ADC recycling credits. When Puente Hills locks the gates for the last time, mountains of compostable yard trimmings will need some place to go. How about organics processing facilities that offer good, green jobs that can help restore the health of our soils, our communities and our economy?

Yet regardless of the fate of the region’s green material, the closure of Puente Hills landfill will result in an inevitable rise in the cost of managing the region’s garbage. With that rise, the economics may begin to shift to favor food scraps separation from municipal solid waste and therefore spur even more interest from both the public and private sectors to tap into this significant and steady resource flow. Until then, what about those food scraps? Well, we could all compost much of them on our own at home. But the truth is not everyone wants to or can, and those that do and can might already. But there is another way to keep food scraps out of the landfills.

The City of Los Angeles has a program in which the food scraps from restaurants are collected separately from garbage and composted. Several cities across North America have similar programs for residential communities. In many of them, such as in the San Francisco Bay Area, residents simply put their food scraps in their yard trimmings can. Any backyard composter knows that food scraps and yard trimmings together make excellent compost. The same applies at any scale. What are we waiting for?

What can we do?

In case there aren’t enough carrots, late last year Governor Brown unveiled a pretty big stick when he signed AB 341 into law to move California forward from landfilling to waste reduction, recycling, and composting. Yet, even with the perverse diversion credits given to using organic waste to cover landfills, we’ll have a hard time achieving the new 75% statewide diversion mandate by 2020 without addressing our food scraps.

We must support all efforts to keep compostable organics out of landfills and incinerators. We must support all public officials who understand why this is important and work to educate those who have not yet come to that understanding. We must work to educate our peers about this important issue. And, above all, we must envision the world that this change can create.

In so many ways it isn’t a matter of choice, this is something we must do.


Jeremy Drake is a member of the Sierra Club Angeles Chapter’s Zero Waste Committee.

Photo credit: JAMES LAWRENCE/SIERRA CLUB

2 comments

I believe that everybody should learn how to make compost, for our officials to really understand the importance and benefits of composting. Then they will begin to push for more composting and other organic waste management solutions in legislature.

In my opinion, tossing organic waste into landfills is totally a wrong practice. This practice should be avoided if possible. I am stunned to know that organic discards are the single biggest class of materials in California’s waste stream!
(This message was edited to allow posting)

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