There are many ways to create renewable energy, from the ocean, to the wind, to the sun. On the other hand, there are very few ways to make topsoil, and it takes millions of years to do it at Mother Nature’s pace.
That’s why the trend that began in Florida to overturn the ban on organics from landfills is especially troubling. You may have heard of it. Although it is well known that organic materials create methane gas as they decompose in landfills, and that methane gas is a potent greenhouse gas that has the ability to trap heat in the atmosphere 21 times more effectively than carbon dioxide, landfill companies are opting to put them back in landfills under the misnomer of creating renewable energy.
Jodie Humphries wrote an article titled “The impact of domestic food waste on climate change” which was published in Next Generation Food. In the article, she writes:
The amount of food waste generated in the US is huge. It is the third largest waste stream after paper and yard waste. In 2008, about 12.7 percent of the total municipal solid waste (MSW) generated in America was food scraps. Less than three percent of that 32 million tonnes was recovered and recycled. The rest – 31 million tonnes – was thrown away into landfills or incinerators, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Landfill gas emissions are supposed to be curbed, per an EPA program, through gas collection systems. Although most of the landfills in the U.S. do not have a gas collection system–meaning that methane gas is freely being emitted into the atmosphere, many landfill companies continue operating as before. In some cases, they are attempting to justify the installation of landfill gas management systems by mandating that states like Florida force organic materials into landfills. The consequence is that not only will more methane emissions be released into the atmosphere, but the soil health and production capacity of the surrounding farm land will decline over time. Landfill gas collection systems are the least environmentally-preferred option for managing organic material that is thrown away. It is always better to reduce the amount of food wasted, donate what is excess, or to recycle it into compost before burying its nutrient potential in a landfill.
Why compost before landfilling? Everything that we eat that doesn’t come from the ocean depends on topsoil to grow. As topsoil is used to grow food, it gets depleted of nutrients that we need to lead healthy lives. It is replenished with nutrients by adding compost and hummus to it.
Compost is a moist soil amendment with a sweet, earthy, tabacco-like smell. This resource reduces the amount of water needed to harvest crops, it represses weeds and improves the health of the soil and the plants that grow in it. Think of it a the multivitamin for the ground. Forcing the resource into landfills is a short-sighted approach to energy production. There is nothing “renewable” about this type of energy, because forcing organic material into a landfill diminishes the total organics that can be harvested over time. That makes landfill gas a non-renewable resource. And the recent push to put more organics back into landfills through the reversal of the organics ban in Florida in the name of creating “renewable” energy has put things into a new perspective.
If the world system collapsed tomorrow so that there was no refrigeration, no mechanically-powered transportation and no electricity, would you prefer to have soil to grow your food, or would you prefer to have a pipeline? There are many ways to generate energy, but none of them can grow your food.
The planet needs places like Jepson Prairie Organics in Vacaville, California because that facility made it possible to provide the Northern California region with state of the art resource recovery systems that closely approximate what Mother Nature does at a reasonable cost. The City of Vacaville’s leadership in recycling, their community support and innovation has made it possible for food scraps composting and organics recycling to evolve into a resource for the agricultural community while creating landfill diversion, and preventing the creation of greenhouse gases.
The idea of WASTE ZERO is to make the best and highest use of all resources. Compost is one way to keep the planet turning.
An article in the December issue of MSW Management titled Rethinking Sustainable Organics included a quote from Henry Wallace, secretary of agriculture to President Franklin Roosevelt. The quote is:
“[n]ature treats the earth unkindly. Man treats her harshly. He over plows the cropland, overgrazes the pastureland, and overcuts the timberland. He destroys millions of acres completely. He pours fertility year after year into the cities, which in turn pour what they do not use down the sewers into the rivers and the ocean… The public is waking up, and just in time. In another 30 years it might have been too late.”
United States Department of Agriculture’s Soils and Men: Yearbook of Agriculture, 1936
In 1936, we already knew that through unsustainable management of cut trees, shrubs, and spoiled or leftover food we were depleting fertile soil of carbon and other nutrients. These materials can be managed to provide a soil amendment that returns minerals and carbon to the ground so that a piece of land will remain fertile despite years of cultivation that would otherwise depleted it. Bob Shaffer, an agronomist, says that only 10% of the planet has land that is suitable to raise crops and fortunately, over time, compost made from recycled food scraps has been embraced by farmers.
Recology has been working for 15 years with the City of San Francisco to make food scraps recycling possible. Now, 60% of what we at Recology touch in San Francisco stays out of landfills. One way we do this is through advanced composting processes, technology and the knowledge we’ve gained over 15 years. Greg Pryor, manager of Jepson Prairie Organics has mastered the process through testing all kinds of technologies and techniques at the composting facility, which opened in 1996. Jepson Prairie Organics is located among agricultural lands in Northern California, and has created 1,100,000 tons of compost since it opened. The composting processes that Recology has developed have resulted in VOC emissions that are far below state minimum requirements, prevent the creation of methane gas, and create a specially-blended compost and compost teas that are useful to biodynamic farmers.
Closing the loop on sustainable farming is possible when communities that consider sustainability issues as they plan their garbage programs–or resource recovery programs in the case of San Francisco–are willing to partner with companies like Recology in this great experiment of human social and ecological survival. We are glad that more and more cities are catching on.
It’s been a great holiday. Cabinet and Lighting Supply in Reno, Nevada came up with a creative way to reuse old light bulbs. Many people rented or recycled their Christmas trees. For the fifth year in a row, Recology Vacaville Solano and Recology Dixon employee owners worked with a local agency to help a family in need have a special Christmas. The Recology Yuba-Sutter donated new blankets and tarps to the Red Cross and Recology San Mateo County collected coats for kids, teenagers and adults in six Peninsula cities and various drop off locations.
The Coats for Kids collection program concluded on Dec. 20th and Recology San Mateo County would like to thank the cities and residents of Belmont, Burlingame, Foster City, Menlo Park, Redwood City and San Carlos for their participation in this worthwhile program.
Residents in the participating communities placed coats in a clear plastic bag marked “Coats for Kids” next to or on the top of their blue recycling cart on their regular collection day for pick up by the Recology collection drivers. Collection containers labeled “Coats for Kids” were also placed at various locations throughout several communities and Recology’s office where residents were also able to drop off coats.
In just days, Recology and all participating cities in San Mateo County collected over 750 coats! The coats were then sorted by Recology staff and donated to St. Anthony’s Church and Samaritan House for distribution to those families in need.
Recology San Mateo County General Manager, Mario Puccinelli was glad to do it. “Recology has been providing our Coats for Kids Program for many years in the communities we service. It has proven to be a great program helping those in dividuals and families in need,” he said.
The Coats for Kids program is going to be held annually by Recology San Mateo County with the hopes of having more communities participate next year.
About Recology San Mateo County:
Recology San Mateo County was chosen in 2008 by RethinkWaste to provide recycling, compost and garbage collection services for its twelve member agencies. Recology’s roots in recycling go back to the 1920s in San Francisco, when garbage men, known then as “scavengers,” actively sought out alternative uses for refuse.
The word on the street last week was that a non-profit in San Francisco was renting Christmas trees to city residents for free to encourage the planting of trees and reduction of waste. We couldn’t find it, but other San Francisco-based organizations, including Friends of the Urban Forest and the SF Department of the Enviroment, are offering all kinds of trees adapted to the San Francisco weather (thought not for free).
It’s not just in San Francisco. All along the Peninsula you can find companies and organizations offering to rent and sometimes deliver a Christmas tree for the holidays. The idea may seem quaint but the implications are an important signal of American’s changing attitudes.
According to the National Christmas Tree Association, 25-30 million pine and fir trees are sold each year during the holidays. These trees take between 7 and 15 years each to grow to six or seven feet–the height which makes them acceptable to most Americans. And while there are as many as 4,000 Christmas tree recycling programs across the country, the status quo is that most of the 25-30 million trees end up in a landfill. In the Bay Area, Recology would compost Christmas trees but due to their high acidity, they are being made into biofuel.
In addition, there’s the question of which is the more sustainable solution: a tree that’s been cut down or an artificial tree? To get at an answer, we would need more detailed information than is currently available to us. Where were the real trees grown and under what conditions? The top producing states are Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington. And how were they trees transfered to their final destination? How were they disposed of? As for artificial trees, we know that 80% of those sold world wide are made in China. Most are made from plastic and metal and are most likely not recycled at the end of their use as decoration.
Renting a live tree bipases these questions. The trees are never cut, and the transportation to and from the point of purchase would be about the same under any scenario. But there are other benefits. According to Mercury News, for about the same price as a high-end precut tree, families can enjoy the smell of a tree for the entire season, reduce the risk of fires, and we would add, have to do a little less vaccuming after the holidays.
If you celebrate Christmas, consider a real tree that you can use over and over again. If you did get a pre-cut tree, visit Recology San Francisco‘s, Recology San Mateo County‘s or Recology Auburn Placer’s websites, call Recology Butte Colusa Counties or Recology Vacaville Solano to see how you can recycle your tree.
This summer, Siemens found that San Francisco outranked all other major cities in the U.S. and Canada in the area of environmental performance. It’s perfect score in the area of garbage, recycling and compost was due to a progressive public-private collaboration between the City of San Francisco and Recology, which was founded in San Francisco.
What makes Recology an outstanding performer of course is not just its roots. Recology is a company with commitments to the communities where our employees live and work because we are part of those communities. And we work hard—protecting our environment is serious work—but we also try to have fun.
For example, Recology Vacaville Solano was present at the Vacaville Fiesta Days Parade this past May, where the Recology Drill Team earned a First Place award in the Drill Team category and the Recology vintage garbage truck won Second Place in the Antique Car category. Recology’s Buddy Blue Toter was also a winner, taking home the First Place award in the novelty category.
Last month, as title sponsor at The Bite of Oregon, an annual festival in Portland’s waterfront organized by the Special Olympics Oregon, one Recology employee personally made sure that 400 pounds of cooked, delicious chicken leftovers from the event were donated to 3 different rescue missions.
On August 23rd, over 40 employees from Recology South Valley volunteered to clear the bike path near Gallop Drive, all the way up to Thomas Grade in Morgan Hill, California. For two and a half hours, starting at 8AM, the group raked, shoveled, and swept the bike line, clearing it of dirt, weeds, and garbage. The reason for the project was that a group of Recology South Valley employees approached their general manager about doing something for their community. These employees had read about a project in another community served by Recology and wanted to organize something for their customers, neighbors and friends.
Obviously, we care about what we do, but its also nice to be recognized once in a while too. A reporter for the Morgan Hill Times quoted the City Program Manager, Anthony Eulo, saying, “[W]e appreciate Recology’s volunteer energy and commitment to our community… We know that the residents passing East Dunne everyday will enjoy the cleaner street.”
We are proud of the work we do to make this planet a better place to live, for all of us.
Recology Vacaville Solano
What year did you start working at Recology?
I started in 1983. During my first 11 years I was picking up garbage. Now I’m a driver’s foreman. I’m in charge of getting the guys out to there, and I do a little of everything; helping customers, drivers, making sure everything is picked up.
Which Recology companies have you worked for?
How has the company changed since you first started working at Recology?
Everything was “garbage” [in 1983]. We used to dump it in a rear loader. There were no automated trucks, till a few years later when the Evo’s side loader trucks came out and we went fully automated. [W]e started recycling in 1986. Green waste was the first thing we recycled. You know that we now recycle everything.
What do you think of the Employee Stock Ownership Plan?
Being employee owned makes it feel like this is all yours. You get what you put into it. It makes you want to take care of your work, take care of your customers. What is great about it is that it’s like you’re putting a little bit of money away in the company, so when you do retire finally you have something to look forward to.
Do you and your family recycle?
Yes. It’s the right thing to do. [At home] we have a blue totter. Why throw it in the garbage?
Have you participated in any of the company volunteer events?
All of them. On the weekends, the Dixon Teen Center is getting over 150 kids. What we started there was great. Teenagers from Dixon didn’t have much to do and now they do. It may even get these kids to go to school now that they have something good. Recology is always out there supporting the community that we work for.
Joe Rojas was one of over 100 Recology employees who volunteered to do
an “extreme makeover” of what is now the Dixon Teen Center in Dixon, California.