Each year sea turtles migrate hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles in search of food. The leatherback turtle crosses the entire Pacific ocean, reinforcing a pattern that the species has evolved over hundreds and hundreds of years.
Human beings are just starting to form such habits. Last Saturday was the 28th time that Californians gathered together for the annual Coastal Cleanup Day. Together, more than 57,400 volunteers at 850 sites in 55 different counties collected 320 tons of debris and removed it from the state’s waterways. People in 110 countries participated in similar activities. In San Francisco, Recology hauled away debris that included paper, glass, bottle caps, nails, concrete, and cigarette butts. Fifty percent of it was recycled. Much of the debris is pollution left behind by beachgoers.
In Oregon, folks volunteered to catch the residual debris that is beginning to come ashore from the 2011 tsunami that devastated parts of Japan. Some estimates of the volume of debris that is floating across the ocean and bound for the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada are as high as 1.5 million tons. The material includes parts of abandoned fishing boats, buoys, piers and household items, as well as glass, bottles, Styrofoam and the like.
Organized by the Ocean Conservancy, Coastal Cleanup Days are meant to restore our coastlines to their natural state and beauty. Perhaps in 100 years, like the leatherback turtle, our annual trek to the shore will have become more than just a habit. Perhaps by then, protecting the planet will have become a human instinct.
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.
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.
Today, Recology San Francisco collected it’s 1 millionth ton of food scraps for composting.
Since the pilot program launched in the mid 1990s, the program has grown in popularity and acceptance. It was in 2009, however, that participation in the program became a requirement. Following San Francisco’s example, over 90 cities across the world have created similar laws, says the San Francisco Chronicle.
The food scraps—what is leftover from dinner at a restaurant or what went bad in the refrigerator—are composted and sent on to farms and vineyards in Northern California. Besides increasing San Francisco’s landfill diversion rate up to 78%, compost may be said to help prevent further desertification in the United States. The USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service provides a map of the regions that are vulnerable to desertification. The state of California is one of them.
This Thanksgiving, remember to compost your food scraps. We need them for next year’s crops.
1. Place a paper bag inside the kitchen pail provided for compost, or line it with newspaper to avoid a mess. Remember not to use plastic bags – they’re not compostable
2. Sprinkle baking soda on the compost if it starts to smell.
3. Deter flies with citrus, lavender, eucalyptus or lemongrass oils by placing a few drops on a cloth and leaving it inside or on top of the pail.
4. Check to see if something is compostable before you throw it away. Take-out containers, pizza boxes, coffee cups and wine corks (natural cork, not plastic) are all compostable.
5. If you generate almost no garbage, you may be able to utilize the 20-gallon cart service, which can save you $2 per month.
(src: Recology San Francisco, the San Francisco Chronicle, page C2)
Recology has been working to transform the landfill industry for over a decade. It’s not as simple as it sounds. Landfills are the place where we put all the things that cities and towns don’t recycle, the things that we don’t yet know how to recycle, and the things that were made without any thought given to their recoverability. Unfortunately, product designers are still slow to catch up on making recoverable products. Many municipal programs still don’t offer complete recycling and composting programs throughout the U.S. Many families, businesses and well-meaning people don’t understand composting. And then there are all the other quirky things, like ADC for example.
In California, 10% or nearly 3.5 million tons of the 34.9 million tons of material that were disposed of last year (including what was landfilled in California, imported and exported) was alternative daily cover, or ADC. According to CalRecycle, ADC is:
CalRecycle-approved materials other than soil used as a temporary overlay on an exposed landfill face. Generally, these materials must be processed so that they do not allow gaps in the face surface, which would provide breeding grounds for insects and vermin. Public Resources Code section 41781.3 stipulates this practice is recycling, not disposal, and authorizes Cal Recycle to adopt regulations, such as Title 27 California Code of Regulations, section 20690. Approved materials include processed green materials, sludge, ash and kiln residue, compost, construction and demolition debris, and special foams and fabrics.
In other words, ADC is material that actually goes to the landfill, and for all intents and purposes is landfilled, but ADC is counted as landfill diversion because it prevents clean soil from being imported and then contaminated at a landfill. That’s not so bad right? Instead of using clean soil to cover an exposed landfill on a day to day basis, why not use other materials that serve the same function? Well, a closer look at what was actually used as ADC may be enlightening.
Much of what was used for ADC in California in 2008 was auto shredder waste, sometimes called “auto shred” or “auto fluff.” According to the State of Washington’s Department of Ecology, “Auto fluff is waste left over from shredding old cars for scrap metal. It can contain heavy metals and poly-chlorinated biphenyls.” Although this material would probably have been landfilled anyway, it counts towards the diversion rate.
So, now that you know that ADC can be counted towards landfill diversion, how are the diversion leaders in California using ADC in 2008?
Oakland used 202 thousand tons of ADC that year. San Jose used 159 thousand. San Francisco used 63 thousand.
In 2008, city of Oakland reported a diversion rate of 66%, but nearly 25% of that was achieved through ADC. Without ADC, it’s diversion rate would have been 41%!
San Jose diverted 65% that year, and 10% of that diversion was through ADC. Without ADC, it’s diversion rate would have been 55%!
San Francisco achieved a 72% diversion rate, but only 3% was from ADC. Without ADC, it’s diversion rate would have been 69%.
The important point here is that many cities across California are getting diversion credit without doing the heavy lifting. There are many cities that do not really divert materials from landfills. They may not create programs to educate people about reducing their consumption, programs to make it possible to reuse materials, and certainly don’t work to create robust recycling and composting programs. It means that although cities are achieving relatively high diversion rates, they are still landfilling valuable materials but getting the credit for landfill diversion by abusing the leeway CalRecycle has given them to count ADC towards their diversion rate.
Until there is a level playing field regarding what material can be used as alternative daily cover, and how landfill diversion is calculated, we will have to keep pounding the drum of resource recovery and insisting on the concept of WASTE ZERO. It is the only real and permanent way to make a positive impact on our natural world, our children’s future, and create the jobs that are so badly needed right now.
What does the future look like? We love this photo, which was part of the Super Crafty Costume Contest this past Halloween.
Crafty and creative people are always looking to repurpose the things around them, but for us here at Recology, upcycling holds a special place, and we are glad it is catching on. Sites like Etsy are helping. Through it, people can set up their own store fronts. Found*Ling, is one example of a store where new things are made from old things. Other examples of upcycled products range from table lamps made from recycled circuit boards to neckties made from cassette tapes. (See Mashable Tech for a full list).
This week, the Sierra Club Green Home reported on the Recologized Tote bag, a brainchild of a Recology San Francisco employee. The bag, made from the old or unused uniforms of Recology San Francisco employees, were created with the idea of utilizing landfill-bound items as “up-cycled” goods for sustainable living. The tote bag can be used as a shopping bag at your local farmers’ market, to run errands or for a day at the beach. The bag was made in collaboration with UPsicle, an SF-based designer who is a member of SFMade. UPsicle specializes in creating unique, water resistant, washable and reusable bags.
Recology has also been working with SFMade, which was founded in 2010, and has as its mission to build and support a vibrant manufacturing sector in San Francisco. It is the only organization of its kind focused on building San Francisco’s economic base through these means, and currently supports more than 200 local manufacturers who collectively sustain more than 2,500 jobs in San Francisco. This month, SFMade and the Banana Republic are launching the first SFMade Pop-Up shop at the Banana Republic’s flagship store on Grant St. Their collaboration supports independent, San Francisco-based apparel and accessories companies.
With our 90+ year roots in reusing and recycling what others have thought of as “garbage” we are excited to continue to recover everything we can from landfills. This is what we mean by WASTE ZERO.
Guest blogger, Jessica Connolly of Recology San Mateo County explores plastics and her relationship to them in this series.
Polypropylene (PP) is one of the most versatile plastics available. It has a variety of uses and is made into many types of manufactured products. This plastic is used because it is very durable, has a high melting temperature, can be hydrophilic (be absorbent), and is relatively resistant to solvents and some chemicals.
PP is used in packaging, textiles, reusable food containers, electronic exteriors, automotive interiors, car batteries, and even the filling in baby diapers, and other sanitary products! Some textiles that PP is made into are carpets, ropes, synthetic thermals, and long underwear. Companies like Rubbermaid, Ziplock, and Tupperware use PP in their reusable containers, as they can withstand high temperatures in microwaves and dishwashers. The caps on PET soda and water bottles are made of PP as well.
PP is used as the exterior of car batteries because it is more resistant to corrosion from toxic materials and because the plastic can withstand high temperatures.
PP is also used as the main plastic in baby diapers because it can be manufactured to have high liquid-absorption properties, where the liquid binds to the plastic and becomes semi-solidified. It is also used for synthetic dish towels where the towel acts like a sponge, drying objects better than cotton or wool towels would.
PP is usually recycled into other hard plastics. However, it is not generally recycled into disposable or reusable food containers because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deems recycled materials in food containers as unsafe. Many times electronic exteriors for computers, TVs or DVD players are made from recovered PP.
Because of its more durable and resistant properties, it is often reused much more than other types of plastic. It also has fewer chemicals and additives than other food ware plastic, making it safer for food to come in contact with. Compared to other plastic, PP is better for the environment, our health, and reduces our usage of disposable plastic, taking some ease off our consumption of petroleum.
Marketers, in their zeal to “green” their products, are calling everything they can “biodegradable.” There was an article in September’s paper about making plastics “green.” Everyone’s trying it–softdrink manufacturers, plastic bag manufacturers and even pen manufacturers.
With the array of products being marketed as “green” alternatives to plastic ranging from “new carbon” inputs to biodegradable (although not necessarily compostable) processing options, it can be a confusing world out there. And consumers are confused, or more often, misled.
There is a line that marketers tend to cross. Under the pressure to produce the greenest consumer products, they tend to misuse language, and the word “sustainability” most of all. If we consider the entire lifecyle of these products, what do we really gain? We’ve seen some plastic bags marketed as “will biodegrade in a landfill,” which is dually funny, if you know anything about landfills.
An article in today’s Mercury News announced that California’s Attorney General is finally going after false advertising. This is a significant step in the recycling world. We are sure there will be a long road ahead for recyclers, manufactuers and consumers–everyone.
There was an article posted last week on tinygreenbubble.com about the semantics in the world of resource recovery. Jocelyn Saurini wrote “don’t think that I’m one of those girls on a bandwagon about how San Francisco does everything right. Believe me, I am not that girl. However, the city has nailed one thing fabulously: They’ve found a way to make residents think about landfill size every single time they throw things away.”
During her trip to SF, she discovered that landfill-bound material is collected in a container labeled “landfill” and not “trash” or “garbage”.
Semantics do matter in what we do because the materials that go into the green and blue containers ARE NOT garbage. According to one dictionary, garbage means: “any matter that is no longer wanted or needed; trash.”
But in the areas where we work, what diligent people do every day is make a decision to save our natural resources by recycling and composting. They are not “throwing away” anything except what there is no next best use for. The materials we recycle become the same or next use items. We convert the organics that we collect into compost. Let’s stop calling it garbage.
As for landfill size–yes, landfill space matters. In some communities people do not think about what they throw away and quickly use up the area available to dispose of true garbage. That means they end up having to find more land to use for landfilling “garbage”. But we see a more fundamental problem. Many useful resources are buried in the first place because no recycling alternatives exist.
As for everything that goes in the landfill container, yes its true that has no chance to be recovered. It doesn’t get sorted for usable material. So we depend on people to make the wise choice and minimize the amount of true garbage they put in that container. We know, like Jocelyn does, that “waste doesn’t just disappear.” That’s why we say WASTE ZERO.