As many MSW Management readers know, the use of alternative daily cover at solid waste landfills, especially greenwaste that could otherwise be used as compost feedstock, has been subject to significant debate and controversy. Despite California’s robust recycling infrastructure for traditional recyclables like bottles and cans, the state continues to landfill organic materials, like yard trimmings, at an alarming rate.
While California isn’t alone in allowing the use of greenwaste as landfill cover, it’s an especially distressing practice here because California is the only state to essentially count cover material as “diverted” from a landfill, or recycled. California law requires local governments to “divert” 50% of all solid waste from disposal at landfills or incinerators, but allows yard trimmings to be counted as diverted when sent to a landfill for use as cover. This exemption creates a perverse incentive to use green materials for cover instead of recovering the material and returning it to the soil through composting. This is why I’m thrilled that my bill, AB 1594, was signed by the Governor and that by 2020, greenwaste used as landfill cover will no longer count towards a local government’s solid waste diversion goals.
In order to get a better understanding of why using green material as landfill cover is so inappropriate, let’s examine cover material in California. There are several materials eligible for landfill cover (including tarps, specially designed foams, and C&D materials), but residential yard trimmings (often referred to as greenwaste) are most commonly used. CalRecycle, our waste management agency, estimated that in 2012 greenwaste accounted for 47% of all landfill cover in the state. The next closest material used was construction and demolition waste at about 19% of all cover. Notably, nearly half of all greenwaste produced in the state, or 1.6 million tons, is used as landfill cover. However, of an available 9 million tons of construction and demolition waste, only about 700 thousand tons were used. In other words, greenwaste is used at a much higher rate despite the broad availability of alternatives.
The environmental implications of landfilling organic material are huge. Even in the best-managed landfills, greenwaste decomposes in an oxygen-deprived environment, which leads to the generation of methane as well as significant water quality impacts. Methane from landfills is the largest anthropogenic source of methane. Further, the practice is counterproductive, as the state works to achieve both a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas levels and recycle 75% of its waste by 2020.
Perhaps even more frustrating is the lack of clarity of what using greenwaste as cover material means for ratepayers. When residents take the effort to separate their yard trimmings into a separate container, they expect that material will be composted, but they are likely unaware that that material might very well be sent to the same landfill as their garbage. This practice weakens the integrity of California’s recycling goals by misleadingly treating landfill disposal as “recycling” and undermining efforts to promote beneficial uses of organic waste.
Further, the use of recovered yard trimmings and other green materials as cover at landfills is a major impediment to the -development of a robust composting industry. CalRecycle estimates that building the organics infrastructure -necessary to meet our 75% diversion goal will create 14,000 new jobs by 2020. This isn’t hard to imagine when considering
the economics of “diversion credit.” -Diversion credit changes the game because the contract a local government puts out to bid requires diversion.
While AB 1594 meets the challenge of diverting organic material from landfills in a big way, there’s still work to be done. For example, I was forced to take an amendment to my bill that preserves the existing exemption from the tipping fee landfill cover currently enjoyed under the law. As originally drafted, the legislation would have eliminated both diversion credit and the exemption from the tipping fee.
Additionally, there are some legitimate concerns about conflicting permitting requirements that have hindered the expansion of the composting industry. That’s not to say it’s impossible to build new organics processing facilities. Private industry has built three commercial scale anaerobic digestion facilities in California during the past year and a half, with several others in the permitting stage. Several composting facilities have recently expanded as well. In fact, some of the composters in my district have pointed to competition from cheap landfill cover disposal as the biggest barrier to expanding their facilities or building new ones, not the permitting issues. However, permitting remains a big concern for the industry, and this, along with the tipping fee exemption, is something I’d also like to see addressed in the future.
Again, there’s still work to be done. Permitting issues and a stable source of funding to support our waste management programs are just pieces of the larger puzzle. However, with the passage of AB 1594 and other robust policies like Assembly Bill 1826, which requires recycling of commercially produced organic material by 2016, it’s clear that California is well on its way to regaining its rightful place as the recycling champion.