Organics!

At CalRecycle, we talk about organics pretty much all the time. In fact, I’m not sure why everyone in California doesn’t talk about organics all the time. I don’t mean the stuff in the pricey part of the produce section at the grocery store. I’m talking about the food waste we scrape off our plates or pull out of the back of the fridge and dump into the garbage, the food waste at restaurants and grocery stores, the lawn clippings and yard trimmings, untreated wood waste, and even food-soiled paper waste. You might be impressed and appalled at the same time at the volume—tons and tons—of this stuff that goes to landfills and then decomposes and generates greenhouse gases like methane.

A group of intrepid CalRecycle staffers conducted a statewide waste characterization study to measure and quantify what kind of material, and how much of it, ends up in landfills in California. It’s actually fascinating, and we’re the only state that does such a thorough study—so other states, even other nations, have been eagerly anticipating the report to help them shape their own material management policies.

Deep apologies to the staff who worked tirelessly on this study and generated hundreds of pages of data, but I’m going to sum it up right here:

Too much organic waste. Too much food waste.

For those of you who want the numbers, I’ll share one chart and one table from the study:

Overview of California’s Overall Disposed Waste Stream

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10 Most Prevalent Material Types
in California’s Overall Disposed Waste Stream

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Here’s the thing: It doesn’t take much to convert organics into beneficial material like compost, mulch, and even compressed natural gas. Any elementary school kid, with a little supervision, can manage a compost bin: Toss in the lunch leftovers, toss in some dry leaves, add a little water, repeat, and wait. (If you want something a little more specific than that, we have you covered right here.) Large-scale composting operations are fascinating—plus, some places are using solar energy to operate blowers to get air inside the compost rows rather than turning them, eliminating the need for diesel-fueled machinery. And then, there’s the higher-tech anaerobic digestion process.

The point is, it’s absurd to send organic material to the landfill, where it generates greenhouse gases, when it’s so easy to use it instead to generate material we really need and to improve our soil to grow the food we eat, to generate clean fuel for city buses and garbage trucks, etc. And, please refer back to the quick figures: It’s not like we’re talking about some esoteric material that pops up in the waste stream now and then—it is the biggest category of material that ends up in landfills. We have a lot to work with.

Please compost, please shop carefully, and please ask the restaurants and grocery stores you patronize what they’re doing to reduce organic waste … and if you’re in the organics recycling business (a growth industry to be sure!), check out our Greenhouse Gas Reduction Grant and Loan Programs webpage. This is a big priority for the state, both for CalRecycle and for Governor Brown, and our partners at the Air Resources Board and a number of other state agencies. We’re doing everything we can to increase the organics recycling infrastructure in the state to reduce greenhouse gases and improve the health of our soils so we can grow better food more efficiently. (Have I mentioned that compost and mulch help retain soil moisture? Drought, anyone?) They say talk is cheap, but we are also—carefully, strategically—investing quite a bit of money in solving the problem. How much money, you ask? Well, the governor has proposed an additional $100 million in his 2016 budget for recycling infrastructure, and much of that is targeted to organics. Here are some projects that have already been funded.

We just can’t stop talking about it.

— Heather Jones
Posted on Jan 21, 2016

Summary: A group of intrepid CalRecycle staffers conducted a statewide waste characterization study to measure and quantify what kind of material, and how much of it, ends up in landfills in California. It’s actually fascinating, and we’re the only state that does such a thorough study—so other states, even other nations, have been eagerly anticipating the report to help them shape their own material management policies.