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'All Hands On Deck'

Humboldt prepares for waste overhaul that will cut climate emissions and feed the hungry

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A new state law mandating organic waste recycling and the creation of food recovery programs will overhaul the state's garbage system — changing everything from how residents throw out their trash to how organic waste is recycled and where cities source their mulch — all while reducing emissions of methane, one of the worst climate pollutants.

"This is the most encompassing law ever in California — not only is it a recycling law but a climate change law as well," said Evan Edgar, principal engineer and president of Edgar and Associates, a Sacramento-based environmental engineering company and lobbying firm working with local municipalities on the issue. "This is all hands on deck."

Senate Bill 1383, the biggest overhaul in the California waste management system since 1990 and possibly the state's biggest climate change legislation, will create a new system for how households, businesses, municipalities and trash haulers handle organic waste, like food scraps, yard waste and all other trash coming from plant or animal products. The new system will require a unique collaborative effort between waste hauling companies, local governments, businesses, food pantries and shelters like no other waste management legislation has ever before. 

The bill's scope is so massive that last year Humboldt Waste Management Authority, a joint powers authority of member agencies including the cities of Arcata, Blue Lake, Eureka, Fortuna, Ferndale, Rio Dell and the county of Humboldt, hired Edgar and Associates, which specializes in solid waste management, recycling, composting and renewable energy issues, to help with its implementation process. The consulting firm has created a roadmap report for the county, detailing what needs to be done to offer organic waste services and meet state mandates.

Signed into law in 2016 by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, S.B. 1383 sets the goal of reducing the amount of organic waste entering landfills by 75 percent statewide by 2025. After the bill was signed, the California Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) created the rules and regulations for implementation, finalizing them in 2020. It is now beginning to enforce them.

Cities and counties must adopt enforceable ordinances mandating curbside collection services for organic waste through hauling companies or self-hauling services, while also creating edible food recovery programs and establishing compost or organic fuel procurement plans to ensure the organic waste has a beneficial final destination, creating a circular economy for what had previously been treated as trash. In Humboldt County, various cities have begun updating their ordinances to include organic waste collection. In residential areas, it will be collected in curbside bins and hauled to an organic waste processing facility.

HWMA is also starting to build out the infrastructure to support organic waste recycling services. The HWMA board recently authorized the temporary closure and relocation of its Eureka Recycling Center, with plans to convert the current location on Hawthorne Street into a processing facility where the organic waste will be sorted, baled and readied for transport.

The Solid Waste Local Task Force and Humboldt County's Department of Environmental Services, meanwhile, are creating a countywide edible food recovery program that will work with local businesses to donate leftover food to area homeless shelters and food banks.

"The beautiful thing about S.B. 1383 is it's bringing everyone to the table," said Linda Wise, general manager for Eel River Recology and Recology Humboldt. "We're coming together, finding issues and addressing them to get it done."

The statewide effort is aimed at reducing what's called "short-lived climate pollutants" and methane emissions, which are generated by decomposing food scraps and other organic matter in landfills and are 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

A 2021 report published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that organic waste generates 170 million metric tons of carbon dioxide nationally each year, equal to the annual emissions of 42 coal-fired power plants. The EPA also found municipal solid waste landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the U.S., accounting for approximately 14.5 percent of these emissions in 2020.

According to CalRecycle, organic waste causes up to 20 percent of the state's methane emissions.

Compostable items, defined as "organic materials typically accepted for use in commercial compost or digestion systems" in the 2020-2021 HWMA waste characterizations study, made up about one-quarter of Humboldt County's overall waste stream, with food waste making up 14 percent, recycled paper making up 6.7 percent and compostable paper comprising 5.4 percent.

CalRecycle initially gave cities until Jan. 1 to begin organic waste collection and food recovery services before it would start fining them, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought delays. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an addendum last year giving cities and counties an extension if they send CalRecycle a "notice of intent to comply," which all Humboldt County cities did in April.

Since then, cities, including Fortuna and Ferndale, have begun amending waste collection ordinances to include organic waste recycling. Fortuna's ordinance states it will begin offering organic waste services next year. However, the start date is contingent on whether Eel River Recology, which handles Fortuna waste collection services, has the appropriate bins, trucks and a tipping floor needed to haul the new materials.

"The main driver for that (date) is Recology doesn't have the trucks, they don't have the bins, there's no possible way we could have that service implemented any faster than Jan. 1, 2023," Fortuna City Manager Merritt Perry said. "So, my thought is to put the effective date of Jan. 1, 2023, and adopt an ordinance that has the general provisions, which is the best we can do in the short-term. If we need to make any changes to the municipal code, we can make them in the six or eight months before its effective date — or push the date back if we're unable to meet the original date."

Wise said industry demand for the trucks, which are made to order, and the price of metal have pushed deliveries back 18 to 24 months from the original date. But even with the trucks, Humboldt County is still missing an essential element to offering organic waste recycling: the tipping floor, or the facility where garbage trucks dump waste onto a conveyor belt to be sorted and baled for transportation to its next destination.

In the roadmap report, Edgar and Associates suggested that HWMA create an organic waste tipping floor by repurposing and relocating its Eureka Recycling Center. It's the easiest and fastest way to start an organic waste collection service because the site is already built out and operating as a recycling processing center, which should make the permitting and zoning process swift.

HWMA will close the Eureka Recycling Center on Aug. 1 to begin retrofitting the site for organic waste, according to a staff report from HWMA Executive Director Peter Fuller. HWMA is also expected to open a new recycling center for source-separated drop-off by November.

"We're all in this together," Fuller said. "It is fluid, it's dynamic. It's challenging for all of us. The engineers that I speak with have seen different permutations of how this has to go down. We're all scrambling — productively — but scrambling to work together to make this happen."

HWMA is in the early negotiations to buy a property on West End Road in Arcata for the new recycling center. During a June 9 HWMA board meeting, HWMA Director of Operations Eric Keller-Heckman said the Arcata property has the potential for expansion and is ideal for all of the services offered at the Eureka Recycling Center.

To date, the waste management company is on schedule to meet its November deadline for opening the new recycling center and its January deadline for opening an organic waste tipping floor and processing center.

"HWMA staff and Edgar and Associates staff will be meeting with the local Humboldt County [CalRecycle Local Enforcement Agency] next week to discuss the permitting process and the amendments needed for the Hawthorne Street Transfer station," Keller-Heckman said. "HWMA staff has begun to assess the infrastructure needs of the Eureka Recycling Center and what it's gonna take to transform that into the organics processing facility and, right now, everything is currently on track."

Until then, HWMA will be purchasing necessary equipment, retrofitting the site, recruiting staff for the organic waste processing facility, recruiting a site supervisor for the new location and developing a request for proposals for the transportation and disposal of organic waste. HWMA is expected to open the organics processing facility to commercial and public drop-off by Jan. 1.

The projected costs for relocating the Eureka Recycling Center and transforming it into an organics-processing facility range from $3.7 million to $4.7 million, with the largest expenditure being the purchase of a new property. (The company may also have to buy a new baling machine if the current one at the recycling center can't be modified to fit the new location, according to a staff report.)

But organic waste collection is only a small piece of the new system.

Under the law, after organic waste is separated and baled, it must be sent to a facility to be turned into traditional organic waste byproducts, like compost and mulch. S.B. 1383 recognizes that methane emissions, as the EPA has reported, represent a lost opportunity to create energy by converting the emissions found in landfills into bioenergy, and requires organic materials to be converted into bioenergy (electricity derived from organic waste) and renewable natural gas (a liquid form of bioenergy that can be used to fuel vehicles, electricity and thermal appliances like stoves, ovens and water heaters).

And to close the organic waste economic loop, S.B. 1383 will also require municipalities to "procure" these organic waste recycling byproducts, from compost to biofuel, based on their population.

Humboldt County currently doesn't have a facility that is able to break organic waste down into compost, mulch or bioenergy. Edgar and Associates estimates a local composting facility should be permitted and operational in five years but, until then, the sorted and baled organic waste from the HWMA facility will be transported out of the county for processing.

Municipalities will then need to back-haul compost and mulch from an out-of-county facility to meet S.B. 1383's "procurement" requirement. But the methane emissions saved by organic waste recycling versus the carbon dioxide emitted from transporting materials is 20 to one (due to methane emissions being 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide), so the new system will result in an overall emissions reduction despite the additional vehicle trips.

Based on Edgar and Associates' initial calculations, Humboldt County as a whole will have to acquire approximately 5,990 tons of compost, 10,325 tons of mulch, 0.76 megawatts of bioenergy and 216,835 DGE (diesel gas equivalent) of renewable natural gas to be compliant with S.B. 1383.

Each city will have its own required procurement amount based on its population. For example, Arcata must procure up to 839 tons of the 5,990 tons of compost and 1,446 tons of the 10,325 tons of mulch, 0.107 megawatts of bioenergy of the 0.76 megawatts of bioenergy and 30,371 tons of renewable natural gas of the 216,835 DGE.

Arcata Environmental Services Director Emily Sinkhorn said the city is exploring different ideas for how it will use its required 839 tons of compost and 1,446 tons of mulch. 

"We know there are different types of arrangements and contracts in other cities, like partnering with agriculture companies or property managements, we just haven't explored those in-depth," Sinkhorn said. "We have a lot of open space and park spaces, so we're analyzing how we can best utilize compost and mulch in those areas. It's still to-be-determined but we're working on it."

Compost and mulch can be used in community gardens and parks, and school gardens, while bioenergy and renewable natural gas (RNG) can be used for everything from powering wastewater treatment plants to power grids and trucks, but bioenergy and RNG don't yet have the infrastructure necessary to support demand in Humboldt County.

However, through an application process, CalRecycle allows procurement exemptions for rural, low-population jurisdictions due to their smaller organic waste footprints and significant challenges to collecting and repurposing organic waste. This could potentially exempt Humboldt County cities from having to purchase bioenergy and RNG, at least until they are in greater demand locally.

To ensure California is meeting its goal of reducing methane emissions, CalRecycle is mandating robust record keeping with annual reports from cities and waste hauling companies, including copies of passed ordinances, route reviews and evaluations, collection service records, education and outreach records, edible food recovery program records, enforcement action records and complaints. Cities and jurisdictions will also be required to provide organic waste procurement records.

The state will also require regular audits of garbage, organic and recycling bins, a responsibility that will fall to Recology because it has the proper equipment and knows all of the collection routes. Essentially, Recology will have to look into garbage bins to check that all waste is separated correctly. If Recology finds residents or businesses with contaminated bins — for example, if an organic waste bin has plastic bottles or wrappers — the company would report it to the city or county, which would then issue a fine according to the applicable local ordinance.

For example, Fortuna's ordinance states, "If the city determines that an organic waste generator, self-hauler, commercial edible food generator, food recovery organization, food recovery service or other entity is not in compliance with this chapter, it shall document the noncompliance or violation, issue an administrative citation and take enforcement action, as needed."

The administrative citation in Fortuna is $100 for the first violation, $200 for the second and $500 for the third offense within a year.

Not only will S.B. 1383 divert methane emissions through organic waste recycling, but it will also eliminate methane emissions released by salvageable food rotting in landfills through a food recovery program — a program desperately needed in Humboldt County, which has a food insecurity rate of 18 percent, higher than the national average of 12 percent.

With a goal of recovering 20 percent of edible food from the waste stream, S.B. 1383 requires cities to create a program in which businesses like restaurants, hospitals and grocery stores, as well as organizations like schools, must donate leftover food to local shelters and food pantries instead of throwing them away.

"Tier 1 food generators," which include larger grocery stores and supermarkets, must begin the food recovery process by Jan. 1. "Tier 2 food generators," which include restaurants with more than 250 seats, hotels with more than 200 rooms, health facilities like hospitals with more than 100 beds, large venues and state and educational facilities with large cafeterias, must begin by 2024.

The food recovery program will be a collaborative effort between businesses and organizations, food pantries and local shelters, cities and the Humboldt County Environmental Health Department, which manages food safety inspections.

Edgar and Associates has finished the first draft of the county's food recovery strategic plan, which gives clear recommendations and next steps to build out the program. It also assesses the county's capacity to save edible food, outlines possible funding streams to support the program and identifies which businesses in the county must participate based on their size and waste accumulation.

The draft has yet to be made public but is in the hands of the Solid Waste Local Task Force for review and comment. It will be discussed further during the next meeting on July 25.

Last year, Zero Waste Humboldt created a similar assessment looking at the potential capacity for an edible food recovery program in Arcata and Eureka. It found that all food recovery organizations in Arcata and Eureka could accept more non-perishable donations based on the current level of demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation. However, there are limitations to the amount of perishable food organizations can receive.

"Food recovery organizations' expansion is limited by lack of basic infrastructure: sufficient cold and dry storage space, a lack of refrigerated trucks, and need for the paid staff to manage coordination, collection and record-keeping," the report states.

All food recovery organizations interviewed for the Zero Waste Humboldt Assessment expressed an interest in expanding food recovery efforts but said they would need the proper trucks and equipment to do so.

Food for People, Humboldt County's principal food bank, for example, is currently in the process of rebuilding its main site after sewer inundation in 2020 rendered the building unusable, forcing the organization to lease different buildings and leaving it unable to support an increase in perishable food at the moment. The organization is slated to open a new, expanded facility later this year.

The Salvation Army and the Betty Kwan Chinn Foundation both would need to purchase walk-in freezers to safely store more perishable food but grant funding for nonprofits almost always comes as reimbursements, creating cash flow problems.

Although there is still a long way to go in expanding food recovery in the county, some of it is happening now.

The assessment found every grocery store in Eureka and Arcata is already participating in a food donation process, either donating to a food pantry or a local pig farm, but some challenges exist, including a need for regular, consistent donation collection services, the staff time required for scheduling donations, navigating regulations pertaining to perishable food donations and concern over litigation associated with donating perishable food, among others.

In order to create a sustainable food recovery program in the county, local governments, businesses and nonprofits will need to create new partnerships.

The Solid Waste Local Task Force, along with HWMA, Recology and other waste haulers in the area, will continue to meet regularly to discuss next steps toward fully implementing the robust organic waste recycling law. The collective effort has begun and will continue for the next five years, at least.

"This stuff isn't going to happen overnight," Wise said. "We're still years away from a fully phased organic waste recycling program but some jurisdictions may come to see it more quickly than others."

Iridian Casarez (she/her) is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or iridian@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @Iridian_Casarez.

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