Getting a picture of Humboldt County's waste situation is a little like snapping a picture of Bigfoot: Even if you get something, it's going to be blurry and inconclusive.
That's not to say there isn't good data out there about the trash that Humboldt creates. But tracing a piece of trash from the bin under your sink to the landfill has a lot of variables. First there are your haulers. A host of curbside pickup companies serve the county, depending on where you live. Or you might bring your trash to transfer stations in Eureka, Southern Humboldt or McKinleyville.
The vast majority of Humboldt's trash is processed by the Humboldt Waste Management Authority, a joint powers authority made up of representatives from the county, Eureka, Arcata, Ferndale, Rio Dell and Blue Lake. Eel River Disposal in Fortuna and Humboldt Sanitation in McKinleyville also operate transfer stations and curbside routes. Some of the garbage those companies collect is processed by HWMA. The graphic here reflects only data from HWMA — most of Humboldt's waste, but not all.
From HWMA's Hawthorne Transfer Station in Eureka, household, commercial and construction trash is loaded in 23-ton shipments and sent hundreds of miles north to Medford, east to Anderson or south to Suisun City, where it's buried in landfills. It's a long, costly trip with a large carbon footprint. The operation sends more than eight trucks a day, on average. By the Journal's calculations based on 2014 stats from HWMA, trucks traveled more than a million miles hauling Humboldt's waste to landfills and returning, producing more than 1,700 times the average U.S. household's annual CO2 emissions.
Humboldt does a decent job keeping trash out of the landfills, reaching a 69-percent diversion rate in 2011 — about 5 percent more than the statewide average. But more work in recycling and composting needs to be done to meet the state's mandated diversion rate of 75 percent by 2020.
In a waste characterization study released in 2012, HWMA reported that more than half of the waste the agency processes could be diverted through recycling or composting.