I guess I am not your average tourist. Most people would not be excited about visiting a landfill, even a state-of-the-art facility like Santa Barbara County’s Tajiguas Landfill and Resource Center in mid-coast California.
Here is what makes this facility interesting: All recyclables are hand-sorted. All trash goes through a size-reducing machine and is screened to sort material into different sized streams. Organic material, which tends to be heavier, falls through a special screen and goes to an anaerobic digester where it is processed into compost and energy. Forced air blows out paper and fiber products, magnetic drums pull out metals. The separated recycled commodities are baled and sold. Over 60% of the trash is reclaimed in this manner. The remainder goes to the landfill, where it is buried.
Carlyle Johnston, project leader at the facility, explains. “Food makes up 25% of the waste in our garbage. Other items like wood, paper products and plant-based fabrics add as much as 40%.” That is a lot of waste, and it generates a lot of greenhouse emission, particularly methane, which we know is a highly potent greenhouse gas.
All of the organic trash goes to the digester and is converted into compost and (biogas) methane and CO2. This anaerobic digester breaks down the organic material without oxygen. All biogas is sucked up in the process, captured and distributed back to the Southern California Edison energy grid.
California’s laws require communities to recover at least 75% of their waste stream. This facility recovers 85%.
The Resource Center is powered by the energy it processes and solar. It reduces emissions equivalent to taking 28,000 cars off the road, makes enough power for 3,000 homes and created 100 green jobs.
By the end of the year there will be 25 similar digesters in California, and there are thousands throughout Europe. Food and yard waste can cause some 20% of all methane emissions and are half of the contents of landfills. That is why California passed laws to require excess food and organics are collected and processed into compost and biogas. Vermont now bans food scraps from trash.
Rachel Wagoner, the Director of the California Department of Resource Recycling and Recovery (Calrecycle) says “this is the biggest change to trash since recycling started.” She stresses, “recycling food waste is the single easiest and fastest thing that every single person can do to affect climate change.” In many communities in California you can now just toss it in the green food waste bin, but in areas where there are digesters like in Santa Barbara it will be done for you. Edible food is donated to food banks. Restaurants, grocery stores and schools can have food scraps collected and processed at the Resource Center. In Vermont you can either make your own compost, have your food waste picked up curbside, or drop it at a facility.
CalRecycle estimates about 5.5 million more tons of compost should be produced in California by 2025 – enough to apply to an extra 27 million acres or up to 4% of the total cropland in the state.
New Mexico has about a 20th of the population of California. Scaling to our population, if we could harvest our food waste and organics and generate compost for wide-scale application to our depleted soils, it would make an enormous difference. Our soils naturally would be enriched and also retain more water and carbon. If my math is right, if we composted all our food waste, that might yield something in the neighborhood of a million tons of compost a year. Consider New Mexico has some 50 million acres of non-federal rural land, but only 4% is cropland. In a few years we could restore and enrich a lot of our cropland, reduce emissions and food waste, sequester tons of carbon and move toward regenerative agriculture.
Waste management is generally a local or regional responsibility. But since these methods do work, our governor and Legislature should look into enacting new food waste legislation and develop incentives based upon those that have been tested in Vermont and California to encourage this transition.