August 20, 2008 | General

California Gets Aggressive On Organics And Climate Change

BioCycle August 2008, Vol. 49, No. 8, p. 22
Getting organics out of landfills is critical. Connecting that mission with greenhouse gas emissions will make that happen.
Margo Reid Brown

THE ENVIRONMENTAL outlook is bright throughout California, and we’re doing everything we can to keep the momentum going forward. A huge part of this is going to be how we leverage the progress made thus far, and employ the credibility from that success to build more support behind the organics-related solutions we’ve always known to be a tremendous public benefit.
With climate change now firmly in partnership with the goal of sustainability, we’ve seen old solutions in a new light. An example is the waste diversion mandate of the California Integrated Waste Management Board (the Board), and the achievement of 54 percent diversion statewide. In the law enacted 18 years ago to launch California’s waste management revolution, nowhere will you find the terms “greenhouse gas” or “global warming.” And yet, with unsparing clarity, we see that more sensible handling of waste has a consequential impact on climate change.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the management of organic materials – which presents both an imposing challenge, and a most promising opportunity. In California, compostable organics are the largest part of the waste stream – about a third. The methane they generate in landfills has a heat trapping effect 23 times greater than CO2. And at the same time, those organics offer almost unlimited potential for secondary applications and methods to preserve our natural resources.
As the editorial in the March 2008 issue of BioCycle proclaims: “Organics Matter.” I’m very excited about the launch of the COOL 2012 Initiative (see “COOL 2012 Launch At BioCycle West Coast Conference,” March 2008). Getting organics out of our landfills is so important, and making the connection with greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is going to help us make that happen.
For the Board, we know the powerhouse impact of progressive and leading edge policies on organics management. It’s central to our mission today. I would argue that trying to build a more sustainable, carbon-neutral society without an aggressive approach to organics, would be like trying to get from one place to another by walking on a treadmill.
The California Global Warming Solutions Act sets historic GHG reduction requirements by 2020 and 2050. The Board’s waste diversion mandate – 50 percent by 2000 – has already delivered a reduction of three million tons CO2 equivalent.
One of our two remaining mandates – higher recycling strategies – will allow us to double that reduction or more. Of course, we’re heavily dependent upon the degree of success in organics management, and that is why it’s our number one targeted material. In recent years, we’ve done a pretty good job of bringing the program along. We’ve funded projects to demonstrate the benefits of compost, provided seed money to give start-ups a leg-up, been largely successful in building supply-side markets, fostered some resilient public-private partnerships, and more.
But as I mentioned, for all the progress we’ve made, compostable organics is still a third – nearly 15 million tons – of what we’re still landfilling every year. That’s unacceptable under any circumstance – not just because it’s disposal, but because of the lost opportunity. There’s too much unfulfilled promise in composting; too much untapped potential in technology applications; too many green collar jobs yet to be created – because of the millions of tons of organics still disposed. So wasteful. So unnecessary.
We decided to ramp up our efforts at the Board, and developed the Organics Roadmap To 2020 – fully vested as a Strategic Directive of our organization. We want our effort on organics, and more importantly the outcomes, to be a defining feature in whether our Board is deemed a successful or unsuccessful enterprise. And why not? By one estimate, a 15 percent reduction in disposal of food waste, lumber and common curbside recyclables, could deliver a reduction of more than 11 million tons of CO2 equivalent – which is like taking three million cars off the road. So as a first order of business with our Organics Roadmap, we established a strategic directive to reduce the amount of organics in the waste stream by 50 percent by 2020.
The Global Warming Solutions Act signed by Governor Schwarzenegger sent a very clear message: It is not enough to talk about the problem, to question the nature of the threat, to take a wait-and-see approach or fiddle around the edges. We have to set clear, numerical goals – and marshal policy, partnerships and ingenuity to get there. That’s what we need for organics.
There’s too much opportunity, and too many obstructions, to take a wait-and-see approach. We have to be aggressive. If we want to go as far as we can – we have to push as hard as we can.
We began last year with an Organics Summit to bring together our stakeholders to inform our efforts. Our focus was on compostable organics and the opportunities to increase compost and develop related markets. The input we received put a good deal of substance behind the Organics Roadmap. As we continue to move forward, I hope you will look at the Roadmap on our Board’s website. We welcome your feedback.
The roadmap also brings with it a culture of exploration, which I imagine one might consider the polar opposite of bureaucracy – the one thing we never want to be called at the Board. Instead of just regulating and promulgating from on high, we’ve empowered ourselves and our staff to get smarter and more curious, to seek all the opportunities out there, where markets can be expanded and new possibilities can be discovered. That includes, for instance, new compost management techniques to cut air emissions, and alternative technologies that can convert organic materials into renewable energy and fuels.
We’re also working with other agencies like the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), to show the effectiveness of compost applications for erosion control, vegetation establishment, and filtration of storm water runoff. We’re examining how we can identify and tear down barriers to siting new composting facilities, to allow for greater expansion of this valuable market.
And something else we’re working on that’s very important in a practical sense right now, is our engagement with local air districts on proposed rules to reduce VOC emissions from composting. A recent draft Rule for green waste composting in the San Joaquin Valley Air District could have a destructive impact on the composting industry, and on jurisdiction diversion rates. We’re going to continue working hard to effect changes in this Rule so we can protect both the environment and a composting industry that is at once vibrant and vulnerable.
There’s a lot of moving parts right now as we look ahead to some of the key issues facing us: The use of green waste as daily cover at landfills is a matter that needs immediate attention. Last month we held a workshop to address this with stakeholders, and we established a working group to develop policy options for our Board to consider. These options include local jurisdiction, reuse and purchase policies.
We also recognize that while we’ve made considerable progress in supply-side market development, we need to do more on the demand side. I happen to think even after all this time, there’s still some low-hanging fruit available to us – for instance, by working with Caltrans to increase their use of compost and mulch in roadside applications. Leveraging the magnitude and purchasing power of the public sector is a healthy way to promote expansion of markets for these materials – especially in regions where markets haven’t matured.
We need to foster new technology applications, and along with this, a more aggressive look at research to ensure we mate good science and good policy. In the near term, we’ll be researching and attempting to quantify the benefits of compost and mulch for expanded uses. And of course our work in support of developing and refining Best Management Practices will continue with vigor.
We also need to facedown the challenges of expanding the organics infrastructure to meet our growing needs, particularly the difficulties in siting composting facilities, which incredibly, are now as difficult to site as landfills. For those of us who know composting operations are a true public benefit, this is very frustrating. Part of the answer to dealing with the siting problem, and really many of the challenges we face moving forward, is again, continuing to illuminate the unmistakable, unimpeachable link between organics and climate change. Global warming is our current day Garbage Barge. And in the battle against global warming, the action we take on organics will say a great deal about whether we are masters, or servants, of our future.
We know the roots of progress are planted, not hatched in the halls of government. We know it’s in the experience of enlightened businesses, project operators, researchers, and grassroots activists, that we see the discovery of ideas and the acceleration of momentum and where sustainability is given a voice, a purpose and a fighting chance.
It only remains for us to put these assets into action – action that delivers lasting benefits for our society and all living systems.
Margo Reid Brown is Chair of the California Integrated Waste Management Board. This article is based on her keynote address at the BioCycle West Coast Conference.

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