Returning organic materials to soils drastically reduces the environmental impacts of landfills, reduces greenhouse gases, creates jobs, and helps sustain California's agricultural industry.
Despite California's robust recycling infrastructure for traditional recyclables, the state continues to landfill organic materials, such as yard trimmings and food scraps, at an alarming rate. In fact, food is the most prevalent item in our waste stream and a third of the material going to landfills is readily compostable
It doesn't have to be this way. With strong policy leadership and a shift away from laws that incentivize the landfilling of this valuable material, California can become a leader in the recycling of organics.
Why Recycle Food Scraps and Yard Trimmings?
- Build Healthy Soils. As any home gardener can tell you, compost improves soil structure and texture, while allowing the soil to hold more moisture and prevent erosion. The organic materials provided in compost also stimulate healthy root development in plants and keeps the soil itself healthy through microorganisms prevalent in compost.
In addition, agricultural production uses the valuable nutrients in soils to grow crops, which are then transported to urban areas for sale. This creates an ongoing carbon deficit, with more and more natural carbon leaving the agricultural areas and ending up buried in landfills. Composting can help return this valuable material to the soil.
- Cut Greenhouse Gases. When landfilled, organic materials break rot in anaerobic conditions and release methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. If all of California's food scraps were recycled,our landfill emissions would be cut by more than 3 million tons of CO2/year. In addition to the GHG benefit of avoided landfill emissions, the state Air Resources Board estimates that, when applied, the compost made from this food will reduce green house gases by an additional 3.3 million tons per year because of increased carbon storage and decreased water use, soil erosion and fertilizer application. Learn more.
- Create Jobs. Ton for ton, composting generates 4 times more jobs than landfilling. It simply take much more effort to make a quality soil amendment than to bury rotting food in a giant hole.
- Reduce Landill Pollution. In addition to greenhouse gases, landfills are also a significant source of water pollution and air emissions. Given that most of the other materials being landfilled are inert, this pollution comes mostly from the organic materials that are breaking down in the landfill.
- Improve Air Quality. A recent study by San Diego State University found that composting reduces naturally occuring VOC emissions by over 90%. When natural materials break down they release VOC emissions, but those same emissions in a compost pile get filtered through the compost before being emitted. This creates a natural "biofilter," similar to those used to control emissions at industrial facilities.
- Make Biofuels and Renewable Energy. Similar to composting, anaerobic digestion is a technology that breaks down organic materials inside an enclosed vessel. This process produces methane, which is captured and turned into renewable energy or low-carbon vehicle fuel, and the remaining organic residuals make a great soil amendment. While this technology is widespread around the world, California is just beggining to develop large facilities that rely on it.
In order to turn the tide on California's lackluster organics recycling efforts, CAW is proposing a bold plan to get yard trimmings and food scraps out of landfills.
- Set an ambitious target for the state to thrive for, like the targets established in AB 341 and AB 32.
- Get rid of disincentives for recycling organics, such as a state law that virtually subsdizes the use of this material as landfill cover.
- Require businesses that generate a lot of food scraps or yard debris to sign up for seperate collection.
- Obligate local governments to plan for organics recycling capacity the way they plan for disposal capacity.
- Create an infrastructure of locations where the public can take yard trimmings they generate.
(Picture courtesy of StopWaste.org)