Aug 18 - 75 Percent Recycling: New Committee Looks at How California Will Reach Its Ambitious Goal

The California Assembly’s new Select Committee on Waste Reduction and Recycling in 21st Century California examined promising new solutions to the state’s environmental challenges at the first in a series of informational hearings. (Watch the entire hearing at CalChannel)

“The goal of this select committee is to help the legislature understand what must be done to meet the 75 percent reduction goal,” said the Committee’s chair, Assembly Member Rich Gordon (D-Menlo Park).

California has one of the nation’s most ambitious recycling goals in the nation thanks to legislation sponsored by Californians Against Waste. In 2014, the legislature and Governor Jerry Brown approved AB 341 (Chesbro), creating a new statewide goal of achieving a 75 percent recycling rate by 2020.

This week’s hearing featured state agency officials, environmental advocates and recycling industry representatives, as well as dozens of concerned citizens, lobbyists and non-profit representatives making their voices heard during public comment.

“What we have now is a 75 percent recycling goal that is aligned with the greenhouse gas reduction goals of this legislature and the administration and the short-lived climate pollutant goals,” said Scott Smithline, Director of CalRecycle. “It’s aligned with renewable energy and renewable fuel goals. It’s aligned with healthy agricultural soils, and it’s aligned green jobs and in-state manufacturing.”

John Wick, a California rancher, presented to the committee ways that these goals are able to support each other economically and environmentally. As part of the Marin Carbon Project, Wick has helped demonstrate that organic waste, which currently makes up a third of all landfilled material and creates potent greenhouse gases, can instead be composted and then applied to soil to help it actually absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

“After that initial half-inch application of compost, without any further compost the next year, the next year, and five years, every year, more carbon came into the soil photosynthetically on its own,” Wick explained. “Now it became quickly clear to us that compost was the actionable item here. And how do we get more compost?”

“We’re talking about over a hundred new facilities that process organics that need to be funded and sited and go through CEQA and local land use planning, etc.,” Smithline said about statewide composting capacity. However, Smithline explained that, “If we cut our waste in half, we cut our revenue in half. Our department does not receive any general funds. Our operations are funded exclusively through tipping fees at disposal facilities.”

“There really is an opportunity to jumpstart what we need to do with organics with investments,” explained Mark Murray, Executive Director of Californians Against Waste. “It’s going to take literally a billion dollars over the next ten years and we think, with the proposal that CalRecycle has put forward, and that Assembly Member [Das] Williams is authoring, that the way of achieving that would be a partnership between a tipping fee increase and cap-and-trade money. So those are the two items that are on the table in the next two to three weeks for the legislature to adopt.”

Californians Against Waste is currently sponsoring AB 1063 (Williams) to raise the tipping fee to support investments in composting and recycling, as well as AB 199 (Eggman) to provide a sales tax exemption on equipment that composts or recycles, or uses composted or recycled materials. Californians Against Waste is also working with environmental advocates across the state to lobby for more state funding for composting and recycling. In addition, Californians Against Waste’s AB 1826 (Chesbro) takes effect next year and will require restaurants, grocery stores and other commercial generators of organic waste to provide for composting.

“In an oxygen deprived environment, we’re getting methane coming out of our landfills and going into the atmosphere,” Murray explained. “Not only can we cease that emission, by diverting that organic fraction from landfill, but we can actually utilize it as the magic ingredient for turning our soil back into the carbon sinks that we need them to be.”

“Here in Sacramento we have a really exciting food waste diversion project; it would be nice to have those all across California,” said Assembly Member Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), who is authoring AB 876, legislation requiring local governments to plan for composting.

Assembly Member Brian Dahle (R-Bieber) expressed concern that compost’s ability to increase soil water retention would not be adequately measured and recognized as having helped a drought-stricken California. “There’s no revenue source there, but you are enhancing water quality and quantity of water in your process, correct?”

“That same water, had it landed on dry dirt, would have evaporated and been a lost opportunity. We have installed, in all of our research plots, water detectors or water instruments, so we know the actually amount of water held in the soil in a plant available form,” Wick responded. “[There is] 28 million acre-feet of water for the entire state if we were to increase the organic matter in soils in the rangeland systems.”

Unlike organic material, California’s plastic, glass and paper have export markets for recycling. However, Smithline said that, “There’s no reason California shouldn’t be reaping the rewards of having generated all that material and manufacturing products here within our own state and reaping those economic and environmental benefits.”

“Manufacturing and processing capabilities and investment in those areas will draw the industry and create a more sustainable industry in which we operate,” explained Rod Rougelot, President of RePlanet. “We saw California, years ago, as an opportunity for us, given the program on collecting the containers, the vision that was here in the state around infrastructure and development, as an opportunity for us to establish a vertically integrated company direct from the consumer all the way through distribution, utilizing aluminum cans and plastic bottles and putting them back into the system. We’re achieving this today; we would like to achieve more.”

“The number one issue that we face today is the break down in commodity prices,” Rougelot said. “The uncertainty around world oil prices, the Chinese economy, and the things that they’re doing with their production and export of commodities, has dramatically influenced us and it has put not only us, but the reclaimers and the manufacturers, in a very, very difficult position.”

“We’re going to need to make more of an investment in the processing and manufacturing of these containers,” Murray said. “We have an opportunity to expand the scope of this program to create an even playing field so all beverages that are delivered to California consumers are all sharing in the responsibility, the financial responsibility and the incentives, for getting those containers recycled.”

Californians Against Waste has introduced two bills this year to help California’s recycling industry weather low commodity prices that undercut the ability of California recyclers to sell their materials to in-state manufacturers.

Assembly Member Gordon said that the Select Committee will continue to examine in-state recycling and manufacturing as part of a diverse set of solutions and benefits involved with meeting the state’s 75 percent recycling rate.

“At future hearings, we will explore options to increase recycling, including the role of organics and food waste, hazardous waste, producer responsibility and the reuse of recycled materials,” Assembly Member Gordon said. “We will explore infrastructure needs, and the potential for job creation. I invite the members of the committee, the stakeholders and the public to provide input to this select committee so that we can fully vet the issues that need to be considered in moving California to a more sustainable future.”