By Kelly Dunleavy, Ross Valley Reporter, Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Interesting quotes detailed below: “A landfill is a dead end.” and “We can talk about zero-waste until hell freezes over, but you still have to deal with this,” pointing to the giant mound of garbage accumulated daily at the MSS facility.

Every day 1,000 tons of garbage is deposited at the Redwood Landfill in north Novato. According to Redwood Landfill’s District Manager Jessica Jones, the landfill will be filled to its current capacity ” 26 million cubic yards ” by 2025. Though it is only filled to 17 million cubic yards right now, the rate of disposal has skyrocketed since the landfill was founded in 1958, said Jones. Marin County generates the most garbage per capita of any county in the country, she said.

“We’re not closing the loop,” said Jones. With recycling, reusing and rotting (composting), many people believe that garbage can be returned to the earth or to its simplest form to become something else. “A landfill is a dead end.”

The Marin County Solid and Hazardous Waste Joint Powers Agency (JPA) adopted goals to divert 80 percent of the waste from the landfill by 2012 and to be at zero-waste by 2025, when the landfill becomes obsolete.

The JPA’s task force hired a consultant for $100,000 from R3 Consulting, a management consultant company for solid waste and water/wastewater utilities, to conduct a feasibility study on zero-waste goals. The study, released in draft form in May, argues that a variety of programs can and should be implemented at the member agency level ” the towns and the county. The county and the individual towns in Marin can support waste-reduction policies at the state level, adopt local construction and demolition ordinances to salvage and resell building material, and work with the garbage haulers to provide unlimited recycling and green waste, to compost or divert from the landfill green material and to add food waste to composting and diversion efforts. The JPA has no direct ability to implement these programs, but can encourage consumer education and coordinate efforts between the towns and the service providers.

“Ultimately, many of the programs have to be adopted at the local level,” said Richard Tagore-Erwin, the lead consultant on the project.

Fairfax, which adopted a goal of getting to zero-waste by 2020, is currently renegotiating its contract with Marin Sanitary Services (MSS) and hopes to include incentives for moving toward that goal.

“I want to encourage waste reduction through the agreement,” said Fairfax Councilman Larry Bragman.

The JPA report has been a long time coming. Bruce Baum, who sat on the Zero Waste Citizens Advisory Committee for the JPA, said the committee wrote a similar report in 2002, but that implementation has come up against roadblocks from towns, garbage haulers and residents. Baum argues that Sonoma County has had an extensive composting program for food and green waste for all residents for years and that San Francisco has widespread recycling and composting programs. “Yet Marin’s doing nothing,” said Baum.

Recycling and composting are the two most frequently discussed and most common diversion methods.

Curbside recycling, in which consumers sort their recyclable materials into paper and plastics, has long been in place. MSS, which serves central San Rafael, the Twin Cities and Ross Valley, collects recycling cans with garbage cans once a week. At MSS’ recycling and recovery center in San Rafael, the recycling is sorted by type of material, type of plastic ” plastics are numbered 1 through 7, by type and by color.

MSS then ships the different bales of plastic to China, said MSS Chairman Joe Garbarino, where a plastics company uses human labor to sort through the piles again. The best plastics are then melted down and made into new plastic materials and objects. Labor in the U.S. is too expensive, said Garbarino, to make such a process cost-effective domestically. “The plastics market has always been in China and India,” he said.

“Maybe China’s offering the best price,” said Frank Cvetovac of the Lodi-based Epic Plastics, which buys recycled plastics and processes them into different forms of plastic building boards. Epic Plastics has talked to MSS in the past about buying their plastics, but has failed to reach any agreement.

MSS also sells bales of recycled paper products ” 8 to 10 tons a week ” to Smurfit Paper Company in Oakland, which reprocesses them. At the recovery and recycling center, there are also bales of carpet and foam to be recycled, areas for glass and metal, and a newly implemented construction and demolition recycling site.

Construction and demolition materials were previously being sent directly to the landfill. When the Hamilton Air Force base in Novato was shut down, said Baum, all that concrete ended up in the landfill.

MSS now has a facility on its property in San Rafael where Sheetrock and concrete are ground up and turned into a kind of concrete gravel, which can be used for road base. Dirt and rocks are also ground at the facility into fine topsoil, which is sold to American Soil Products and has been used at the parks in Ross and donated for the baseball fields at Davidson Middle School. Redwood Landfill also hopes to build a construction and demolition recycling facility.

With many environmental advocates pointing to San Francisco’s recent ordinance expanding recycling and making composting mandatory, questions about where the plastics, glass and paper go after the consumer recycles them have surfaced.

“That’s one of the things I appreciate about MSS, they don’t pretend that things are recyclable when they aren’t,” said Fairfax Councilman Lew Tremaine.

Composting is the next big step for many waste-reduction advocates, because up to 40 percent of what goes to the landfill, said Baum, is organic waste.

Though residential yard waste is collected, currently there is no program in Marin for residents’ food waste to be collected and composted.

According to Garbarino, there isn’t even enough composting capacity for yard waste in Marin. Composting requires expensive machinery to aerate and turn the compost and, at Redwood Landfill, a $1 million lined asphalt pad as a base layer. Because outdoor composting can emit methane gas, there are growing concerns about the environmental and greenhouse gas implications of large composting operations, which has led to a cracking down on the number of permits available for composting facilities.

Redwood Landfill currently has a permit for up to 170 tons of composting a day, but only takes in around 60 tons of yard waste a day. Mill Valley Refuse and Novato Disposal take their yard waste to Redwood. MSS takes its yard waste to a different composting facility in Napa. Each garbage hauler is only allowed a limited amount of dumping at Redwood per individual permit.

“There is more composting capacity at Redwood,” said Jones, arguing that if there were a need, Redwood could build out more space to fill its permit allowance.

MSS recently bought a 100-acre composting facility in Zamora, in Yolo County, with three other garbage haulers. The facility came with a previous composting permit and a network of buyers for the compost. Three trucks of yard waste are shipped to Zamora every night to make “rich, beautiful compost material,” said Garbarino.

The purchase of the land, said Bragman, “is a pretty solid demonstration of their commitment and sincerity.”

MSS hopes to be able to start a program for residents to throw their food waste in with their yard waste, so it can compost together. “I’m hopeful we’re going to get that, just because it makes so much sense,” said Garbarino.

The program is contingent upon Redwood Landfill being able to take the food and yard waste to compost. The landfill, which is allowed up to 30 tons of food waste in its composting permit, is in the process of demonstrating to its compliance agency that it can mix the food waste with the green waste. Once it is able to get the go-ahead from the compliance agency, it can spread the word to the garbage haulers, which can pass along the program to consumers.

However, to complicate matters, said Jones, Redwood Landfill is currently being sued over the environmental impact report on its new permit. The new permit asked for, along with the ability to compost food waste, an expansion in the volume of waste allowed at the landfill. Jones said that expansion wouldn’t change the area of the landfill, but would change the shape of the garbage volume, which is currently in a pyramid shape and would, under the new permit, become more square shaped.

Baum, who is also co-chair of the No Wetlands Landfill Expansion organization, argues that the lawsuit, which is concerned about the environmental impact of the expansion on nearby wetlands, does not hold up the composting process in any way.

“There’s a lot of spin going on from the waste industry,” said Baum.

Redwood Landfill came under attack in the past for using yard waste as the alternate daily cover at the landfill, which is permitted as recycling under state law. The landfill no longer follows this practice.

A recent proposal from MSS and the Central Marin Sanitation Agency (CMSA), which provides wastewater treatment services for San Rafael, the Twin Cities and Ross Valley, to use commercial food waste to generate energy at CMSA has also come under some attack.

“It’s not the highest and best use of food waste,” said Baum, who pointed out that the program is limited to commercial food waste and goes to only one vendor. Baum called the program “greenwashing.” Whitney Merchant of Sustainable San Anselmo also raised concerns at a presentation of the program that the compost, which is created by mixing treated wastewater with food waste, would not be high-quality compost and would have traces of pharmaceuticals from the wastewater.

Both Baum and Merchant point to new technologies to more effectively compost.

Pacific BioGas has a proposal to create an anaerobic digestion composting facility in Marin. The facility would digest food waste and green waste into compost and take the emitted methane gas to create energy, which it hopes to sell to Marin Clean Energy.

“We’ve had the technology for quite some time,” said Aaron Brown, head of Pacific BioGas. Similar facilities have been built in Europe, primarily in Germany, but not in the U.S.

Brown has had trouble finding a location in the county and obtaining the appropriate permits for the land, but has recently settled on a site in northern Marin, where he would lease 5 to 10 acres from a farm. Obtaining the food and yard waste from garbage haulers has also posed a problem. Though the Tamalpais Community Services District has committed, other haulers are “a bit cautious,” said Brown, until they see success.

There is also a process called bio-char, which is done indoors and condenses green and food waste into a chip, which can be used for composting and appears to hold the carbon in compost without emitting it into the atmosphere.

Trip Allen, in San Rafael, has been able to produce bio-char in his house and hopes to team up with a hauler to produce bio-char on a larger scale. Patty Garbarino from MSS spoke about bio-char at presentations in both San Anselmo and Fairfax.

Despite all the talk about moving toward zero-waste, though, everyone agrees that unless there is producer responsibility to stop producing products that can’t be recycled and consumer responsibility to stop producing so much garbage, the goals will be for nothing.

“We can talk about zero-waste until hell freezes over, but you still have to deal with this,” said Garbarino, pointing to the giant mound of garbage accumulated daily at the MSS facility.

Contact Kelly Dunleavy at