We’ve all been there. You’re standing in the kitchen with a compostable to-go container from your favorite restaurant. Or maybe with the compostable see-through cup you grabbed at a local juice bar. Flip the cup over, and you might see a rounded triangle of arrows pointing to one another, a logo that would seem to indicate that this cup is somehow environmentally friendly.
Do you toss the cup into the recycling bin? Or walk outside to throw it in the green yard waste container sitting in your driveway?
The answer is that you put the cup in the trash.
This compostable ware—the biodegradable cups, cutlery and to-go boxes available at local restaurants—is made from natural material, often polylactic acid (PLA), derived from plant sources, like cornstarch. Local governments require businesses to use these biodegradable products for to-go items, but because it isn’t a traditional form of plastic, PLA can’t be recycled like one. The green bins, on the other hand, are reserved only for yard trimmings.
Many local businesses participate in regional government-run composting programs for food scraps and other non-yard waste compostable material. For the time being, though, all their waste gets hauled across county lines—to Santa Clara and Monterey counties. And the services aren’t available to residents in their homes.
The whole setup doesn’t sit well with Santa Cruz resident Andrew Tuckman, the vice president of business development for Vision Recycling, a compost producer serving the Monterey and San Francisco Bay areas. Tuckman says that the composting process is best done locally. Ideally, in the end, locally made compost is readily available for community members to purchase for use in their gardens and on their farms.
“In a county such as Santa Cruz, that says ‘We’re green, we’re sustainable,’ what the hell do you have happening, other than all this feedstock being shipped out of the area?” says Tuckman, whose company handled yard waste for the county until the end of last year. “And nothing’s coming back to Santa Cruz. This should be a closed-loop cycle, and it’s not.”
Three local governments—Santa Cruz County, Capitola and the city of Santa Cruz—all require take-out materials to be compostable. The problem is that there’s usually no easy way for customers to dispose of those items in a sustainable way, at least once they leave the business where they purchased their food. Sure, one might try throwing his or her to-go cup into their own compost pile, if they have one, but a cup could take more than a year to break down there, compared to a couple months at an industrial facility.
State regulators, meanwhile, have been steadily rolling out increasingly stringent food compost requirements. The initial rules applied to businesses that create the most organic waste, like grocery stores and hotels. The second phase extended requirements to many large restaurants. The third will rein in many smaller restaurants. Starting at the beginning of this upcoming year, any business producing more than 4 cubic yards of total waste per week will have to have its food scraps, also known as organics recycling, hauled away for composting.
Santa Cruz, Capitola Watsonville, and the County all have food scrap programs, but not every business that takes part has compost bins in the front of the house for customers to throw in compostable products when they’re done with them.
In the next few years, California may require local governments to haul food scrap from local residences for composting. The road map for where Santa Cruzans will send their growing mass of compostable material is unclear.
BREAK IT DOWN
But Santa Cruz County has a good reputation when it comes to waste management, and for good reason.
The county government has received two recent awards, including one last month from the National Recycling Coalition, honoring the county for Outstanding Community/Government Program of the year.
Santa Cruz County was at the forefront of the effort to ban plastic straws, a movement that inspired Starbucks to commit to banning them by 2020. Now, the county Board of Supervisors has set its sights on eliminating single-use plastic shampoo, conditioner and lotion bottles from local hotels, motels and vacation rentals, making Santa Cruz County the first in the nation to tackle the issue.
Compost is a little more complicated, especially given the confusion about what happens to all of the compostable cups, containers and cutlery once they get to local landfills, as they do every day.
There is disagreement about what becomes of all that compostable ware, and whether or not it decomposes. A 2012 study found that once at the dump, compostable ware takes more than 100 years to break down, taking up landfill space in the process. (The county’s landfill is forecast to fill by up in 2030, and the city of Santa Cruz’s in 2056.) A more recent study found that the items break down quickly. In the process, they will release a significant amount of methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
When misinformed residents mistakenly toss compostable cups into their recycling bins, they cause additional problems. All those clear, flimsy cups often gum up the sorting process, because the machines think it’s normal plastic, says Emily Hanson, the business development and communications director for GreenWaste, which hauls waste for Capitola, Scotts Valley and the unincorporated area. At its San Jose facility, GreenWaste sorts recycling from those communities, as well as cities from around the Bay Area.
Hanson, a UCSC grad, says at the very least, it’s nice that many Santa Cruz County businesses have food scrap bins on site for customers to toss their compostable items into when they’re done with them.
“The moment, though, that you ask a consumer to get that compostable and go home, you’re back in the situation of being screwed on what container to put it in, because there’s no container you’re supposed to put it in,” she says. “You end up putting them in the garbage, and when it goes in the garbage, it off-gasses methane. It’s the worst-case scenario. So unless there’s a comprehensive food waste program in a jurisdiction, all that stuff is complicated and confusing the consumer.”
Over at the city of Santa Cruz’s landfill, Craig Pearson, superintendent of waste disposal for the city, sees it differently.
In a world where waste often ends up strewn among our natural spaces, and plastic is filling up the ocean, these compostables have merit, he says. “If it’s compostable, it’s gonna go into the river or the creek or ocean, and break down in a year or so,” he says. For that reason, he says compostable cups are better than plastic ones.
The breakdown rate of compostable items in the ocean has never been fully studied, according to a book called Management of Marine Plastic Debris, which makes it impossible to draw strong conclusions, although one report found that a biodegradable bag broke down significantly in three months. Various materials break down at different rates, depending mostly on their thickness.
Tim Goncharoff, the county’s resource planner, has heard the concerns about the environmental impact of compostable ware, and calls it “valid criticism,” one that he says he even shares himself. He knows there are still some gaps in the county’s waste management systems, and says that county officials are working to fill them as quickly as possible.
“I regret that we couldn’t make it all happen at once,” he says.
A lump of food scraps is sitting in a far corner of the Monterey Regional Waste Management District (MRWMD) facility, where Santa Cruz County sends both its food scraps and its compost.
Angela Goebel, MRWMD’s public education and outreach specialist, drove me down here from the main office in the district’s SUV. The waste here is mixed in with wood chips for mulch. “It soaks in the moisture, but you also want a certain balance of carbons and nitrogens,” Goebel says, the heels of her boots on the edge of the heap.
MRWMD mostly serves the Monterey peninsula and Watsonville, but it also gets food scraps from around the Santa Cruz area, including UCSC, Cabrillo College and a number of Santa Cruz County businesses.
Zach Falk, the program’s operations technician, says that compost that comes in from the county is usually very clean, especially from UCSC. In Monterey County, leaders have expanded food compost collection beyond local businesses by putting yellow bins at farmers markets where locals can drop off scraps.
From the mulch pile, the composting pile goes into one of four anaerobic digestive modules, where it decomposes for another two or three weeks. Above the digester, a circus-like tent collects methane, which the facility converts into enough electricity to power 30 homes an hour.
When I visit, the garage-like door of one of the modules is open, with plumes of steam wafting out. The waste is ready to get loaded to nearby giant windrows, where the composting process is finished.
The overwhelming amount of what comes through the composting program is truly biodegradable, with a low contamination rate of around 5 percent. The most common contaminants are plastic garbage bags.
When it comes to local restaurants, Goebel, who lives in Aptos, says a business that doesn’t have compost bins in the front of the house often has lower contamination rates than the ones that do have them—something she can understand. It can be tricky for everyday customers to keep track of what goes in which bin, and she says some of her co-workers sometimes get confused at work in the facility offices.
At the regional level, the clock is ticking for local leaders to expand their food-scrap composting programs.
California is getting ready to announce new rules, and they could include a food scrap pick-up requirement for local governments at all single-family homes by 2020.
The city of Santa Cruz has plans to start a new composting program of its own. Equipment for “pre-processing” at the city’s Dimeo Lane facility will handle the the initial phase, before workers transport the waste to an anaerobic digester at Santa Cruz’s Wastewater Treatment Facility, says Janice Bisgaard, a spokesperson for the Public Works Department, in order to accommodate food waste from local businesses.
Outside the city, solutions are a little murkier. They may involve the county’s other local governments partnering together.
Goncharoff says the county hopes to create a composting facility at or around its Buena Vista Landfill. He’s counted seven state and federal agencies that would have to sign off, including the California Coastal Commission and the Federal Aviation Administration. (The operation would be about a mile and a half from the Watsonville Airport and, without needed mitigations, might impact the flight paths of migrating birds.) The new composting program would also be subject to the California Environmental Quality Act, and during the review, any opponents could use environmental laws to undermine the potential project, regardless of its environmental benefits.
If a local site doesn’t work out, the county might be able to partner with the MRWMD or with GreenWaste—both of which plan to expand operations—if they can reach an agreement, and if one of the agencies has enough capacity. Goncharoff says that it would be more environmentally sustainable to keep the facility in the county. No matter what path local leaders choose, the county would likely have to raise garbage rates to cover the cost.
These issues aren’t unique to Santa Cruz. Hanson says she’s heard that California has a major shortage of composting facilities—assuming the state is serious about its organics recycling goals—with a deficit of more than 100 programs statewide.
As Goebel drives me back to MRWMD’s main parking lot, we talk about recycling’s bigger picture, and I fill her in on Santa Cruz County’s struggles to sort out the best site for composting and the challenges that lie ahead.
Goebel, who’s worked in resource recovery for nine years, isn’t surprised.
“What you’re probably finding,” she says, “is that it’s a very political industry.”
Update: Dec. 12, 2018 – A previous version of this story misreported the details of the city of Santa Cruz’s composting plans.