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Will Santa Cruz County Ever Get to Zero Waste?

The amount of trash we send to the landfill is actually going up

Plastic waste piles up at a manmade landfill island in the Maldives. Recycling experts say manufacturers must step up to curb waste output.

[This is the third and final story in a series on recycling and waste reduction in Santa Cruz County. — Editor]

Until the end of November, Ivy Young managed Santa Cruz’s only regional composting program for residents.

Customers of the Santa Cruz Community Compost Co. would scrape food scraps off their plates and cutting boards into a bucket every night. And for $5 a week, Young would show up on a bike to collect whatever leftovers were ready to get turned into worm food.

“I had not built a business model. I was just winging it,” says Young, a single mom who launched the environmentally friendly business in 2014. But it was far from her only priority. She always had at least two other jobs to support herself. “I was just trying to make something happen.”

Trouble struck when Young broke her wrist in a cycling accident on the job. For three months she kept on biking, but once it became clear that she could do her arm permanent damage, she went in for surgery. Doctors put a cast on her wrist, and she sent out an email to her subscribers explaining that Santa Cruz Community Compost would unfortunately be shutting down.

Soon, hundreds of frenetic emails began piling up in Young’s inbox—emails she has been meaning to respond to. She didn’t want customer service to suffer while she recovered, so she “decided to make a clean break of it for now.”

At the company’s peak, Young had only a couple of employees helping out with cycling and food scrap collections. The operation, which stretched from the Westside of Santa Cruz to Capitola, had started growing more quickly, and she was having an increasingly difficult time managing the explosion in interest. Just keeping up with the work of turning her enormous compost pile at the Homeless Garden Project—which she did herself—was proving more and more daunting all the time.

Young is thinking about re-launching the effort as a nonprofit, or possibly even partnering with the city of Santa Cruz on a similar effort in the future. Her customers are having a difficult time putting their food scraps back in the trash, she explains, and they have started brainstorming other solutions. “There’s all that momentum we built,” Young says.

One thing customers really loved was getting back a pound of compost for every four pounds of waste collected. “They liked participating in the full circle of it,” Young says.

By the end, Santa Cruz Community Compost Co. was serving more than 500 households and collecting 17,000 pounds of organic waste per month, she says. Before the sudden closure, the business was just about to hit the 500,000-pound mark.

HERO TO ZERO

Local activists and government officials sometimes throw around the term “zero waste,” a buzzword for the goal of eliminating trash dumped into landfills. A clear path for how or when this can be achieved, though, has yet to materialize. Even though the county adopted a Zero Waste Plan in 2015, it isn’t even clear at this point if we are headed in the right direction.

State regulators track the amount of trash sent to landfills in every local jurisdiction across the state, including Capitola, Scotts Valley and Watsonville, as well as in both the city and the county of Santa Cruz. Between 2013 and 2017, the per capita trash headed for local landfills has trended up slightly in the city of Santa Cruz, the county and in Scotts Valley, according to the website for CalRecycle, which oversees the state’s waste management strategies. Disposal rates in Watsonville and Capitola, however, have stayed more or less the same during that span. The county’s unincorporated areas average the lowest rates for waste disposal.

Despite the backslide, each local government is still meeting its state-mandated goals for waste disposal, which are tied to how many tons each locale was sending to the landfill 15 years ago. Additionally, the county and all four local cities are consistently well below the state averages for per capita pounds of garbage, which also started trending upward again in 2013.

Tim Goncharoff, a resource planner for the county, says that it’s typical for the amount of garbage headed to the landfill to increase during an economic recovery. And the increase in online ordering services, like Amazon, has shoppers sending more wasteful packaging to the dump than ever, he adds. Many future waste-reduction breakthroughs, Goncharoff says, will depend on increased stewardship from manufacturers. “The basic idea is that companies that produce products should have some responsibility for what happens to them at end of life,” he says.

Even while garbage at dumps piles up faster, California regulators are scrambling to implement ambitious new rules designed to attain carbon-reduction goals laid out by state law. A CalRecycle report released last month began laying out a framework to double the collection of organics recycling over the next six years. But the changes will pose new costs to the state’s families, businesses and local governments. More formal rules will come out next year, and CalRecycle is still in the comment phase. The League of California Counties has already started pushing back with concerns about cost and implementation.

USE TO KNOW

Here in Santa Cruz County, local communities are not exactly in the dark ages of waste management.

The county’s groundbreaking ban on single-use bottles for personal care products at hotels will go into effect in two years. Emily Hanson, GreenWaste’s business development director, tells GT that Santa Cruz County’s recycling always comes in very clean, compared to other communities around the Bay Area. And Craig Pearson, Santa Cruz’s superintendent of waste disposal, says that recyclers who buy the material from his facility always compliment him on how immaculate the product is.

Nonetheless, Pearson isn’t optimistic that zero waste is a realistic goal—at least not immediately.

The idea would be impossible, Pearson explains, in a world where the very companies that make cheap packaging and profit off of the current system are paying off the politicians who would need to step in and introduce new regulations or ban certain items. Even to pass local Santa Cruz ordinances banning controversial materials like polystyrene, he remembers the overwhelming pushback from the manufacturing industry.

But then, Pearson looks up toward the sky. He pauses to think. Actually, he says, he’s “super confident that we can get to zero waste.”

“Tomorrow? No. But I think we will,” he says.

To explain the change of heart, Pearson recalls when he first started working in curbside recycling in the city of Capitola. Lots of locals told him that they had been putting their aluminum cans in the trash their whole lives, and that they would never stop.

In the 29 years since, he’s watched attitudes change dramatically.

“So what’s it gonna be in 29 more years?” Pearson asks. “I’m gonna be recycling, and the kids are gonna be saying, ‘Hey wait a second, we don’t even buy that stuff anymore. This is what we use, and we reuse it over and over and over again.’ So hey, maybe I am optimistic, if I think about it that way.”

News Editor at |

Jacob, the news editor at Good Times, won the 2014 award for best local government coverage from the California Newspaper Publishers Association. A longtime basketball and football fanatic, Jacob has evolved into a shameless fair weather fan and band wagoner for hot West Coast sports teams. He also enjoys arguing with others about where to find the best burrito in town.

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