Grand jury calls for regional composting agency
Bonnie Linden’s house in Capitola is nestled by fruit trees and outfitted with a set of rain-catchment containers, a greywater system and bee boxes. Out front is a large box for free book exchanges and out back, in the corner of her garden, a compost bin. It’s that compost bin—and her commitment to putting all biodegradable scraps into it—that’s become a cornerstone of Linden’s new stand on trash.
At a time when the state is mandating garbage haulers and municipal governments to move toward zero waste, Linden has become an example in her pursuit of an elusive goal: she produces virtually no garbage.
And, to the dismay of local politicians and the garbage hauler, she’s now stopped paying her garbage bill.
“Here’s the trash I produced the last three months,” says Linden as she carefully empties three small plastic baggies on her kitchen table. “It’s so light that sometimes it doesn’t even weigh. It’s 29 grams and that includes the plastic bags that I’m using to contain it. I wouldn’t, of course, throw those in the landfill.”
The contents are mainly dental floss and lint, two materials that can’t be recycled or composted. She takes her recyclable materials to the local nonprofit Grey Bears.
At the current rate, the county’s Buena Vista Landfill—which is shared with Scotts Valley, Capitola and Watsonville—is expected to fill up in the next 15 to 20 years. And the city has an estimated 47 to 60 years of capacity in its landfill at the Resource Recovery Facility, north of Santa Cruz off Highway 1.
According to a recent report from the Santa Cruz County Grand Jury, local governments need to work together on regional composting solutions that reduce their dependence on these two landfills.
Politics of Garbage
Linden is the Director of Reskilling Expo, which offers sustainable-living skills education, and TimeBank Santa Cruz, a skill-sharing network. She’s part of a larger “zero waste” movement of people committed to creating almost no trash, and views DIY recycling and home composting as simple and practical: “I don’t view myself as an environmentalist. I just don’t want to pay for a service I don’t need,” Linden says.
But the city of Capitola and GreenWaste, the private garbage hauler that picks up trash for the city, aren’t celebrating. “That’s garbage politics right there,” remarks Emily Finn, representative for GreenWaste. “Bonnie lives in the city of Capitola and they have a mandatory service requirement. Like any bills, it will be sent to collections for nonpayment.”
Santa Cruz County Supervisor John Leopold says Linden’s decision to refuse to pay for trash pickup is an uncommon one. Generally speaking, he worries that people who don’t get their trash picked up would end up dumping it illegally.
“What Bonnie is doing is fairly unique. We don’t have a lot of people generating no trash,” explains John Leopold, who represents the First District. “We have [garbage service] exemptions for people who are going on vacation longer than 30 days, people who have their trash picked up by another hauler or someone who has an account with the landfill.”
Linden, who has been practicing zero waste for more than four years, says GreenWaste used to let her put her account on vacation hold for about 10 months of the year, and she would use the service periodically for tree prunings. These days she has a sharing agreement with her neighbors, who bring kitchen scraps to her garden, and she, in turn, puts trash in their garbage bins.
Linden argues that an opt-out exemption for zero waste practitioners and the poor would be fair and would provide financial incentive for others to follow down the path of zero waste. Tim Brattan, Executive Director of Grey Bears, agrees.
“The only way to have people pay attention to what they’re putting in the trash is if there’s some financial motivation. That’s always how it works in a capitalist system,” says Brattan.
Linden compares garbage service to water or electricity bills. “You should pay for the amount you use,” she says.
Finn, on the other hand, looks at it differently.
She notes that even water bills have a ready-to-use fee, a flat rate that sometimes ends up being more expensive than water prices themselves. “Whether or not you flush your toilets, you have to pay for access to that infrastructure,” Finn says.
Ninety-five to 98 percent of the rate for garbage pickup is based not on the amount of material collected, according to Finn, but instead pays for trucks (which each cost over $350,000), drivers and processing.
According to statistics from GreenWaste, which would not disclose annual profits to GT, Capitola residents produced 176 tons of garbage, 130 tons of recycling, 69 tons of yard waste, and 40 tons of food waste in September. Businesses added another 300 tons of garbage.
In unincorporated Santa Cruz County, the average person creates about 2.5 pounds of trash per person per day, which is a little more than half the national average, explains Melodye Serino of the county’s Public Works department. That comes out to about 18 pounds per week and 913 pounds per year.
The city of Santa Cruz produced an average of 4.2 pounds of trash per person per day, according to Bob Nelson, Santa Cruz’s resource recovery operations manager, citing an annual report.
Breaking it down
The grand jury’s landfill report, titled “Composting Organic Waste in Santa Cruz County: Time for a Regional Solution,” came out in June.
It notes that West Coast cities, like San Francisco, Portland and Seattle, all accept food scraps in their yard waste bins—something that isn’t allowed anywhere in Santa Cruz County. It isn’t just the big cities who have made the leap; all areas of Alameda County have composting programs, according to the report, as do parts of Marin, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.
This fill-up of landfill space, both locally and nationwide, has been one reason for moving toward zero waste with “upstream” solutions and DIY approaches like home composting and reducing consumption, as well as “downstream” solutions like building modern facilities for processing recyclables and organic waste.
Bob Nelson, resource recovery operations manager for the city of Santa Cruz, says these are both ways to move toward zero waste. “Zero waste is not just about recycling more tonnage. It’s a combination of lots of sustainable habits at several levels,” he says.
According to the report, between 23 and 37 percent of all municipal solid waste coming into landfills of Santa Cruz County was compostable vegetative food or yard waste.
Serino says the current rate of waste being “diverted” from landfills in Santa Cruz County is 75 percent, which meets a goal set in a 2005 county resolution. “We have one of the highest diversion rates in the state, and have won numerous awards for it,” explains Serino, who expects an updated zero waste plan to be presented to the Board of Supervisors in December.
The city of Santa Cruz adopted zero waste as a long-term goal in 2000. “In 1989, we had a disposal level of about 120,000 tons per year, now we’re around 49,000 tons per year,” Nelson says. “I think this is tangible progress in reducing our waste.”
The grand jury calls the waste disposal systems of Santa Cruz County “fragmented,” and recommends “the cities and county of Santa Cruz form a regional agency to develop and use a large-scale organic waste composting system in the county.”
Santa Cruz County had a commercial food-waste composting program for about 50 businesses, but grant funds ran dry in 2012.
County Spokesperson Jason Hoppin says local government officials are exploring composting options in coordination with one another.
Supervisor Leopold says the county is planning to create a new 10-year contract for county garbage collection, and the city of Santa Cruz may be a partner. “That’s going to be a new thing in 2018,” he says.
Leopold adds that the supervisors took action this month to curb illegal dumping of trash around the county. The plan also will include mandatory “universal service” pickup. Garbage trucks will now start coming to 3,000 homes in the rural unincorporated areas and charging them. (In a way, the county is moving away from the opt-out program Linden is calling for.) The county may also install cameras at some of the common dump sites.
In addition, Leopold supports efforts to increase “producer responsibility” where companies that, for example, sell pharmaceutical drugs and sharps pay for disposal. Leopold says, “We currently take back about 1,000 pounds of drugs each month that have to be disposed of.”
Like it or not, GreenWaste’s Emily Finn says she thinks trash and garbage services aren’t going away anytime soon. “Ninety-eight percent of the population is not going to be composting and figuring out something to do with their recyclables,” Finn predicts. “There’s always going to be a need for a lot of waste to be removed. People want to set it out on the curb and have it disappear,” she says.
Back in Capitola, Linden wants, if nothing else, to see that curbside service expanded to include food waste.
Linden says county leaders need to start thinking about programs to let residents put non-yard food scraps in their green bins, because encouraging people to compost in their own gardens, she feels, simply isn’t enough.
“If they don’t address households, then it’s not a serious zero-waste action plan,” she says. “They’re probably thinking it would be difficult to start collecting household kitchen scraps. But Berkeley, San Francisco and Oakland do it. We’re just behind the curve.”
WASTE NOT, WANT ROT With a focus on compost and recycling, Bonnie Linden has been generating less than one ounce of trash a month. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER