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Waste Management Sonoma County Style

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Waste Management Sonoma Style
Recycle, Reuse or to the Dump? Part 1

By Connie Madden, Co-Owner, Oasis Community Farm, Petaluma

Recycling, when the word was new, brought images of amazing single stream conveyor belts, hauling all the detritus from our consumer world magically into a future where it would morph into park benches, shiny new glass bottles, and a slow boat to China would haul away our soiled or barely touched newsprint to turn into who knew what.  Did we all see that movie?

On our small organic farm just outside Petaluma, we’ve never paid to have trash hauled – just feed what the chickens can eat to them, compost organics they can’t eat and take recycling to Republic Services of Sonoma County, Inc. Central Landfill (Central Landfill at Meacham) – until this all became harder to do due to greater restrictions on what plastics may be dumped.  With lower gas prices, plastics just aren’t as saleable as they were and so more of what we use now goes to the dump!  If we don’t opt for trash service, we’ll have to take bits of plastic to stores to be picked up by the trash hauler ending at the dump. 

Neither CVS nor Lucky’s recycle as the Sonoma County Recycling Guide 2016 states but Target offers bins for practically every category as does Whole Foods.  While it is encouraging to see bins for batteries and bottles within stores, it is a bit unnerving to realize that “at least 30 smaller recycling centers closed this last year due to low income generated by resale of received materials,” according to Pamela Davis, Environmental Standards & Practices Manager at C & S Waste Solutions.

Most households and commercial entities in our country use The Ratto Group, otherwise known as North Bay Corporation, Redwood Empire and Unicycler (pick your favorite name?) to haul trash and recycling off their property, but the goal of diverting increasing levels of waste from the landfill seems to be going in the wrong direction.   

So how’re we doing? The picture has lost its shine in Sonoma County with the closing of Sonoma Compost which previously received about 250 tons per day of yard debris and turned it into regular and High Test compost to recharge the soil on our farms and landscapes.  Following a lawsuit by neighbors of the Meacham facility, Sonoma Compost closed and Sonoma County now hauls green waste out of county to Marin County at a cost of $4.5 million per year!

“We are hoping to find a suitable site to open another composting facility in Sonoma County, but this process may take at least three years more,” states Patrick Carter, Director, Sonoma County Waste Management Agency.

Will Bakx, former Director of Sonoma Compost, asks us to stay tuned…a new facility may come along sooner than estimated and asks that interested parties get in touch through email to office@sonomacompost.org and that we join a compost coalition at www.compostcoalision soco.org. “Please sign up to support off farm composting,” asks Bakx.

With the Ratto Group service there is no sorting allowed by cities, so the hope for increased diversion of recycling to reuse is discouraged rather than encouraged.  On average, Natural Resource Defense Council estimates that American households recycle about 34% of refuse, while EU countries reach the 60%.  The City of Windsor has set a 50% diversion goal and is in the process of taking bids from a variety of companies as well as from Ratto/Empire/NorthBay.  “We’re here six days a week to sort it out for you,” says the taped message at North Bay Corporation, yet if cities are not allowed to sort trash for themselves they cannot increase the amount of recycling.  

We read in the Sunday SF Chronicle that “Residents trashing recycling objectives” is a problem – and the city doesn’t see its way clear to reach ZERO WASTE any sooner than 2020 – how they hope to achieve that remarkable goal will be covered next time…but the sore thumb is diversion.  Though Ratto Group charges the fairly low rate of about $30 per month to haul a 20 gallon can of trash and free hauling for green waste and recycling sounds reasonable, Ratto Group has been sited for far greater inclusion of garbage within its recycling than the 10% allowable.  

The fact that neighbors of Sonoma Compost at the Meacham landfill filed a lawsuit based partially on the smell of the facility is reminiscent of the ongoing dispute between Peter Pfendler, deceased landowner on Sonoma Mountain, whose will specified that legal fees be used to keep Petaluma residents off even the border between his land and Lafferty Park, owned by the City of Petaluma – and no one would want to try and keep a compost facility where neighbors plan to sue repeatedly.  “Sonoma County lost a treasure in Sonoma Compost,” according to Paul Kaiser, Singing Frogs Farm, before the audience at last year’s Farmer’s Guild Raising at Shone Farm. 

It seems the profit motive is keeping Sonoma County from achieving recycling goals.  If plastics, paper, bottles and cans are worth so little that smaller centers reselling those are closing, will we be able to move toward the much greater diversion goal Windsor has set forth? Or the amazing zero waste San Francisco plans to reach by 2020?  We’ll take a look at innovative and practical ways we could achieve much greater recycling numbers next time.