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Sonoma County Gazette
Zero Waste Sonoma County

1st Zero Waste Symposium in Sonoma County

May 24, 2017
by Tish Levee


The Zero Waste Symposium on May 11th at SOMO Village (, a first for Sonoma County, was organized by Oren Wool and the team at Sustainable North Bay. Following up on twelve years of the Sustainable Enterprise Conference (SEC), it focused on Zero Waste, one of the ten One Planet Principles around which the SEC is organized. This jam-packed day was full of incredible presentations with lots of information. I want to focus on what, for me, was the essence of the day—that if we ‘re going to have a planet we can live on, we have to shift from a linear economic model—where we extract a resource, use it up, and then throw it away—to a circular model, where everything, and I mean everything, gets recycled.

The Marin Carbon Project.

The first presentation was a video from John Wick of the Marin Carbon Project from the Wick’s ranch, along with a presentation by Calla Ostrander of the California Carbon Project. I’d met people from the Marin Carbon Project three years ago at the first California Adaptation Forum, but they weren’t keen on media attention then. Now they’re talking about this successful program to increase carbon in the soil with just one application of compost annually.

Organics are the last frontier of recycling.

Discussions of food recovery programs, recycling and up-cycling textiles, and composting were a major focus of the event because half our landfills are taken up by organics—two-thirds if paper waste is included. Much of our organic waste is inedible food, such as peels, and woody or fibrous plant waste. Because of our agricultural economy, California has a carbon footprint twice as large as New York.

Drawing down carbon in the atmosphere.

The IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has made it clear that to reduce global temperatures, prevent sea level rise, and mitigate all the other problems of climate change, we must pull down the carbon in the atmosphere. A number of geo-engineering schemes have been proposed; while they may be possible, they’re also really scary because they involve so much that we don’t understand.

However, we already have this incredible technology with millions of years of experience—photosynthesis, whereby plants take sunshine and CO2 and combine them with water and minerals from the soil to produce plant life, some of it growing underground.

But practices such as tilling the soil and grazing release CO2 from the soil and return it to the air.  Up to one-third of the CO2 in the atmosphere that’s driving climate change today comes from land management practices that take CO2 from the soil. But carbon can be stored in the soils—for centuries or more—by “soil carbon sequestration”—or carbon farming. By intentionally managing photosynthesis, we can draw down carbon in the atmosphere and change the future. California is the world’s sixth largest economy, and we produce enough agricultural waste that we can return 80 million tons of organics to the soil.

Composting can offset carbon losses from farms and forests.

This is what the Marin Carbon Project is doing by applying compost to grazing land. Just one application of compost six years ago made all the difference, but finding enough compost was a challenge until they hooked up with the City of San Francisco, which composts 700 tons of organic waste, a day—the largest such operation anywhere. Research shows that if compost is applied to over just five percent of the California’s grazing lands, the soil could sequester a year’s worth of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions from farm and forestry industries.

While the Wicks have a large operation and the resources experiment, Paul Kaiser and his wife are doing the same thing on a smaller scale. At Sebastopol’s Singing Frogs Farm, they’re carbon farming while successfully raising vegetables and fruit for farmers’ markets and CSA boxes. The Kaisers have just three acres, but in the last seven years, they’ve become so productive that they average $100K a year per acre in revenue. Their big secret is no-till agriculture; tilling releases carbon and nitrogen from the soil into the atmosphere, depleting the soil and contributing to CO2 and methane in the atmosphere. They also never leave the ground barren, but replant it within an hour of harvest, first spreading oyster shell calcium and a thin layer of compost on it.

Zero Waste stops at the Sonoma County line.

Here in California, especially in the Bay Area, we’re on the cutting edge of Zero Waste in the nation, but the wave of Zero Waste stops at the Sonoma County line. Because we have no composting facility in the county, we must truck our organic waste to Novato, Ukiah, Napa, and Vacaville. Not only is this costlier, in both dollars and energy (and thus CO2 emissions), we don’t get back our compost to use it to sequester carbon on our soils. When Sonoma Compost was operating (1993 to October of 2015), more than two million tons (the equivalent of 6.5 years of landfill) were composted. Composting not only sequesters carbon, it also eliminates methane (which is 80 times more responsible for global warming than CO2) in landfills, decreases water use, reduces pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers. Using organics we can build a giant sponge under California that will hold water while sequestering carbon. In less than a decade carbon sinks into the soil, and soils can store a lot more carbon than we previously thought. Carbon-rich soils can hold more water, which is good in climate extremes, while also decreasing soil temperatures.  

We need a compost facility again.

Sonoma County needs to build the infrastructure for a composting facility here. Currently, several composting bills are in the legislature, including AB 1045, which would speed up the permitting process for new composting facilities. Right now it’s really difficult to get the necessary infrastructure so we need to speed up the 3-5 year wait.Let your state legislators know that you support composting and want more than just backyard composting here in Sonoma County. (Meanwhile, you can get information on DIY composting at

What is Zero Waste?

Zero waste is a philosophy that promotes reuse, recycling, composting and conservation programs, and emphasizes sustainability by considering the entire life-cycle of products and systems.

This comprehensive systems-approach promotes waste prevention by:

  • Manufacturing products and packaging for the environment;

  • Using less toxic materials in production and manufacturing;

  • Providing longer product life by developing more durable goods; and

  • Designing products that are repairable and easily disassembled at the end of their useful life.

Zero Waste Defined by the Zero Waste International Alliance:

Zero waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient, and visionary to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, and discarded materials are managed as a resource, as opposed to a waste management issue.

Zero Waste means:

  • Designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials

  • Conserve and recover all resources

  • Not burn or bury our recyclable, compostable, reusable materials.

Implementing zero waste will eliminate discharges to land, water, or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal, or plant health.

 Elements of a Zero Waste Economy

Zero Wast Sonoma supporting sponsors:

© Tish Levee, 2017





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