I guess I’m not your average tourist. Most people wouldn’t be thrilled to visit a landfill, even a state-of-the-art facility like the Tajiguas Landfill and Resource Center in Santa Barbara County, mid-coast California.
Here’s what makes this facility interesting: All recyclable materials are sorted by hand. All waste goes through a size reduction machine and is screened to sort materials into streams of different sizes. The organic matter, which tends to be heavier, falls through a special sieve and goes to an anaerobic digester where it is turned into compost and energy. Forced air expels paper and fiber products, magnetic drums extract metals. The separated recycled products are baled and sold. More than 60% of waste is recovered in this way. The rest goes to the landfill, where it is buried.
Carlyle Johnston, project manager at the facility, explains. “Food represents 25% of the waste in our bins. Other items like wood, paper products, and plant-based fabrics add up to 40%. That’s a lot of waste and it generates a lot of greenhouse gas emissions, especially methane, which we know is a very potent greenhouse gas.
All organic waste goes to the digester and is converted into compost and (biogas) methane and CO2. This anaerobic digester decomposes organic matter without oxygen. All biogas is vacuumed in the process, captured and redistributed to the Edison energy grid in Southern California.
California laws require communities to recover at least 75% of their waste stream. This installation recovers 85%.
The Resource Center is powered by the energy it processes and solar. It reduces emissions equivalent to taking 28,000 cars off the road, generates enough electricity for 3,000 homes and creates 100 green jobs.
By the end of the year, there will be 25 similar digesters in California, and there are thousands across Europe. Food and yard waste can cause about 20% of all methane emissions and accounts for half of landfill content. That’s why California has passed laws requiring excess food and organic matter to be collected and turned into compost and biogas. Vermont now bans leftover food from the garbage.
Rachel Wagoner, director of the California Department of Recycling and Resource Recovery (Calrecycle), says “this is the biggest change to waste since recycling began.” She points out that “recycling food waste is the easiest and quickest thing anyone can do to affect climate change.” In many California communities you can now just throw it in the green trash can, but in areas where there are digesters like Santa Barbara, this will be done for you. Edible foods are donated to food banks. Restaurants, grocery stores and schools can have leftover food collected and processed at the Resource Center. In Vermont, you can either make your own compost, have your food waste picked up at the curb, or drop it off at a facility.
CalRecycle estimates that approximately 5.5 million additional tons of compost should be produced in California by 2025 – enough to apply to an additional 27 million acres or up to 4% of the total cropland in the country. State.
New Mexico has about one-twentieth the population of California. At the scale of our population, if we could harvest our food waste and organic matter and generate compost for large-scale application to our depleted soils, it would make a huge difference. Our soils would be naturally enriched and also retain more water and carbon. If my calculations are correct, if we composted all of our food waste, it could produce something in the neighborhood of a million tons of compost per year. Consider that New Mexico has some 50 million acres of non-federal rural land, but only 4% is cropland. Within a few years, we could restore and enrich much of our cropland, reduce emissions and food waste, sequester tons of carbon, and move toward regenerative agriculture.
Waste management is generally a local or regional responsibility. But since these methods work, our Governor and Legislature should consider enacting new food waste legislation and develop incentives based on those tested in Vermont and California to encourage this transition.
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