Negotiations for new Sonoma County composting site ended over financing issues
A four-year effort to bring green waste recycling back to Sonoma County has collapsed, scuttling hopes of restoring any time soon a high-volume, locally based compost operation to supply farmers, landscapers and backyard gardeners.
The breakdown came late last month after the company chosen to work with the county waste agency withdrew from negotiations after it failed to secure financing.
The company, Renewable Sonoma, and its principal, Will Bakx, terminated negotiations with the county agency and the city of Santa Rosa after 2½ years of trying to shore up plans for a high-tech composting facility that would convert food scraps and yard waste into valuable agricultural products. The project, estimated to cost $52 million, also was to produce biogas to help power treatment equipment on land leased at the city’s Laguna Wastewater Treatment Plant on Llano Road.
Bakx, whose proposal ranked first among nine pitches considered by the county in 2018 for siting and construction of a modern compost facility, said he had to pull the plug on negotiations because he couldn’t put together funding after talking with a variety of investors. He said he was not at liberty to disclose details.
“It was a good project that we proposed, and we really looked forward to implementing it, and I’ve been doing this for a long time. So, yes, it is a disappointment,” he said.
Leslie Lukacs, executive director of Zero Waste Sonoma, the local waste management agency representing unincorporated areas and the county’s nine cities, said she has secured sufficient capacity in neighboring counties for all the organic waste Sonoma County residents put in their green bins each week.
But the suspension in talks represents an enormous blow for stakeholders. It means 100,000 tons of organic waste now trucked and processed elsewhere each year will continue to be hauled out of county for the foreseeable future, at extra cost to consumers and the planet.
Diversion of green waste from disposal in traditional landfills, where it produces significant volumes of heat-trapping methane during decomposition, and converting those materials instead to a usable commodity serves both an economic and an environmental benefit.
Hauling Sonoma County’s growing volume of organic waste to outside composting sites adds vehicle emissions and contradicts the mission to reduce greenhouse gases, compost supporters and climate advocates note.
It also makes it more difficult for local customers to acquire large volumes of quality compost and mulch, which would help sequester carbon and hold water in the ground when rain comes, said west Santa Rosa resident Wendy Krupnick, a longtime sustainable agriculture consultant and instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College.
“It’s a huge climate minus with the trucking,” Krupnick said. “It should be a climate plus.”
Renewable Sonoma’s misfortune caps a tumultuous decade for Bakx and his partners. He is the former lead of Sonoma Compost, which operated at the Sonoma County Central Landfill on Mecham Road, west of Cotati, from 1993 to 2015, when it was shut down over concerns about rainwater washing off compost piles and into nearby Stemple Creek.
A lawsuit filed by neighbors under the federal Clean Water Act led to the compost site’s closure. It targeted the county, Sonoma Compost and the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency — now Zero Waste Sonoma — over the violations, for which state water regulators also had put the county on notice. In 2016, plans for a new compost site at the landfill were scrapped over continued opposition and legal threats from neighbors.
The county’s green waste has been trucked to composting sites in Mendocino, Napa and Marin counties ever since — and in increasing amounts, as residents have become more aware of the importance of keeping organics out of the landfill, where their decomposition in the absence of oxygen produces methane, a greenhouse gas that is more than 30 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide.
California cities and counties also are mandated by state law to make significant inroads on diverting organic waste under Senate Bill 1383, a 2016 law that goes into effect Jan. 1.
The law calls for mandatory organic waste collection from residential and commercial entities as well as edible food recovery from large commercial food producers to avoid waste and support services to those who are food insecure.
Among its provisions is a requirement that the state reduce disposal of green waste in landfills by 75% by 2025, compared to 2014, and that no less than 20% of currently landfilled, edible food be recovered for human consumption, according to Zero Waste Sonoma.