Sonoma County residents sending less trash to landfill

During a pandemic that has upended daily life, a natural barometer for the coronavirus’ impact on our lives has taken shape: what we choose to throw away – and what we don’t.|

You see it in the piles of boxes on neighborhood doorsteps, in waste haulers’ canceled commercial routes and in the sharp uptick in to-go food containers that have made their way into the recycling stream.

During a deadly pandemic that has upended civic and commercial life, a natural barometer for the coronavirus’ impact on our lives has taken shape: what we choose to throw away — and what we don’t.

“It’s crazy. Trash tells a story,” said Leslie Lukacs, executive director for Zero Waste Sonoma, a regional government agency working to curb the amount of waste that ends up in landfills.

In the first nine months after the arrival of COVID-19, Sonoma County produced 11% less trash, good for 13,000 fewer tons of waste ending up in the Sonoma County Central Landfill in Petaluma, according to data provided by Lukacs. Experts attribute the decline to public health orders that have shuttered businesses, leading to less commercial waste.

That’s why, at this point, any celebration has been muted.

“It’s definitely the direction we want to go, but not the way to go about it,” Lukacs said.

Lukacs has charted the waste tonnage since the start of the pandemic. The county’s strict shelter-in-place order last March was followed by a 5 ton decline in trash that first month, or a 16% decrease from the previous March. April 2020 was 13% less wasteful than the previous year and May 2020 had an 11% drop-off.

In June and September, months that followed loosening restrictions, waste levels returned to normal, but were down 10% in November 2020, the latest month for which data was available.

Celia Furber, a manager for Recology, a waste management company with a large recycling operation in south Santa Rosa, said the ebb and flow of the numbers suggest a waste reduction trend that’s based on a closed commercial sector, and therefore not sustainable.

“We’d like to think of course people are adopting more sustainable habits, but in all reality, it’s likely because commercial businesses were closed this year,” Furber said.

Meanwhile, Recology’s south Santa Rosa recycling center on Standish Avenue has been inundated with an unprecedented amount of cardboard waste. The rows of flattened and baled cardboard are the direct result of a surge in online shopping, as residents stay home and shift purchasing from local brick-and-mortar shops to internet retailers.

“Recycling, as you can imagine, is a sea of cardboard — it’s just cardboard everywhere,” Furber said.

For area business leaders, the trends in trash and recycling just provide more evidence of what they already know to be true: the pandemic, which has infected more than 26,600 and killed 275 people in Sonoma County, has also taken a massive toll on local businesses.

Sheba Person-Whitley, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, said the pandemic-induced recession has caused mounting losses in the business sector, including permanent closures. Government officials are still grappling with questions about how to support local companies.

“I don’t know that anyone … thought we would be still be where we are here in February 2021,” Person-Whitley said. “Businesses are really looking for anything to hang onto to avoid permanent closure.”

During an online presentation last week before the Economic Development Board, Jerry Nickelsburg, a professor of economics for UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, noted the outsized hit Sonoma County’s tourism sector has taken during the pandemic. That sector accounts for nearly 35% of the county’s job losses, said Nickelsburg, who noted the vaccine would be key to reducing high unemployment rates.

Peter Rumble, executive director for the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, the county’s leading business advocacy group, said another round of U.S. Treasury-backed payroll loans will help Sonoma County businesses, but the temporary boost must bridge the gap until most residents are vaccinated.

“I think for a lot of people, it is a day-to-day scenario. People are trying to survive as long as they can,” Rumble said. “It’s really about how quickly and efficiently we can roll out vaccinations within the community. That’s going to be the primary determinant to whether businesses are going to be able to survive.”

As more people stay home, more residential organic waste — leftover food, yard clippings and pizza boxes and to-go containers — has accumulated as well, according to data provide by Zero Waste Sonoma.

Month-to-month increases have been as high as 16% in June, 12% in September and 10% in April, something Furber attributed to a variety of factors, including small, at-home gardens, a trend she expects will continue.

Predicting that future will be a key going forward for trash haulers and recyclers, Lukacs said, adding that she successfully predicted a 10% downturn ahead of Zero Waste Sonoma’s April budget approval, marking a $1 million decrease in the agency’s budget in 2020.

“I think as an industry, we’re all just watching this because it affects us as an industry as a whole,” Lukacs said. “I do think there will be a certain percentage of businesses in Sonoma County that look at their employment options in a different way.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Sonoma County residents have sent 13,000 fewer tons of waste to the Central Landfill in Petaluma.

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @TylerSilvy

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