PD Editorial: Don’t delay finding a new Sonoma County compost project

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

Sonoma County will exacerbate climate change after negotiations to open a local composting facility fell apart. It’s a bad look for a county that prides itself on being green. County and city officials should waste no time finding a replacement composting project, and this time they shouldn’t let the owner dither for years.

The current situation wasn’t really the fault of the county and the cities that make up Zero Waste Sonoma, the local waste management agency. In 2018, they chose Renewable Sonoma to open a local composting facility. It would feature high-tech composting technology to convert food scraps and yard waste into useful products for fertilizing, mulching and even powering treatment facility equipment.

But after nearly three years of negotiating, Renewable Sonoma pulled out a few weeks ago. The company announced that it had been unable to secure private investment.

These things happen, but that makes it no less disappointing. Renewable Sonoma hasn’t been fully forthcoming about why it couldn’t find investors, and local officials should demand a better accounting after wasting so much time. Was it that the money wasn’t out there? Do investors not want to invest in composting? Was there something wrong with this specific project? The answers could help define what comes next.

Composting is recycling for organic matter. If the leftover yard clippings and food waste winds up in a landfill instead, decomposition creates methane — a powerful greenhouse gas — and simply takes up space, leading to new landfills sooner than necessary. Composting it instead generates useful material for farmers, gardeners and landscapers. It’s a natural way to augment soil.

The county is fortunate that at least some of its organic waste is being outsourced to composting facilities in surrounding counties. The obvious downside, however, is that it means trucking tons of material on local roads. Those trucks burn fuel and emit greenhouse gases. Last year, more than 100,000 tons of organics and food waste were collected in Sonoma County.

Remote composting also makes access to the mulch and fertilizer produced more costly. The county also must pay other facilities to take on waste and will pass on the cost to residents.

There’s a legal need to ramp up composting, too. State law soon will require cities and counties to collect more organic waste and recover more edible food from large commercial food producers. Sonoma County would have a much better chance of meeting the targets if it had its own dedicated facility.

Three years ago, when Renewable Sonoma won the project, the county received eight other proposals. That’s reason enough to hope that a new request for proposals could generate a solid response again. Though this time it might be smart to require that proposals include a clear funding plan and a shorter timeline lest the county get burned again.

In the meantime, residents might consider doing some composting of their own. Anyone with landscaping or vegetable gardens can benefit from nutrient-rich compost produced at home. Contrary to common fears, if composting is done properly, it doesn’t generate rotten smells.

Sometimes big plans fail. When they do, there’s no point in waiting to get started on a replacement.

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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