Sonoma County’s improving economy means more trash

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Sonoma County threw away nearly 63,000 tons more trash last year compared with the year before, according to recent figures that indicate the nation’s improving economy hampered local efforts to divert more waste from landfills.

The county disposed of about 386,900 tons of material in 2015, the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency reported last month. That’s an average of 4.3 pounds of waste per person per day, compared to 3.6 pounds per person per day a year earlier.

The latest figures show local waste disposal increased significantly as the economy improved in recent years. The county threw out about 306,100 tons in 2012, and disposal has increased each year since then, according to reports from the waste management agency.

Officials said the disposal uptick was driven by the economic rebound — a factor that fueled a similar increase for the state overall.

As a whole, Californians last year sent 33.2 million tons of material to landfills in 2015, up from 31.2 million tons in 2014, according to the state Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, or CalRecycle. On a per-resident basis, Californians threw away 4.7 pounds per person per day in 2015, as opposed to 4.5 pounds in 2014. The Sonoma County waste figures do not include recycled or composted material, nor do they encompass hazardous waste or trash generated on tribal land, said Patrick Carter, executive director of the county waste management agency.

Waste disposed at county transfer stations increased to about 278,400 tons in 2015, up about 5,000 tons from 2014, according to Carter. The total county figure also includes waste that originated in Sonoma County but was disposed of elsewhere. Carter said the total increase was likely driven by a better economy, which he said could have resulted in more construction and demolition debris as well as more trash from consumer spending.

“When people have no disposable income, they’re not going to be buying things, and they’re not going to be throwing those things away,” Carter said. “But when they’re making more purchases, either they’re getting rid of their old stuff or they’re getting rid of packaging and things like that.”

Increases in the waste disposal figure conflict with the county’s goal of diverting 90 percent of its waste by 2020. But the county doesn’t report a specific diversion rate anymore and is instead focused on reducing the pounds of waste disposed per resident per day, according to Carter. He said that’s what the state focuses on, too, and characterized it as a more objective measurement of progress.

Increased disposal rates generally go hand-in-hand with economic improvements, according to CalRecycle, giving public officials a tough problem to solve as they seek to balance a strong economy with environmentally conscious practices. And it’s not just the disposal rate that went up, either: California’s recycling rate also declined last year.

CalRecycle spokeswoman Heather Jones said the disposal increase and recycling rate decrease suggested the state needed to continue expanding its recycling infrastructure.

“When there’s more material out there, we just need to have more facilities that can manage it and divert it and recycle it,” Jones said. “It does speak to a need for the state to continue supporting businesses to expand that recycling infrastructure.”

CalRecycle uses a grant program to fund businesses that help expand recycling and manufacturing in the state. Waste diversion across California should also be aided by recent state laws that set a statewide 75 percent recycling goal and laid out recycling requirements for certain businesses, public entities and multifamily complexes.

At the local level, Sonoma County’s ambitious — and fast-approaching — 90 percent diversion goal motivates it to prioritize recycling and composting. Carter said the waste management agency is developing a protocol to certify facilities that can accept construction and demolition debris, which he called a “first step” in making builders more aware of where they can recycle material.

“Then it’s a matter of making sure people use those facilities,” Carter said. He cast the protocol as a kind of audit that would ascertain what materials facilities accept, what percentage they are able to divert from the landfill and “other key pieces of information.”

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who sits on the board of the waste management agency, went one step further. In order to help the county reach its 2020 goal, Zane said, she would favor an ordinance requiring any type of construction and demolition debris to be diverted.

“That’s the big ticket,” she said.

A materials recovery facility planned for the landfill west of Cotati should also help, Zane said.

More composting of green waste would require county leaders to reverse course on a politically fraught issue. A Clean Water Act lawsuit last year forced the closure of the compost site at the landfill, and county officials earlier this year ditched plans to build a new compost facility there. The county currently sends its food waste and other green waste to facilities outside the county, including sites in Ukiah and Napa County. “We are still diverting that material — none of that is going into the landfill,” Carter said. “But if there are more facilities that open up in Sonoma County in the future that have the capability to process more material ... then, yes, you would see an uptick in diversion.”

Windsor City Councilwoman Debora Fudge, who also sits on the waste management agency board, said she was “disappointed” about the disposal increase and does not believe economic growth had to hamper recycling and composting goals. The key moving forward, she said, will be boosting educational efforts and reducing confusion among residents about what they can recycle.

“Everybody needs to get on board and divert more,” Fudge said.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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