Recology eyes big boost in composting in Sonoma County

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Carole Carpenter always felt funny about throwing thousands of pounds of used coffee grounds into the garbage.

The manager of the popular Railroad Square café A’Roma Roasters knew the rich brown granules made a great soil fertilizer, a fact she was reminded of whenever customers asked if they could take some home to sprinkle in their gardens.

“It seems like such a waste to just throw them in the garbage,” said Carpenter, who has managed the operation for 20 years.

But with limited kitchen space, no simple way to set the coffee grounds aside for gardeners, and no green bin to dispose of them in, Carpenter just did what was easiest — she told employees to toss them in the dumpster along with all the café’s other food waste.

So Celia Furber, the waste zero manager with Recology, the city’s new garbage hauler, and John LaBarge, a Recology waste zero specialist, sat down with Carpenter last week to see if they could find ways to help the eatery keep more food waste out of the landfill.

It turns out that A’Roma Roasters should have been composting its food waste since Jan. 1, 2017. That’s when businesses that create more than 4 cubic yards of organic waste a week were required under AB 1826 to begin diverting it from landfills. Larger producers were required to start a year earlier.

But the city’s previous hauler, The Ratto Group, did not make it easy to set up the service, Furber said.

That’s something Recology officials are finding as they roll out service under a new contract in Santa Rosa and take over existing Ratto Group contracts in Sonoma and north Marin County.

“We’re finding lots of businesses that wanted the service but it was just really hard to set up with the Ratto Group,” Furber said.

Six months after Recology took over Ratto operations, the San Francisco-based hauler has been making a concerted effort to keep organic material out of commercial and residential garbage streams that flow into the local landfill.

Santa Rosa residents are receiving green kitchen scrap pails with their new green bins, as well as detailed instructions about what can go in them. Customers in the six other cities that Recology serves, as well as the unincorporated areas of the county, are also receiving the educational brochures.

The goal is to drive home the point to customers that they not only can but should be putting a wide range of kitchen scraps into their green bins. The green bins aren’t even being called yard waste bins any more, but are now referred to as compost bins.

That roasted chicken carcass? Throw it in with the lawn clippings. Those greasy pizza boxes and dirty napkins? Toss them in with the leaves and branches. Banana peels, egg shells, dairy products, tea bags, small bits of untreated lumber, and yes, coffee grounds. They all can now go in the green bins.

The change was made after Sonoma Compost shut down 2-1/2 years ago and the county began hauling green waste out of the county to other compost facilities that accepted kitchen scraps, explained Patrick Carter, executive director of the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency.

“A lot of people don’t know that they can put food waste of any kind in their bin and they have been able to do that for a while,” Carter said.

The difference now is that Recology is putting more resources into education, Carter said. Where Ratto had three people for all of its 11 contracts in Sonoma and Marin counties, Recology has nine.

Much of that effort is focused on expanding the commercial food waste diversion program, managed under a separate contract between Sonoma County and Republic Services, which operates the landfill.

Republic outsourced the work to Ratto, but the tonnage was “rather low,” Carter said. Recology appears committed to a dramatic expansion of that program, he said.

“I think they’ll up those numbers significantly,” Carter said.

That’s more important now than ever, given that debris from the October wildfires is estimated to have filled up three years worth of landfill space, Carter said.

Leslie Lukacs, a recycling specialist with SCS Engineers in Santa Rosa and an organizing member of the Compost Coalition of Sonoma County, said huge strides in diversion can be made by keeping more organic waste out of the landfill, and Recology seems on board with that mission.

“I think it’s great for the county that we have a hauler who has experience working with communities to divert a high percentage of organics and other forms of recycling,” Lukacs said.

In 2014, a study she performed of landfill material showed 33 percent to be compostable, she said.

While people have had the ability to put kitchen waste in the green bin for more than two years now, they still haven’t sufficiently been encouraged to take advantage of it, she said. Recology’s new education program is heartening to her.

“Education is huge because what we’re talking about is behavior change, and people don’t know how to change if they’re not educated about what material goes where,” she said.

The path toward zero waste goes well beyond improving recycling rates, however. It requires people to support business and make purchasing decisions that don’t create waste, Lukacs said.

“If it’s not recyclable, compostable or reusable, it shouldn’t be in our system in the first place,” Lukacs said.

There are some encouraging signs that Recology’s organics program is making strides, but also indications that there’s a long way to go.

On a visit to the Healdsburg transfer station last week, Recology trucks dumped loads of green waste from Santa Rosa routes that showed few signs of food scraps.

The overwhelming majority of material appeared to be yard waste — leaves, grass clippings, tree branches and the occasional pumpkin or squash.

The bigger problem was all the nonorganic material polluting the compost stream, which was heading to the Cold Creek Compost facility outside Ukiah, one of four out-of-county facilities accepting Sonoma County’s green waste under a $4.5 million out-hauling contract.

White bags of kitchen garbage, plastic planter pots, curtain rods, cabinet doors, soda cans and a patio cushion had been either accidentally or intentionally thrown into green bins. There were even a couple of large green bins that fell into a truck and were squished by its powerful compactor.

Workers did what they could to remove the obvious contaminants from the green waste, while the rest would likely be screened out at the facility, Furber said.

Drivers have been increasing the number of correction notices they issue to customers with contaminated bins, she said. That capability will only increase when the new trucks for Santa Rosa arrive in April and May. They’ll be outfitted with cameras that let the drivers see what falls out of the bins, increasing their ability to identify problem accounts, she said.

Another challenge facing the company is finding ways to get thousands of apartment dwellers in the county access to food scrap composting, something not required by law and which few apartment complexes offer.

On the commercial side, Furber said she sees clear signs of progress.

The Santa Rosa Junior College’s culinary program recently agreed to have a 2-yard food scrap bin picked up twice a week, Furber said.

The situation at A’Roma Roasters also looks promising, too.

New narrow blue and green bins will go in the kitchen, and the staff will receive training in coming weeks. To accommodate space constraints outside the building, Recology officials expect to be able to squeeze two 2-yard bins into the same space, one for garbage and one for organics, Furber said.

And, since commercial organics bins enjoy a 7 percent discount, the business can expect to save a bit of money, as well, which is welcomed since rates in Santa Rosa increased substantially under Recology.

“I feel very encouraged that it’s going to be a successful program for them,” Furber said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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