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Organic electricity: State regulations push SLO County to divert more waste from the landfill, and it's your turn to participate 

Chicken bones, cantaloupe peel, leftovers that sat in the fridge too long. That’s the smell emanating from your kitchen trashcan every time you pop the lid to throw something out. 

That’s the smell that needs to get out of the house and rolled down to the curb for the garbage man to take care of. Well, Cold Canyon Landfill doesn’t want your food waste anymore. 

A little white plastic pail with a green lid will be delivered to more than 50,000 of Waste Connections’—which runs San Luis Garbage, Mission Country Disposal, Morro Bay Garbage, and South County Sanitary—residential customers during the last two and half weeks of August. And the Integrated Waste Management Authority (IWMA) of San Luis Obispo County is hoping you’ll choose to stick your kitchen scraps in the food waste pail and then deposit them into your green waste container. 

“It’s going beyond the green stuff to things like meat, fish, eggshells, stuff like that,” said IWMA Manager Bill Worrell. “We basically benefit from it because it’s going to be diverting waste from the landfill.”

In 2011, the state Legislature passed a law requiring 75 percent of the waste going into landfills to be diverted elsewhere by 2020. And Worrell said the state’s Air Resources Board is considering a rule that would ban organic waste—which produces methane gas (a greenhouse gas) as it decomposes—from landfills by 2025. He said SLO County currently diverts approximately 66 percent of its waste from landfills through green waste and recycling containers. In 2015, the county threw out approximately 256,000 tons of stuff, and Worrell estimates that between 20 and 30 percent of it was organic matter or food waste. 

Legislation passed in 2014 will eventually bar commercial operations (like restaurants) from throwing out food/organic waste. The first phase went into a effect in April, targeting the largest organic waste producers. The county’s working with more than 20 such operations in a pilot program to divert that waste into compost. 

But the pails are for the residential side of things. They’re the short-term solution; the beginning of the county’s big plans to recycle organic waste, which is trucked down to a composting facility in Santa Maria. 

Worrell’s been searching for a long-term fix for years now, at least since the composting area at Cold Canyon shut down in 2010 due to a deluge of odor complaints from neighbors. Pay dirt equals a fully enclosed anaerobic digestion facility that will turn all that organic waste into electricity without generating green house gas emissions or odor. The 43,000-square-foot building planned for San Luis Garbage’s property near the airport on Old Santa Fe Road is scheduled to go before the county Planning Commission on Aug. 25.

“There’s just so many neat things about this project, hopefully it comes to fruition instead of sending all our stuff to Santa Maria,” Worrell said. “It’s kind of exciting to see all of this come together after such a long time.”

The technology’s been around for decades, according to William Skinner, a West Coast Sales Manager for Hitachi Zosen INOVA—the Swiss company that designed the facility. It would be the first facility the company builds in the U.S. 

Anaerobic digestion is a biological process that produces methane (and some carbon dioxide) from organic matter; it can occur naturally in the world or in a controlled, enclosed environment, such as the project being proposed. Skinner said the European’s have pushed their green waste, food waste, sewage, and biosolids through plants like the one proposed for years. His company built its first plant in 1991 in Switzerland. 

The reason the technology isn’t as prolific in the U.S.? 

“It’s mostly cost,” Skinner said. “The U.S. is a big country; we have lots of space; we have lots of landfills.”

But the state’s new regulations are changing things. 

CalRecycle lists 21 anaerobic digestion facilities on its website that were either already operating, being constructed, or in the permitting process as of October 2015. 

Skinner said the anaerobic digester will run 24 hours a day, and organic material will stay inside it until all the energy (read: methane) it produces is extracted. That methane will be turned into electricity, and what’s leftover will be 12,000 to 14,000 tons of compost a year and a product called compost tea—which is exactly what it sounds like, only it’s for your plants to drink. A local grower has already committed to taking all the organic bi-products, according to Pat Fenton, district manager of Waste Connections’ San Luis Hauling Division. 

About 20 percent of the electricity generated by the facility will be used to run its operations and the rest will go into the power grid. It will be enough to power 600 to 650 homes, according to Skinner. 

Plus it’s renewable, Fenton added. 

In order to finance, build, and operate the plant, Skinner’s company is requiring a 20-year commitment. To ensure that, Fenton’s been attending meetings since April 2015 to renew contracts with SLO County municipalities. So far, Waste Connections has renewed its waste hauling contracts with the city of SLO, the Nipomo CSD, the Avila Beach CSD, Pismo Beach, Grover Beach, Morro Bay, Arroyo Grande, and the Oceano CSD. The Cayucos CSD, Cambria CSD, and the county are up next. His plan is to have it all taken care of by mid-September. 

Fenton said as state regulations continue to become more stringent on processing organic waste and greenhouse gas emissions allowed from landfills, building a plant like this one is exactly what’s needed.  

“We’re going to end up putting Band-Aids on things until we get it like the Europeans. We just decided to do the right thing the first time,” Fenton said. “Everybody’s on board with this thing. It makes sense. How could they not?” 

Editor Camillia Lanham can be reached at [email protected].

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