April is Earth Month. It’s the perfect time to get an update on government’s most audacious attempt at perfection – recycling.
California is at the forefront of this effort. That means Fresno is in the game, as well.
Tommy Esqueda is my inspiration for this review. The city’s Public Utilities director (soon to be an associate vice president at Fresno State) told the City Council a while back that some Proposition 218 initiatives could be heading City Hall’s way.
That means possible changes in a year or so to your utility bill. Residential solid waste (trash pick-up) is part of that bill. Commercial solid waste, as you no doubt recall, was outsourced several years ago to private haulers.
Esqueda didn’t say which parts of your utility bill might be subject to a 218 hearing and possible rate hike. But he did say Public Utilities in the near term is facing a variety of service challenges. Among those challenges is Sacramento’s call for a 75% reduction in the amount of trash we send to our landfills.
Trash service is a fascinating topic. City Hall Communications Director Mark Standriff was kind enough to arrange for me an interview with Public Utilities Assistant Director Jerry Schuber.
Schuber for many years has been Fresno’s solid waste czar.
My question for Schuber was simple: What’s with this 75% trash reduction goal? It sounds daunting.
In a nutshell, Schuber said: 1.) Yes, that’s the statewide target by 2020; 2.) Fresno is in great position to meet this goal because of all the hard work we’ve done over the last 25-plus years; 3.) Fresno must not get let up in this final stretch; and 4.) The ultimate goal, in Fresno and throughout the nation, is to have zero waste going into landfills.
That’s right – put landfills out of business.
In a state with 40 million people and an economy based on unbridled consumption, that’s a tall order.
First, some background.
The state about 30 years ago passed AB 989, which required cities to reduce the amount of trash they send to landfills by 50%. They had 11 years to get the job done.
This was no easy task in part because of the mathematics. Take green waste, for example. It’s relatively simple to collect and recycle lawn clippings, etc. A city that collects a lot of green waste (Fresnans love their suburban yards) has a head start in reducing the percentage of overall tonnage of collected waste headed to the landfill. Hit a long drought (as we do periodically in the Valley) and green waste collection plummets. The head start is temporarily gone, but the 50% target remains.
Fresno, though, went “above and beyond” the state goal, Schuber said. At one point, Fresno was operating at a 74% diversion rate. But, Schuber added, “when tonnages slip, obviously your numbers move around a little bit.”
There’s a corollary to green waste dilemma. Sacramento and environmentalists have been pushing trash reduction/diversion policies since the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Industry has slowly but surely responded. The result is more efficient packaging, which means less packaging material to recycle, which makes the landfill numbers “move around a little bit” more.
“In 2020,” Schuber said, “the number will go to 75%. It will definitely be trickier in the future. That’s why a lot of jurisdictions are now looking at zero-waste plans. It’s the big talk at all of the Solid Waste Association of North America” meetings.
“Zero waste” means exactly what it says – nothing going to landfills.
How is Fresno to get to the 75% standard?
The original base figure was 12.6 pounds of solid waste generated per person per day. That was a statewide average. Based on the goal of AB 989, cities had to reduce the landfill tally to 6.3 pounds per person per day. That’s 50%.
With the new law (AB 341) now in place, the base figure is 10.7 pounds. The goal now is 2.7 pounds per person per day going to landfills. That’s 75%.
Can Fresno do it in just two years?
“We’re very close,” Schuber said, noting that Fresno currently sends on average 4.1 pounds of solid waste per person per day to landfills. Cutting that last 1.4 pounds “comes down to education. We want people to understand that they’re part of a team, and the team is designed to get to 2.7.”
Of course, if the “carrot” approach doesn’t work, cities most likely will turn to the “stick” approach – things like fines and random inspections of curbside trash bins.
Schuber is convinced that education will do the trick for the vast majority of residential and commercial customers.
“This organization has been a recycling juggernaut since the process started in the ‘90s,” Schuber said. “When we went to the three-can system in the late ‘90s-early 2000’s, they did the right things at the right time. They had great vision, not only to be fiscally responsible but also environmentally sound. We did the right thing with these products and processes. We were on task.
“It was a genuinely broad effort, with great team members working very hard to get the education message out, to work the enforcement side of things, and to get where people were doing the right thing for the right reasons.”
Can we get to the 75% standard and, beyond that, to zero waste?
“I think we can,” Schuber said. “I think that the community here is considerate of one another and considerate of the resources they have. Where else do you have the agricultural side of things, the water issues that we deal with? San Francisco and Los Angeles – they may think they’re the greenest places in the world. But they don’t grow anything. We do. We really understand the balance between the environment and what we’re doing on a daily basis. I think this community and this area have a better understanding of what it truly means to be environmentally sound than any of the other jurisdictions.”