Green waste rejected
County landfill likely to cease accepting woody refuse
Larry Royal’s livelihood depends on millions of earthworms. They break down composted material that his company, the Earthworm Soil Factory, uses in soil amendments—products that serve as plant fertilizer and revitalizers for vitamin-depleted gardens.
He described the process during a recent interview: Workers grind down organic material and turn it into compost, which is fed to the earthworms. The worms then produce vermicompost, or worm castings, which are nutrient-rich and full of helpful micro-organisms that growing plants need to thrive.
Out of necessity, the company is picky about what the worms consume. About 90 percent of the source material is green waste from curbside bins—tree trimmings, brush, pine needles and leaves collected by Northern Recycling Waste Systems in Paradise and Magalia. If a bin contained, say, a wooden fence post treated with chemicals, that compost could harm or even kill the worms. In Royal’s experience, waste haulers are pretty good about sorting out contaminants, especially compared with green waste that homeowners drop off directly.
Quality control is partly why Earthworm Soil Factory doesn’t accept green waste from the general public. Also, as he told the Board of Supervisors at its July 26 meeting, state regulations prevent his business from having more than 12,500 cubic yards of vegetative waste on-site, and the facility is operating close to that threshold.
It simply cannot take any more material—even if the county can’t, either.
Indeed, Butte County can no longer afford to accept green waste at the Neal Road Recycling and Waste Facility. For now, the facility accepts it at a fee of $12 per ton, according to a county staff report. Historically, that fee has covered the cost of contracting with a company to grind the material into wood chips, which are then transported to regional cogeneration plants to be converted into electricity.
That was before about half of the state’s cogeneration plants either stopped accepting urban green waste as fuel or shut down entirely, the report notes.
Bill Mannel is the county’s solid waste manager. In a phone interview, he said that cogeneration plants have become increasingly selective about the type of material they burn and now favor heavier limbs. As it happens, there’s a surplus of dead trees harvested from California’s drought- and bark-beetle-ravaged forests.
“Cogeneration plants can opt for the highest quality fuel,” Mannel said. “Urban green waste typically has a lot of pine needles and leaves that grind up pretty fine, and cogeneration plants like the more chunky wood.”
Alternatively, the wood chips can be layered over the landfill’s daily intake of garbage, but the report cites problems with that approach: Grinding is still too expensive and could cost the county $50,000 a year if gate fees aren’t increased; the chips present a fire hazard; and the state is considering legislation that would ban organic materials in landfills altogether.
During the recent supervisors meeting, the panel considered raising the gate fee for dropping off green waste to $66.11 per ton to cover the cost of grinding the material for use as alternative daily cover, or eliminating the service entirely and directing customers to local, private compost operations instead (see information box).
About 300 customers use the Neal Road service each month, usually because they have more material than would fit in a curbside bin, Mannel said. Each year, the public drops off a total of 3,000 tons of vegetation.
“Quite frankly, I think people come to [the landfill] just because they’re accustomed to coming here,” Mannel said. “With an option available in each community, we think people will find that they actually save money because they don’t have to drive to the landfill.”
Supervisor Bill Connelly favored privatizing the service. “Let the private side of the industry run with it,” he said. “We can’t put it in the ground; have nowhere to ship it to. We’re just going to be building a big mountain at 66 bucks a ton.”
Some of the supervisors disagreed. Steve Lambert, for one, is skeptical that private businesses will have a financial incentive to bridge the gap in service, and believes residents may dump green waste by the side of the road rather than pay an increased gate fee elsewhere.
“You can’t expect the private sector [to step up] unless there’s an economic driver to it,” he said, “and it doesn’t sound like a huge moneymaker.”
Royal, for one, is not on board.
“A public entity that is tax-supported can’t make a nickel doing it, so they’ll give it to the private sector, and then they’ll lose money? No,” he said, laughing. “That’s not the way it works.”
In the end, the supervisors directed county staff to develop a plan to stop accepting green waste at the Neal Road site. The plan will be presented this month and, following a public education campaign, the landfill will probably stop accepting woody refuse in November, Mannel said.