Waiting on waste

Chico’s compost facility is temporarily closed

Ernie Cox, of Chico Landscape Management, has offered landscaping and irrigation services in Butte County since 1987.

Ernie Cox, of Chico Landscape Management, has offered landscaping and irrigation services in Butte County since 1987.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Where to take your waste:
Old Durham Wood
8616 Durnel Drive, Durham; 342-7381
Charge: $4.50/cubic yard (under 2 yards, $8/cubic yard)
Recology Transfer Station
2720 S. Fifth Ave., Oroville; 533-5868
Charge: $60/ton
Northern Recycling and Waste Services
920 America Way, Paradise; 876-3340
Charge: $4.50/cubic yard (under 2 yards, $8/cubic yard)

During Chico Landscape Management’s heyday, owner Ernie Cox had two crews of three workers maintaining yards and installing irrigation systems for homeowners throughout Butte County. And historically there were a lot of choices for landscapers when it came time to get rid of all that green waste.

“I did a lot of cleanups, especially in the early days when I got started,” said Cox, who opened his business in 1987. “It was easy to dump things when it was cheap, and then prices started rising, and so did [employee] wages.”

Two years ago, Butte County’s Neal Road Recycling and Waste Facility stopped accepting green waste, which in turn impacted the capacity of other composting sites, like the city-owned site by the Chico Municipal Airport. (See “Green waste rejected,” Newslines, Aug. 18, 2016.)

And now the city’s facility is full, having reached its state-mandated maximum capacity of 12,500 cubic yards. The problem: Nobody wants to buy wood refuse anymore.

For now, landscapers and commercial yard waste haulers have to make other arrangements: dropping off materials at other green waste facilities—in Durham, Oroville or Paradise—or using their clients’ green waste bins, if possible.

Cox has scaled back his landscaping operations over the years. The reason: “I’m getting too old to mow lawns,” the 60-year-old quipped. But he still manages landscaping accounts, and the city’s recent closure has him concerned.

“If we have to haul it farther … now you have the [facility] fee and you have the wages you have to pay for your employees to travel out and back.”

Residents who use their green waste bins likely won’t see any impacts. The bins will continue to be picked up and taken to the compost facility every week—the city is able to compost some materials in order to accommodate residential customers’ needs, according to Linda Herman, the city’s park and natural resources manager. Those without green waste service can haul up to 1 cubic yard to the facility once a week, but they must live in Chico and provide proof of residency at the gate, such as a driver’s license or utility bill.

Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Legislature have set a goal of 75 percent recycling, composting or source reduction of solid waste by 2020 to decrease California’s reliance on landfills, outlined in Assembly Bill 341. However, cogeneration facilities that accept wood refuse have increasingly been going out of business, something Herman has noticed during her more than 20 years with the city.

“We don’t have as many [biomass] facilities to take the wood, and we have an increase in material that needs to be processed because of the drought and tree mortality,” Herman said. “If we had an ongoing market for wood, we should have been able to handle the increase of material coming. Sooner or later it was going to catch up to all of us because of the industry.”

Every year, 18,000 tons of green waste is recycled at the city’s compost facility, Herman said. The city is looking at options to reopen it for commercial users, including applying for a seasonal exemption that would exclude the amount of finished compost from the 12,500 cubic-yard maximum capacity.

“We’re trying to move as fast as we can to get the facility back open. I just don’t have a timeline,” Herman told the CN&R.

Demand to use the facility has increased over time. Last year, the city’s franchise agreement with Waste Management and Recology made the facility fuller because Waste Management, which operates the compost facility, became responsible for all residential customers.

Adding to local confusion was Waste Management’s decision to announce fee increases at the Chico compost facility that hadn’t been approved by the city.

Herman said folks contacted her with complaints. One mentioned being quoted an $80 rate increase (the current rate is $5/first cubic yard, $1/each additional).

It appeared to be a way to dissuade contractors from dropping off waste, Herman added, and was “not necessarily the best approach.”

Waste Management spokeswoman Kendra Kostelecky said that there was “some confusion at the site” regarding fees, “but our contract manager did work with Linda Herman and agree that pricing would not change.”

After the capacity issue is sorted out, the city will discuss potential fee increases with Waste Management, Herman said. They have not been updated much in 20 years, and a lot of things have changed in the green waste business since then, she said. A case in point: It used to be free to drop off waste at the facility in Durham, Old Durham Wood, and now there’s a fee.

If the fees do increase, Cox said that landscaping companies will have to pass on the costs to customers.

“We will have to charge people accordingly,” he said. “We pass on the savings, if you will, but in the long run it’s the customer that is going to be paying the raises.”