Debbie Gibbs: Is our waste a burden — or a resource?
The purpose of this ongoing series of articles on Climate Connections is to move beyond the arguments around our climate chaos and to find area we can agree on. You may not believe in the climate issues of today … but you may be concerned about the use of plastics and the oceans. You may also be concerned about air and water quality. Whatever you want to call it, the planet needs our stewardship. The writers here will share their perspectives from many angles. Perhaps some or all will resonate with you, and bring to our awareness the necessary actions we can take. We will leave the arguments and differing beliefs to others.
— Marilyn Nyborg
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday — hands down. What is better than lots of good food and great company? This is a uniquely USA event, and for the most part, we are fortunate by accident of birth to land in a country with resources which most other countries envy. This includes the bountiful agricultural industry that brings us the ingredients for our annual feast.
But perhaps we take this abundance and good fortune for granted. It makes sense to buy and prepare what can realistically be consumed without overstuffing guests, and the landfill. The food that ends up in the garbage will decay and produce methane, an emission that is much more powerful than CO2. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, 30% of food is wasted globally across the supply chain, contributing 8% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. If food waste were a country, its emissions would come in third after the U.S. and China.
California takes organic waste pollution seriously and in 2016 enacted SB1383 to control of organic waste. This law requires a 50% reduction in organic waste disposal from 2014 levels by 2020, and a 75% reduction by 2025. That will require the diversion of up to 27 million tons of organic waste by 2025.
Additionally, SB 1383 requires that by 2025 not less than 20% of edible food that is currently disposed be recovered for human consumption. According to BioCycle, “No other government in the world has created SB 1383’s legal mandate to recover edible food previously sent to landfills to give to people in need. …Many Californians are food insecure, including 1 in 5 children. At the same time, more than 5.5 million tons of food waste are disposed in California landfills each year, according to CalRecycle’s 2014 waste characterization study.”
Frankly, organic waste is a problem that each individual can most easily resolve. And doing so will keep our waste disposal costs down as we work toward a healthier environment. Much of the organic waste no longer suitable for human consumption could be diverted to feed livestock, or make compost and fuel.
So, starting at home, please compost if you can. Keep your food waste in a bin and use it for your plants. It’s terrific, it costs you nothing, and composting is relatively easy. The local Nevada County Master Gardeners (http://ncmg.ucanr.org/Composting_Resources/) have lots of great video and written information on composting.
But for some, composting at home is just not possible. Here is where the county and the community must step up. Nevada County has embarked on redesigning the McCourtney Road Transfer Station. Part of that redesign is to better accommodate the transfer of organic waste, but the main objective is reducing congestion. Although our county population has not increased much since 2016, traffic at the transfer station is up 75% and green waste has increased by 100%.
Sustainable disposal of organic waste is a new frontier. Facilities that process green waste exist, although the county must haul this waste many miles. But facilities to handle food waste are limited. And food waste can be valuable if handled properly (compost), or a major problem if not (methane release).
To explore the many options, the Nevada County Solid and Hazardous Waste Commission has formed a community subcommittee. In addition to Commissioner Sue Hoek, representatives from Public Works, Waste Management and representatives from local organizations and businesses are researching and discussing possibilities. Ideally, keeping waste from entering the Transfer Station is a major goal. But this will likely require land, finances and some science, while possibly offering some business opportunities.
Historically, humans have not done a great job at cycling their waste into a useful product unlike other participants in biological systems. We nonchalantly toss our waste into a trash can or recycle bin and assume the trash collectors can dispose of our debris somewhere else. But there is no “away” and today mankind has a global challenge to keep toxic waste out of the soil, air, water and unfortunately, our bodies.
So, yes, there is much to celebrate on this Thanksgiving. But at the same time, let’s be mindful of our blessings and responsibilities to keep our world healthy for ourselves, future generations and a flourishing planet.
Debbie Gibbs has lived in Nevada County for 20 years and is active in the Nevada County Climate Action Now and other groups working on food and agriculture issues.
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