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California waste increase

Waste Disposal Rate Inches Up as California Economy Improves

Californians sent more material to landfills in 2015 than in 2014. The disposal increase was accompanied by a drop in the statewide recycling rate, according to CalRecycle.

Last year, California disposed of 33.2 million tons of material, compared to 31.2 million tons in 2014 for residential, business, and industry sectors. The new figures mean that Californians disposed, on average, 4.7 pounds per person per day. This is an increase from 4.5 pounds per person per day in 2014.

About 40 percent of the increased disposal was organic material, such as food waste and grasses. This material readily decomposes and generates greenhouse gases such as methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

If the additional 2 million tons of material that went to landfills in 2015 had instead been recycled or composted, greenhouse gas emissions would have been reduced by about 2 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent.

Disposal rates generally increase during economic upturns, and California’s statewide diversion rate of 63 percent (the proportion of waste that is diverted from landfills) continues to outpace the 50 percent diversion mandate set in law for local jurisdictions. However, increased disposal, and missed opportunities to use organic material, in particular, challenge California’s ability to achieve environmental goals such as combating climate change.

“The state’s economic resurgence is impressive, but we have to find ways around the barriers to consistent, sustainable reductions in disposal,” Scott Smithline, director of the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle), said in a statement. “Whether it’s addressing the relatively low cost of disposal or the need to create greater demand for diverted materials, we have to change the equation to one that supports the highest and best end use of discards. Disposal-related greenhouse gases, and the public health and environmental problems they produce, don’t take a break whether the economy is up or down.”

Smithline emphasized that while landfilling is typically considered cheaper than recycling, the costs of recycling do not accurately reflect the money saved by reduced greenhouse gas emissions; money saved by using recycled feedstock as opposed to virgin feedstock in material production; and the money saved on water and fertilizer for agricultural production when organic material is recycled into compost and applied to soil, making it more nutrient-rich and better able to retain moisture. The low cost of dumping recyclable material into landfills undercuts all of these benefits, Smithline said.

AB 341 (Chesbro, Chapter 476, Statutes of 2011) set a statewide goal of 75 percent recycling and required businesses and public entities that generate 4 cubic yards or more of waste each week and multifamily complexes of 5 units or more to recycle. More recently, AB 1826 (Chesbro, Chapter 727, Statutes of 2014) passed, requiring businesses and multifamily complexes that meet certain thresholds to recycle organics. These two laws, along with other CalRecycle initiatives, are designed to help divert material from landfills.

In order to increase the recycling and composting infrastructure statewide, so more material can be diverted from landfills, CalRecycle continues to issue grants and loans and provide technical assistance for businesses that produce and use recycled feedstock rather than virgin material. The department has issued a total of $19.5 million in grants to eight businesses through Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund climate change investments to expand the state’s recycling and manufacturing capacity. CalRecycle also works with other government agencies, the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, and other entities to increase market demand for recycled materials and to provide other forms of financing for recycling manufacturing businesses.

The following chart lists disposal and population data from 1989 to 2015.

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