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Getting to Zero

news2Santa Cruz County uses state recycling law anniversary as a moment for assessment 

For Santa Cruz County, a longtime leader in waste reduction and sustainability, the one-year anniversary of the state's recycling mandate, Assembly Bill 341, on July 1 served as a moment for reflection, evaluation, and looking forward.

“This one-year anniversary is a kind of marking point to assess how far we've come,” says Tim Goncharoff, a planner for the division of recycling and solid waste in the county's Public Works Department. “It was an important day for us, locally.”

The standards of the bill—which requires recycling statewide for businesses and institutions generating four or more cubic yards of solid waste weekly, as well as for multifamily residential dwellings of five or more units—are mostly already being met locally, he says.

A long-term goal component of AB 341 is for every California city, county and regional agency to “source reduce, recycle or compost” 75 percent of their solid waste by 2020, though Santa Cruz County attained that goal a full decade early in 2010.

With that much of a head start, Goncharoff says Santa Cruz County's role in the national push toward sustainability is more about acting as a model and standard rather than as a competitor.

He adds that other cities have contacted Santa Cruz County officials about how to implement similar recycling systems, but goes on to say that, sometimes, the farthest-reaching changes that have occurred as a result of local ordinances have required a little more negotiation than simply raising flags of progress.

One such ripple effect took place last year.

Following the county's ban on polystyrene foam (Styrofoam) in October 2012, there were some hold-ups for some of the bigger, national businesses coming into compliance due to their outside management and supply sources.

In the case of Cold Stone Creamery, a chain with 1,400 stores nationwide, one of which is on Pacific Avenue, Chris Moran, a waste reduction analyst for the City of Santa Cruz's Public Works Department, went to great lengths to convince them to stop using Styrofoam at their downtown store.

Goncharoff, relating the story—Moran was unavailable at the time of publication—says Moran not only explained that the creamery chain had to comply legally, but also why it was important for the environment: the material does not decompose.

The result was Cold Stone Creamery deciding to not only convert locally, but also to change their cup material at every one of their stores.

More recently, another county recycling law that went into effect last October challenged the status quo for national electronics outlet Best Buy. The ordinance requires that all collectors of electronic material waste must be disposed of by e-Stewards certified recyclers, a Seattle-based nonprofit that ensures safe commercial recycling practices. Best Buy, however, had their own e-waste recycling program for customers bringing in old equipment.

After discussions between the county's Public Works Department and Best Buy's corporate headquarters in Minneapolis, Minn., the corporation upgraded all of their 11,050 stores.

“Those are tremendous changes happening because of our efforts here,” Goncharoff says.

Santa Cruz County’s position as a sustainability leader was influenced by the County Board of Supervisors’ 2005 commitment to becoming “zero waste.”

“That was a change in thinking about the approach to this issue,” Goncharoff says. “We've met the 2020 goals. By the time 2020 comes, we're hoping to be a lot closer to zero.”

The zero waste goal—which would theoretically make landfills obsolete—prompted a re-assessment of how and what things can be recycled.

One example is the county's retail take-back program for difficult-to-recycle products like florescent light bulbs, used motor oil, commercial paint, and hypodermic needles. The program is designed to make it easier for customers to bring items back to stores and have the recycling managed there.

The county is working at adding additional items for take-backs, including mattresses, batteries, and carpets.

“You'll probably see in the next few years [that] when someone gets a new carpet installed, the installer just takes the old carpet away routinely and recycles it,” Goncharoff says.

Currently, the retail take-back program is voluntary, and the county is trying to get more stores to join.

Another substantial factor in getting down to zero waste is composting.

Goncharoff says about a third of the waste currently going into landfills is compostable. A major effort over the next five years will be creating a countywide composting program, though space is a hold-up.

Goncharoff says that on average, the rest of California's communities are currently reporting approximately 50 percent waste diversion, and that the national average is closer to 25 percent.

“We've met the 2020 goals” of 75 percent waste diversion, he says. “By the time 2020 comes, we're hoping to be a lot closer to zero waste than we are now. We're not going to rest on our laurels.”

He estimates that by 2020, Santa Cruz County will be at about 90 percent waste diversion.

Goncharoff suggests that locally, “waste disposal” is no longer the most appropriate term.

“With 75 percent being reused, [we] call it the resource recovery business,” he says.

Optimistically, he adds, “I don't think our grandchildren will know what a landfill is.”

Comments (1)Add Comment
Communications Director, California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery
written by Mark Oldfield, July 11, 2013
Minor correction: AB 341 sets a statewide goal to reach 75 percent source reduction, recycling or composting by 2020. It is not specific to individual jurisdictions, which fall under the the 50-percent waste diversion mandate of the state's Integrated Waste Management Act.

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