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Organic waste law highlights urban-rural divide

County residents could be facing higher garbage fees next year, the result of another state regulation that has some local officials calling for pushback against lawmakers in Sacramento.

The regulations center around organic waste – stuff like potato peels, garden trimmings and paper products – which residents and businesses will soon have to separate from regular trash themselves as well as pay out of their own pockets for collection services.

Senate Bill 1383, passed by the state Legislature in 2016, set a goal of reducing what are called short-lived climate pollutants by around 40 percent. SLCPs are gases like methane, hydrofluorocarbons and black carbon, and they account for about a third of the gases currently contributing to climate change. Carbon dioxide is responsible for the rest. While there is much more CO2 in the atmosphere – it can remain in the air for hundreds of years – SLCPs are much more effective at warming the Earth than CO2, which is why they have become a target of global organizations like the World Bank as well as the government of California.

According to CalRecycle, the state agency tasked with overseeing waste management, organic waste in landfills accounts for about 20 percent of California’s emissions of methane, which is especially damaging to the atmosphere. One ton of it is as harmful as 27 tons of carbon dioxide. The majority of methane released in California comes from dairy operations in the Central Valley, especially in Tulare, Merced and Stanislaus counties. Regulators also passed requirements for the ag industry in 2016, and digesters – large pits which convert cow manure into usable natural gas – are now common.

But the problem, like with many regulations that come out of Sacramento, is that there is no plan to pay for it. State lawmakers provided no funding to help local governments with the added costs of dealing with the organic waste, which means regular people are going to be paying for the new regulations through an increase in waste management fees. This will come at a time of record inflation, high food and gas prices, and a housing crisis that shows no signs of slowing down.

“It’s one of those deals that feels good to somebody that we’re going to harvest our organic waste,” said Supervisor Lloyd Pareira. “But the cost is passed on to the ratepayers. It just gets passed on to people.”

How much waste management rates will increase is still up in the air, according to Mary-Michal Rawling, spokeswoman for the Merced County Association of Governments, which manages waste on behalf of the county’s many communities.

“We can say pretty confidently that there’s going to be fee increases, but we don’t know to what extent at this point,” she said.

Details about the possible rate hikes will start to come out next year, she said, when the Merced County Regional Waste Management Authority meets in January or February.

The new regulations are just another example of what irks elected officials in California’s rural areas. The law makes sense for a densely populated city like San Francisco or Los Angeles, but quickly runs into issues when applied elsewhere. For example, separate collection for organic waste will likely require separate trucks, which means more garbage trucks on the roads and for much longer – Merced County is nearly 2,000 square miles. Unsurprisingly, one of the bill’s supporters was Republic Services, the second largest waste company in America.

“What good you’re doing by taking this little volume of organics out of the landfill … will be canceled out by these big garbage trucks going down the road,” said Supervisor Scott Silveira.

“It’s going to be driving all over town,” Pareira said. “They’re going to do 10,000 miles per town, per truck. All of a sudden you’re running all this extra pollution into the air.”

Plus, the county’s largest landfill on Highway 59 already has a gas capturing system. It was installed in 2011 and later included in a proposal to pipe the gas to UC Merced for use in powering some of its facilities. That deal never went through, and currently the gas is being collected and flared on-site. Flaring destroys most of the SLCPs, but it doesn’t produce power. The Billy Wright landfill in the west county doesn’t have a gas collector in place, but it is on the state’s list of potential sites for one. Pareira’s idea is to eventually take the captured gas and sell it to local businesses, generating income for the county.

The regulations don’t just affect consumers, they also apply to businesses. This year the regulations kicked in for grocery stores, food wholesalers and distributors and in 2024 they will start applying to restaurants, hotels and large venues.

“Ultimately those costs get borne by everybody,” said Silveira, who argued passionately against the law in a recent meeting.

“People have a finite amount of dollars to stretch out and now you’re adding to that $30 or so dollars a month. That’s $30 worth of food they’re not going to be able to buy. The state talks about equity and the underserved, but these are the folks it’s going to affect the most. I don’t think you can say those words if you don’t mean it,” he said.

Silveira wants to see rural counties come together to fight unfunded mandates.

“We have to get out of this mindset that they’re the state and we just have to take whatever they give us,” he said. “At some point you have to push back.”

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