Greening Our Waste in L.A. and Orange counties

Tuesday, December 4, 2012
Jeremy Drake and Marjorie Phan

Sierra Club staff members and activists recently surveyed 23 cities in Los Angeles and Orange counties to better understand what the region is doing with discarded food scraps and yard trimmings. Does it go into methane-belching landfills or are cities finding a way to compost? The data gathered will help the Club push for more sustainable management of these materials, known in waste parlance as “organics.”

The Organics Project was organized by the Chapter Zero Waste Committee to lead the effort that comes at a critical time. In the wake of deadly Superstorm Sandy that battered much of the East Coast, climate change has once again captured the nation’s attention. As a result of decomposing organic matter, landfills are the third largest man-made source of methane, a climate-polluting gas with up to 105 times the potency of CO2.

Redirecting organics away from landfills is a key strategy in the battle to save our climate. Meanwhile, California’s new 75% statewide recycling goal may limit disposal options for organics to composting and other environmentally preferable management methods. And right here in Angeles Chapter territory, the Puente Hills Landfill, one of the largest sinks for the region’s organics, is scheduled to close next October. This closure will send millions of tons of organics to other regional landfills every year unless municipalities change how that material is managed. The sooner the region adapts organics management practices to these challenges the better for our environment and for our future.

Last summer, the team introduced an online survey to cities in Los Angeles and Orange counties in an attempt to collect information about current organics management practices, knowledge of existing organics flows within and across city limits, and future plans for organics management. The team contacted 49 cities; 23 cities completed the survey. After evaluating the responses, the team awarded points for responses that suggest an environmentally sound approach to organics management. Points went to cities that have environmental policies such as zero waste plans, education and incentive programs such as composting workshops and compost bin sales or giveaways, and collection programs such as residential or commercial food scraps collection, to name a few examples.

In the coming months, the team will invite more cities in Los Angeles and Orange counties to participate in this survey and will begin sharing findings with city officials and residents alike. And your help is needed. Individuals or organizations interested in getting involved with this project, contact the Angeles Chapter’s Zero Waste Committee to sign up for a task.

What the numbers mean

The resulting tally compares the 23 cities and identifies the leaders and the laggards in organics management. So what do the results reveal and what does it mean for Club members and activists?

  • Only 57% of surveyed cities have environmental policies on the books. Some of those policies are explicit about the role of organics management in achieving policy goals while others are not. A grassroots push is needed in the surveyed cities that have not adopted any environmental policies or have policies that do not explicitly link organics management to achieving policy goals.
  • It comes as no surprise that yard trimmings from nearly 90% of surveyed cities go to landfills for use as landfill cover (a practice described in “Why are we tossing organic waste into landfills?” in the Southern Sierran's May 2012 issue ). However, there is surprisingly good news. In two of the surveyed cities, yard trimmings are NOT sent to landfills, instead they are used as feedstock for composting and mulch. This is a trend that needs to be supported and encouraged in cities across the region.
  • Knowledge of organics flows within and across city lines is limited. Only half of the surveyed cities claimed to know how organics generated in the commercial sector are managed. Seventy-five percent did not identify large generators of yard trimmings while 60% did not identify large generators of food scraps. Increasing cities’ awareness of the waste they produce and discard may have a positive influence on the development of environmentally sound organics management policies.
  • A variety of organics management programs are scattered across the region. The inconsistency in source reduction, diversion, education, and incentive program implementation from city to city can be seen as an opportunity. Cities need to understand that they can easily enhance their organics management portfolios by adopting tried and tested programs already in place in neighboring communities.
  • Three out of four surveyed cities expressed a desire to adopt environmentally sound organics management practices. Although many cities currently rely on landfills as the first option for organics disposal, they are not necessarily satisfied with the status quo. Cities need to know they have grassroots support in the adoption of composting and anaerobic digestion as preferred organics management practices.
  • Some cities have outsourced the waste collection and disposal responsibilities to private waste-hauling companies. A number of cities we contacted could not participate in our survey because they simply did not know enough about their city’s waste to answer our questions. City leaders must understand that waste management decisions determined by policy are preferable to those determined by the whims of the marketplace.

The results from this survey provide only a glimpse into current organics management practices in the region. Through this project, activists hope to first develop a more accurate understanding of the region’s existing practices and trends, and then take action to ensure the most environmentally sound organics management choices are made across the region.  The Organics Project website contains much additional information including the full report entitled "The Organics Project:Phase One Report - January 2013".

In the coming months, the team will invite more cities in Los Angeles and Orange counties to participate in this survey and will begin sharing findings with city officials and residents alike. And your help is needed. Individuals or organizations interested in getting involved with this project, contact the Angeles Chapter’s Zero Waste Committee to sign up for a task.

Want to stay up to date on our progress? Like us on Facebook.

Jeremy Drake is a member of the Sierra Club Angeles Chapter’s Zero Waste Committee


Your chart is very unclear and perhaps not too meaningful. There is no description of what is measured. Is zero good (no methane produced) and what does 30 mean? Is there a factor for the size of the City? A smaller city will produce less waste and less methane than a larger city. While gross numbers are needed, isn't it more meaningful when comparing city to city to do it on a per capita basis? I applaud your efforts to move cities to environmental and organics management. I don't think this chart will help the effort

Houston makes compost, fertilizer and mulch out of their waste. Items of this sort are then bought by homeowners for their yard and gardens. I know of no soil addition that is as good as this product. I have seen the results of its use and they are unbelievably better than any commercial products we have in California.

There is not enough info in your graph to know what it really means.

This article and your project are a real eye-opener for those of us who live in L.A. County. Thank you.
However --- your chart is useless here without some explanation of what you are looking at. There is no indication as to what the bars metered from 0 to 30 are supposed to represent. A few clues on that would be very helpful. Without that assistance the chart should be removed as it is nothing but an unnecessary distraction from an otherwise excellent article.

Anaheim uses it for a free compost giveaway each year, with backyard composters sold dirt cheap for home use. This program works and I now have a place for all my green waste and leaves/vegetable scraps. Not sure where all the rest goes when our fee-for-services trucks haul it away. Why shouldn't profits be used lower our rates? When does the cost of home ownership ever go down because non-profits actually use the profits for cost reduction on our trash bills? How about all those landfills that ultimately get used as a base for new housing, giving the city some refunds, lowering our trash bills, when the land is built upon? Or does our government just serve the rich, always relying on the homeowners to fill their coffers, instead of rate reductions. How about restoration of our burnt hillsides? How about free firewood? How about free trash services?
All the dumping charges we pay should give us a return on investment! Isn't it time for cities to give back to the homeowners?

What are the units for the table??

What are the units for the table?? Please correct and re-post.
I think SJC is doing well but can't be sure.

I suspect that my community, Seal Beach, is one of the private outsource cities you mentioned. After going to considerable effort several years ago to obtain a detailed description from that vendor, I was very impressed with their plastics separation and usage (they recycle most plastic). I didn't inquire about their organics, but I suggest that you do so - the vendor may be cooperative and helpful. Likewise, in my previous community, Downey, the vendor (which was located in Downey) while less aggressive on plastics, at least at that time, had a good reputation and would probably be interested in working with the chapter directly, in cooperation with the city, which did seem more knowledgeable than Seal Beach.

Relying on educating city officials that have outsourced this to take it off their plates, and seeing to get them more deeply involved, is not likely to be successful. I would suggest a dual approach which seeks to determine what changes the vendor might be willing to make, if supported by the city, and taking that back to the city as an option or proposal. They might just be able to approve such a proposal, particularly if the cost is nominal to the city. Also, there are fewer vendors to contact than cities that use their services.

Am I missing something here? I read and re-read your article a few times trying to make sense of your chart, but still can't figure out if the higher numbered bars are good (i.e. better environmental stewards), or bad??
Maybe another sentence added to the graphic could help clear that up for your readers...
Thanks for all your efforts and research!

How disappointing to see that the city I reside in is last!

Is there any information about Athens Services? What happens to the green waste from our bins?


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