Small goals work well. Watching one episode, reading one chapter, cleaning up one room — these are things you can wrap your head around. Trying to clean your entire apartment in one fell swoop leads only to depression and stasis. Tiny checkpoints keep us moving in the direction of accomplishment, despite the task seeming insurmountable.
Take California's 75 Percent Initiative, an “ambitious” call instituted by Jerry Brown back in 2011 to get the state to reduce, recycle or compost three-fourths of its solid waste by 2020. With nine years of buffer, the goal was hefty but not outrageous. In 2012, the state had already reached the threshold of 50 percent of solid waste not ending up in a landfill. All we needed was another 25.
The means of getting there were five “priority strategies” proposed by CalRecycle. Listed first, due to its overwhelming importance, was figuring out how to move organic material out of the landfill. This was vital for two reasons. First, it's a relatively easy fix, without the technological requirements of recycling. Second, it accounts for a whopping one-half of our state's total waste.
So, four-plus years into the program, where are we in getting folks to compost?
“We're unfortunately pretty far off from the 75 percent,” says Nick Lapis, legislative coordinator for Californians Against Waste. “It's been between a slow burn and building blocks.”
One of those blocks was the 2014 adoption of AB 1826, which required businesses that generate “a specific amount of organic waste per week” to arrange for services to pick up that waste.
Implementation began on April 1 of this year, with the number of businesses slowly expanding on a yearly basis, depending on how much waste they generate. For now, it's any business that generates eight cubic yards of waste a week, while on Jan. 1, 2017, it's any business that generates four cubic yards.
The bill left it up to each jurisdiction to develop methods for implementing recycling programs, which has been standard procedure. Each municipality handles the issue in different ways. San Francisco has made it punishable by a $100 fine if you're found throwing food scraps in the garbage. (No resident has yet been issued such a fine.) But other parts of California haven't taken the needed steps to keep green waste out of the landfill.
“A lot of the green waste that's collected [in Southern California] actually ends up going to landfills anyway,” Lapis says. One problem is that there's just not much money in green-waste collection, an issue that extends into the other realm that was supposed to get California to that 75 percent. “In addition to organic policy, the other half of the 75 percent law was a mandate on businesses to have recycling,” Lapis says. And things don't look great in that sector. In the past year, one-fifth of California's recycling centers have closed as the subsidies that kept them in the black haven't countered the plummeting value of plastic, glass and aluminum.
It's led to a climate where we're further back now than where we were when the 75 Percent Initiative was signed. In 2015, the state disposed of some 33.2 million tons of solid waste, accounting for roughly 4.7 pounds per resident per day, the highest rate since 2008. At the same time, recycling numbers dipped to 47 percent, the first instance since 2010 that it has been below 50 percent.
In the Executive Summary of the latest update (August 2015) of the initiative, it's projected that, in 2020, the state will be generating 80 million tons of solid waste. Of that, about 37 million tons is expected to be reduced, composted or recycled using the normal methods. That leaves 23 million more tons to be somehow figured out. With recycling rates plummeting and green-waste disposal becoming stagnant, it's not clear how the state is going to figure out that last step.
“Usually waste disposal tracks economic growth pretty closely,” Lapis says. “But we have a long way to go.”