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Using Solar Energy to Power Large Scale Compost with Chris Seney

Audio Editing: Xu Wangyuxuan | Episode Script: Marie Hogan | Blurb: Amanda Neslund | Socials: Sophia Del Priore

In 2018, nearly one-third of the 39 million tons of waste in California landfills was compostable organic material. Organic material – food and agricultural waste – releases methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, as it decomposes. As a result, California’s Short-Lived Pollutant Reduction law, SB-1383, targets such food waste by establishing methane reduction targets and takes aim at food insecurity in the state. The implementation of SB-1383 is vital in supporting California’s climate goals. Methane is produced when organics rot, and it is critical to reduce methane emissions levels as the gas is eighty-four times more potent than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over a 20 year period. When implemented, SB-1383 will reduce California’s methane emissions from organic materials in traditional landfills by an estimated twenty percent.

SB 1383 also supports California’s commitments to improving human health, creating clean jobs, and supporting local economies. Some of SB-1383 targets include: expanding California’s organics infrastructure, ensuring all residents and businesses have access to recycling and organics collection services, a seventy-five percent reduction in organic waste disposal from 2014 levels, and that no less than twenty percent of currently disposed edible food is reserved for human consumption by 2025. The bill also requires jurisdictions to conduct outreach and education to all businesses, residents, solid waste facilities, and local food banks. 

Chris Seney is the Director of Organics Operations at Republic Services and has operated organic facilities for over twenty years in California. Seney helped lead the development of organics infrastructure and enactment of SB-1383 across the state. The implementation of SB-1383 has resulted in an increase in demand for composting facilities, which, in turn, has increased energy demand. Now, California has its first fully solar-powered compost facility,  Republic Services’ Otay Compost Facility in Chula Vista. The facility runs completely on renewable energy, processes one hundred tons of organic waste a day, and helps the San Diego region meet the demands of SB-1383. The facility was named 2022’s National Waste and Recycling Association’s Organics Facility of the Year.

Compost also supports California’s climate goals as it promotes a “an economy that uses a systems-focused approach and involves industrial processes and economic activities that are restorative or regenerative by design.” A circular economy focuses on sustainability and  the lifecycle of materials, maximizing resources while minimizing waste. Compost is a critical part of a circular economy as the compost produced from recycled organics preserves natural resources, nutrients, and water that would otherwise be lost in landfills. Along with preserving resources, the composting initiatives in SB-1383 are expected to significantly support decarbonization goals. Whendee Silver, a UC Berkeley ecosystem ecologist, “has estimated that applying an inch of compost to just 5% of California’s rangelands would suck enough carbon out of the atmosphere to equal pulling 6 million cars off the road.” Composting may be the next climate crusade and SB-1383 is leading the nation in efforts reducing both food waste and greenhouse gas emissions. 

Sources: 

Transcript:

Chris Seney: The green waste food waste comes in. You know, it’s being diverted from the landfill. We’re gonna process it, and make a bunch of different products that then are gonna be used locally. And that’s the circular economy, you know, at its best. 

Ethan: I’m Ethan Elkind, and you’re listening to Climate Break. California needs more organics recycling to meet its goal to reduce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. But recycling this plant and food waste can be energy intensive. Chris Seney [SEE-nee], the Organics Operations Director for Republic Services, says their new solar-powered facility in Chula Vista, California could help solve the problem.

Chris Seney: So the old school composting where you just have it out in a pile and wait six months, you turn it a few times that’s never gonna happen again in California. No one’s gonna permit one of those. It has to be high tech you’re utilizing blowers, oxygen, meters, temperature, meters, constantly keeping it aerobic with fans and so forth to reduce emissions and odors that could potentially come from one of these facilities. But of course that takes energy.

Ethan Elkind: Traditionally, that energy hasn’t been renewable, but the Chula Vista facility takes a different approach.

Chris Seney: For a variety of reasons, most important, you know, the city’s climate action plan and their goals and just how awesome I thought this would be, you know, we went with solar. 

Chris Seney: So what you’re looking at is enough to power 32 different blowers, one for each of the 32 heaps or piles. And then it also powers the temperature probes, the oxygen probes. There’s 140 floor solar panels. We have 573 kilowatts of power storage. And then we can actually use the sun’s solar power to actually run the entire system. 

Ethan: To learn more about how effective organics recycling can reduce methane emissions from landfills visit climatebreak.org.

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