Get On Board for the Climate- New HWMA Director Will Need Climate Champion Stripes

by Martha Walden for the What Now Coalition


California is cracking down on methane, a greenhouse gas that traps eighty times more heat than carbon dioxide. Any organic matter that rots under anaerobic conditions — think landfill — will produce methane. So SB 1383 aims to reduce 2014 levels of landfilled organic waste by 50%. (The scope of 1383 includes other short term climate pollutants that I don’t have room to address here.) 

The target date for this drastic reduction was January of last year, but Humboldt county has not met that benchmark. But by January of ’22, Cal-Recycle is really putting its foot down. Non-compliant jurisdictions will be referred to the “enforcement unit,” which sounds ominous.

California doesn’t plan to stop there. It mandates a 75% reduction by 2025. The burden of compliance with these ambitious targets rests a great deal on Humboldt Waste Management Authority (HWMA). HWMA is a joint powers authority representing Arcata, Blue Lake, Eureka,  Ferndale, Rio Dell, and the county of Humboldt. It presides over eighty percent of the county’s waste stream. Because Executive Director Jill Duffy is retiring this year, her successor will have the responsibility to oversee the big changes in how we deal with organic waste. This hugely important job requires public administration skills, of course. Above all, it requires someone with the environmental mission to help prevent waste in the first place. The old pitch-and-bury ethos has huge environmental impacts.

Landfills produce 20% of California’s methane emissions. Approximately half of the waste stream is organic. This includes food, paper, textiles, compostable plastic, and wood waste. (Most green waste finds its way to green waste facilities, where it is composted.) 

A system that separates food waste and other organics from the waste stream will require energy, for sure, but those costs should be more than offset by the methane prevention and the energy savings of not shipping our organic waste out of county. Also, composting organics would result in a valuable product that increases carbon sequestration in the soil. Instead of paying to get rid of a bunch of garbage, we treat organic waste as a valuable resource. The logistics of doing this will require ambitious action.

SB 1383 also requires that 20% of food waste will be salvaged for human consumption well before it hits the dumpster. Approximately one third of the global food supply is wasted or under-utilized — a sad commentary on the flaws of our food system. 

HWMA’s many diversion programs keep a lot of stuff from going into the landfill — from hazardous waste to mattresses — and it oversees and monitors the environmental impact of two old landfills. It also manages forest on county-owned land that surrounds the old landfill on Cummings Road. Periodic timber harvests are a source of revenue for HWMA. The new director should consider managing that forest with an increased emphasis on carbon sequestration — another example of a needed new set of priorities.

The future of waste management has arrived. It involves redefining waste as a resource and protecting the environment and climate in the process.