Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority: A Future Without Landfills

With a mission to eliminate the need for landfills through an integrated system of innovative waste recovery and reduction technologies, education and customer service, the Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority has remained committed to developing renewable energy projects and diverting the incoming waste streams.

The Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority, aka Salinas Valley Recycles (SVR), is a Joint Powers Agency (JPA) made up of six local governments located in the eastern half of Monterey County, CA. The JPA was formed in 1997 and is responsible for providing secure long-term solid waste disposal and resource recovery services to all of its members in an environmentally sound and cost-effective manner. To accomplish this goal, SVR currently owns four landfills (one open and three closed) and two transfer stations, and oversees the operation of these facilities across a 2,400 square mile service area. SVR is also responsible for overseeing materials recovery processing operations and planning, and future landfill siting or expansion to meet the area’s long-term solid waste disposal needs. However, their mission is to “… eliminate the need for landfills through an integrated system of waste reduction, reuse, recycling, innovative technologies, customer service and education, advanced waste recovery technologies and education.Landfills

Today, the agency employs more than 50 employees and operates one of only two open and active landfills in the County of Monterey. SVR serves the following areas in Monterey County: the eastern portion of the unincorporated county and the cities of Gonzales, Greenfield, King City, Salinas and Soledad. In FY 2015-16, 240,000 tons of waste was received at their collective facilities with 59,000 tons recovered or reused and 182,000 landfilled at the Johnson Canyon Landfill just outside of Gonzales. Each of the three SVR facilities operates material recovery centers for free public drop off of source-separated recyclables including metal, plastics, cardboard, paper, glass, e-waste, textiles and mattresses. Each facility also accepts green waste and wood waste which is processed at the landfill and is either composted or turned into wood chips, mulch and soil amendment for use in garden or landscape projects. SVR’s Sun Street Transfer Station in Salinas operates a permanent Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) Facility, which is free for residents to drop off chemicals, paints, fertilizers, batteries and other toxic chemicals or materials. The Johnson Canyon Landfill and Jolon Road Transfer Station in King City both host free drop-off centers for antifreeze, paint, oil and batteries (ABOP) materials, and conducts periodic one-day HHW collection events in the more rural areas it serves.

Financial Planning and Program Funding

SVR has remained committed to ending reliance on landfill tipping fees to fund programs outside of landfill operations. Often referred to as the “Financial Death Spiral” in the solid waste business, as the industry gets better at diverting waste from the landfill, SVR reduces their historic revenue streams based on burying waste that have subsidized waste diversion efforts. “SVR now collects fees separately from the landfill operations to fund our non-landfill based programs such as education, recycling center operations, HHW collections, and C&D and organics processing. These are all now stand-alone, financially stable programs funded thorough California “AB 939” fees that are proportionally allocated to each member agency’s franchise hauler. These programs are no longer dependent on subsidization from landfill disposal tipping fees. Our long-range goals is to continue to self-fund all non-landfill programs so we are in a better financial position to operate an integrated system that anticipates ongoing declines in landfill tipping fees and that can better weather economic downturns,” says Ray Hendricks, Finance Manager.

SVR has also taken advantage of lower interest rates and refinanced the agency’s original start-up bonds, creating savings that have been used to fund deferred capital investments and repairs, and reduce agency costs.

Overall, SVR has seen some significant upticks in both tonnages of waste and recyclables over the last several years, and the resulting improved revenues have allowed them to increase their reserves and prepare for the next rainy day downturn in the economy.

Internal Operations

Training

SVR provides extensive training to prepare employees to succeed and advance within the agency. It all starts with the “Buddy Program” that pairs up all new employees with a seasoned employee to help them integrate more quickly and better into the work force community and learn about the agency’s culture and process. “We offer a ‘Mentor Program’ matching up a senior manager/supervisor with an employee outside their department to offer career advice, counseling and guidance to employees who want to both excel at their current job and prepare for advancement in the agency,” says Rose Gill, Human Resources/Organizational Development Manager. “We also provide ‘cross-training’ for employees interested in moving up or laterally in the agency by providing training opportunities in work areas or assisting existing staff outside their normal work environment.” The goal is to prepare employees for their next job, here or with another employer, and to keep employees engaged through work diversity.

In addition to these formal training programs, SVR has all employees engage in leading staff meetings and safety meetings to build speaking and organizational skills, and create more employee ownership in the agency.

Community Outreach

SVR has a robust community outreach program with three full-time employees dedicated to working with local schools, businesses and multifamily complexes to implement comprehensive recycling and waste reduction programs to meet multiple state waste diversion mandates. Staff provides technical assistance and infrastructure support, conducts one-on-one outreach and education, provides presentations and trainings, and hosts free public tours of the facilities. In addition, SVR provides free school assembly shows and a field trip experience of the Monterey Bay aboard the O’Neill’s Sea Odyssey’s 65ft. catamaran for 4th through 6th graders in the Salinas Valley, where they learn about recycling and environmental/ocean stewardship. SVR also offers free community composting workshops to encourage residents to begin vermicomposting (composting with worms) to recycle food scraps and yardwaste in their own backyards. Outreach staff also attends community events on an annual basis. In FY 15-16, staff participated in more than 130 community events, presentations and trainings.

Safety Programs

With a very strong safety culture at SVR, employees conduct monthly safety meetings at all job sites using a wide variety of training tools they have accumulated over the years, such as OSHA trainings, safety videos, powerpoints and actual events to bring awareness of all hazards.  “Our Injury, Illness Prevention Plan (IIPP) is the core of our safety programs and is used extensively as the basis for our monthly trainings and tailgate meetings at job sites,” explains Cesar Zuñiga, Assistant General Manager. “We also have a Safety Committee, composed of employees from our operational and administrative facilities that meet monthly to discuss safety topics, review incidents and employee safety suggestions, and provide oversight of all agency safety programs and the IIPP.”  Safety Committee members are paired up with other employees each quarter to conduct full safety inspections of all facilities, providing many different perspectives on safety.  The inspections allow non-operational staff to visit each site and see things that may not be seen by staff who are onsite daily. These reports are then reviewed and acted upon by the Safety Committee. “Currently, we are preparing to undergo a “voluntary” OSHA inspection to help identify any additional safety issues we may have missed,” says Zuñiga. He explains that OSHA will come out and inspect without enforcing penalties. Employers can request from the agency a voluntary inspection to determine whether they are in compliance. These voluntary inspections are often conducted on behalf of OSHA by third-party consultants that receive federal grant money. Following an inspection, the consultants draft written reports detailing their findings and recommendations. Under OSHA’s regulations, these written reports are deemed confidential and may only be disclosed to the employer for whom it was prepared, allowing the employer to make corrections in areas that require it.

A Visionary Pathway

SVR’s vision is to eliminate the need for landfills; however, to make that a reality requires implementing new technologies or systems for continuing to deal with the waste stream. SVR has found that the political and public perception and/or fear associated with that change or new technology has been a challenge. Concerns associated with perceived risk of new technology, costs and liabilities can often inhibit progress, which can often result in defaulting back to “low cost” landfilling as a preferred pathway.

Since 2005, SVR has been actively moving to replace the landfill based system with one that focuses on individual and corporate responsibility, maximizes waste reduction potential through the existing recycling systems, and advancement of new technologies to replace landfilling and simplify recovery of resources within the current recycling market system. In 2004, SVRs Board of Directors created a Conversion Technology Commission (CTC) of staff and elected officials to specifically study and recommend new technology pathways to end its dependence on landfilling.

The CTC identified and studied several technology pathways to achieve further reduction of waste going to its community landfill.   One of the recommended technologies is now part of SVR’s long range study to achieve greater reduction in its landfill dependency.  SVR has created the template for  a public-private partnership with Global Organics Energy (GOE) for use of their proprietary separation technology to recover paper fiber and organics from the mixed waste stream which accounts for 60 to 70 percent of the material currently going to SVR’s landfill today. The primary end products would include manufacturing ready paper pulp, bio-energy through anaerobic digestion and recovery of stranded conventional recyclables remaining in the waste stream (5 to 10 percent).

SVR is also evaluating contracted use of other conventional waste recovery programs already in place such as the Monterey Regional Waste Management District’s Materials Recovery Facility planned for upgrade in 2017. SVR is also studying continued use of its or other regional landfills for continued disposal of waste (status quo) as this remains the current lowest cost option, but with potential long term cost and environmental liability consequences.  To this end, SVR has undertaken a three-part due diligence effort to understand and contrast/compare the impacts of the various options for achieving the goal of reducing long-term dependence on landfills for the community’s waste management needs in the future. This fact-finding work includes preparation of a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR), a comprehensive long-range financial and rate impact study, and an Economic Benefits/Impacts study for each off the project options under consideration.

“The overall goal of this project is not only to achieve a significant reduction in our landfill dependence, but to also align ourselves with our local economic development planning efforts to attract new and innovative businesses, create jobs, and stimulate demand for existing services in our community and the State,” says  Patrick Mathews, General Manager. “We are also trying to reduce our dependence on unstable foreign markets for our recovered resources and, instead, create and build on regional demand for products within the State.” One of the most interesting projects SVR is studying is the creation of manufacturing ready paper pulp, mined from mixed MSW that would be supplied directly into local paper manufacturing companies that are in turn providing paper to local packaging manufactures for the agricultural industry.

Currently, Mathews believes that recovering organics from the waste stream for the highest and best use while balancing rates and services is one of the industry’s biggest challenges. However, SVR’s public-private partnership project outlined previously also involves a unique process that will recover most of the organics from the mixed waste stream as a by-product of mining paper fiber from mixed MSW and converts it to renewable energy. “This project has the potential to not only maximize organics recovery, but eliminate the need for extensive and expensive collection programs for source separation of organics that is the most current practice,” says Mathews.

Future Developments

Implementing AB 939 Fees (see the the “California Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989 below) as an additional revenue source to fund non-landfill based programs was a great step towards ending the region’s dependence on landfills. However, ending the importation of waste to the landfill from outside the County (and the revenue that went with it) was a major accomplishment and statement that landfills are not part of SVR’s long-term picture. Members of the community, especial those near the landfill, have been very happy with this decision.

SVR has also partnered with the private sector to install a 1.6 mega-watt LFG-energy project, turning Johnson Canyon Landfill into a clean energy resource recovery facility not just a disposal site. Plans to expand this plant are in progress. Further development of renewable energy projects, such as solar and wind, are underway on some of SVR’s closed landfills to help offset the cost of long term post-closure landfill care. Says Mathews, “Right now, our highest priority is to complete our due diligence process for our future facility needs and fully engage the public, stakeholders and elected officials in a discussion of what is best for the community in the long term as we move forward towards a ‘future without landfills’”.

For more information, contact Patrick Mathews via e-mail at  patrickm@svswa.org.

The California Integrated Waste Management Act (IWMA) of 1989

California Assembly Bill AB 939 Established the “California Integrated Waste Management Act (IWMA) of 1989” which created an integrated waste management hierarchy to guide the State-run Board, now known as CalRecycle, and local agencies in implementation, in order of priority: (1) source reduction, (2) recycling and composting, and (3) environmentally safe transformation and land disposal. It established quantified, tiered diversion goals for public jurisdictions (25% diversion of all solid waste from landfill or transformation by Jan 1, 1995 through source reduction, recycling and composting activities and 50% diversion by Jan 1, 2000) with reporting requirements, and assessed fines on jurisdictions that failed to meet those goals. Amongst other mandates, it provided that state planning, implementation and operating costs be funded by a fee collected by every operator of a solid waste landfill and paid quarterly to the Board of Equalization, based on all solid waste disposed of at each disposal site.

AB 939 fees are one proven way to recovery the full cost of meeting the state’s AB 939 mandates and can provide a more stable source of revenues to support these non-landfill based, waste diversion programs.  CA Public Resources Code, 41901-41902 provides for the direct recovery of these costs through the waste hauler. Ongoing reliance on revenue derived from landfilling waste is not sustainable as our waste streams decline from improved recycling and waste reduction efforts.