Out of sight may be out of mind, but there will be repercussions down the line for what happens next to Kern’s banana peels, greasy napkins and leftovers gone bad.
A final analysis is pending that will help the county Board of Supervisors pick a winner among three finalist proposals, each costing tens of millions of dollars, for treating 300,000 tons per year of organic waste by 2025. That’s in addition to the 100,000 tons of yard trimmings and other green waste that will go to compost, on top of what’s already being diverted locally.
Atop the county’s priority list is limiting the cost to taxpayers and refuse haulers, as long as whatever system gets built complies with state law requiring municipalities to cut three-quarters of the organic waste they send to landfills, for the sake of cutting landfill emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane.
The money’s there: In January, the board took its first big step to complying with the mandate with its unanimous approval of double-digit percentage increases in gate and bin fees and the land-use fees paid by Kern property owners.
Next up is a choice among three distinct treatment systems culled from a dozen that arose from the county’s 2018 solicitation for proposals. Exactly which one is in the first position, the county hasn’t made clear; if that one gets rejected by state regulators, or the board, second in line will come forward.
“This is a much more complex issue than most people think, so grasping the overall challenge, while simultaneously trying to understand how the proposed solutions play into fulfilling the requirements of the regulations, takes some time,” county Public Works Manager Chuck Magee said by email.
Basics to understand about the county’s considerations are that organics account for about 40 percent of everything that gets thrown out, different waste streams call for different treatment plants, and time is running out.
The agency enforcing the law on organics, CalRecycle, has given 128 California municipalities, including Kern in March, extensions to a deadline for beginning organic waste recycling. The expectation now is that the county will present the agency with facility-operation contracts for review by July.
A CalRecycle spokesman noted by email Friday the agency has worked with cities and counties to design regulations offering different paths to compliance. He said each jurisdiction presents unique circumstances.
“CalRecycle is currently collaborating with (Kern) County to establish detailed action items and milestones as part of that plan,” spokesman Lance Klug wrote.
Preparations are well along for an estimated $18 million composting facility planned for the Shafter-Wasco area. With almost all necessary permits in line, it awaits only clearance from the California Air Resources Board.
Magee said the plan is to begin operations in 2024. He added the county hopes to get a $3 million grant from CalRecycle to help with construction costs.
The process for turning green waste like cut grass into compost is quick and inexpensive compared with treating organic food waste. For the latter, the county has focused on three options with different processes, price tags, conversion efficiencies and potential regulatory implications.
One process involves a labor-intensive sorting line that removes organics then cooks them before sending them to compost. That’s among the pricier alternatives, which range from $60 million to $140 million.
Another option is to process an unsorted waste stream over conveyor belts before squishing it to remove organic liquids. Renewable natural gas would be one byproduct, along with a solid that would later get rehydrated and treated as wastewater.
The third alternative would turn organic waste into a potentially marketable product — pellets, or “fluff.” It would be used as a feedstock for an industrial coal user in the Tehachapi area that would earn credit for switching to a more environmentally sustainable energy source. County officials said a deal has already been struck in which the plant would buy the product if the Board of Supervisors decides to go that direction.
Magee said the state only allows so much combustible fuel to be produced from organics, but that there’s no set limit to how much renewable natural gas can come of the process.
It’s possible the county will come up with an option whose construction, at least, pays for itself within a few years. Kern County Public Works Director Sam Lux said there’s hope that, with the help of financing, the county will be able to lower the tax burden on single-family property owners from $180 per year to $160.
Lux added the expectation is to bring a plan before the Board of Supervisors in spring.