Request To Not Support the Boone/Stein O-MRF/MxWP Lawsuit

By David Krueger, NCRA President, 6/14/19

The views expressed in this article are solely Mr. Krueger’s and do not represent a formal NCRA position. Mr. Krueger has over 25 years of experience in the recycling industry.

Waste Management of Alameda County (WMAC) is currently constructing a mixed waste processing facility and an indoor aerobic composting facility at the Davis St. Transfer Station in San Leandro. WMAC’s franchise agreement with the City of Oakland requires them to process all mixed waste collected from multi-family dwellings in the City. Oakland also requires all multi-family dwellings to provide source separated recycling and organics services to their tenants. Multi-family dwellings in Oakland are not allowed to “opt out” of having green cart organics service. Oakland participates in Alameda County’s Mandatory Recycling Ordinance.

The new mixed waste processing facility (Organic Materials Recovery Facility, or “O-MRF”) is designed to recover compostable and recyclable materials from Oakland’s garbage that were not recovered through source separation. Oakland residents and businesses will still source separate their discards into three streams (recycle, compost, garbage) and the contents of the garbage containers will be sorted at the O-MRF to recover any organics and recyclables that were improperly placed in the garbage by the generators.

The indoor aerobic composting facility is designed to compost source separated organics from commercial businesses and multi-family dwellings in Oakland and other WMAC cities, as well as organic materials recovered from Oakland’s garbage at the O-MRF. Organics from Oakland’s single-family homes (which consist primarily of yard trimmings) will continue to be transferred through Davis St. to WMAC’s outdoor aerated static pile composting facility at the Altamont Landfill outside of Livermore.

In another article, Arthur Boone encourages NCRA members and the NCRA Board to support he and Toni Stein’s lawsuit against the Alameda County Waste Management Authority (Stopwaste) and WMAC which attempts to require a new EIR for the O-MRF project and, presumably to ultimately stop the construction of the O-MRF and adjacent indoor aerobic composting facility. I respectfully disagree. Mr. Boone lists ten concerns about the facility. I will attempt to address some of his concerns and to explain why I do not support the lawsuit.

  1. Participation Impacts Issue / Source Separation. Note that the purpose of the O-MRF is to supplement source separation, not to replace it. It is designed to be a “safety net” to catch good stuff that falls through the source separation system and keep it from landing in the landfill. That is how will be used per Oakland’s franchise agreement, and that is how WMAC has marketed the facility to other local jurisdictions. The mixed waste processing will be in addition to three stream source separation by all sectors (single-family, multi-family, commercial) not instead of source separation. Mr. Boone raises a valid concern that some customers may have less incentive to source separate if they know that their garbage will be sorted after collection. However, this participation impact will be dependent upon how the City of Oakland and WMAC educate their customers about the facility and source separation, the financial incentives for source separation in Oakland’s rate structure, and how effectively Stopwaste enforces the mandatory recycling ordinance. If done properly, there should be a minimal impact on source separation. As an example, the Sunnyvale SMaRT station has operated a mixed waste processing facility for over a decade. The cities which use the SMaRT Station (Sunnyvale, Mt. View, Palo Alto) have exemplary source separation programs.
  2. Waste Diversion. While source separation is the best diversion method, anyone involved in the recycling industry knows that we are not yet to the point where everyone source separates perfectly. There is still way too much “good stuff” going into the garbage. The O-MRF is an attempt to capture that good stuff so that it is not landfilled. I think that is commendable. It is analogous to the standard operating procedure for recycling and composting at festivals and public events:  Source separation stations are provided to the public, but a team of event recyclers still has to sort through the “source separated” material after collection to correct errors by the public. This is a low-tech version of the O-MRF and preferable to landfilling the improperly source separated materials. While we must always strive for the top of the discards management hierarchy, we should employ all the other levels of the hierarchy as well. Waste prevention is better than recycling, but we should still recycle what isn’t prevented. Source separation is better than mixed waste processing, but we should still process mixed waste to recover what wasn’t source separated. The alternative is sending more material to the landfill. The end result of any lawsuit which prevents the O-MRF from operating will be more material being sent to landfill.
  3. SB 1383 Compliance. The current draft of the SB 1383 regulations requires all generators to separate their discards into three streams. Oakland will require all generators to separate their discards into three streams, therefore Oakland will be in compliance with SB 1383. The draft SB 1383 regulations also allow jurisdictions to comply by using mixed waste processing instead of source separation (a “one-bin” “Dirty MRF” system), provided that the mixed waste processing facility meets a very high rate of recovery. However, Oakland’s system will use mixed waste processing in addition to source separation, so the O-MRF will not have to meet the stringent recovery requirement. Oakland will be in compliance by virtue of implementing three-stream collection. The additional recovery from sending the garbage stream to the O-MRF will be above and beyond SB 1383 compliance.
  4. Site GHG Issue / Aerobic vs. Anaerobic. Boone inaccurately states that the Davis St. composting facility adjacent to the O-MRF, which will compost organics from the O-MRF, will be an anaerobic digester. That is not the case. It will be an aerobic system which uses forced air and mechanical turning to provide oxygen to the materials during composting. It is not designed to create methane. The aerobic composting facility will be completely enclosed a building. Air from inside the building will be treated in a biofilter before being released outside. During the first stage of composting the material will be enclosed in rotating drums in addition to being indoors, further mitigating odors and emissions. Such a facility should produce fewer GHG emissions than the standard outdoor composting facility. The permit for Davis St. provides for three facilities: The O-MRF, the indoor aerobic composting facility, and an anaerobic digester. The O-MRF and the indoor aerobic composting facility are currently under construction and nearly complete. The anaerobic digester is permitted but is not under construction. It may never be constructed. It is not required by WMAC’s franchise agreement with Oakland. It was permitted to provide WMAC with future options for organics recovery.
  5. Impact on Stopwaste. Stopwaste and NCRA share the same mission. Stopwaste is an innovative, effective Zero Waste organization. Most Stopwaste employees are NCRA members. I don’t believe that NCRA should support a lawsuit against Stopwaste except in very extreme circumstances. I don’t believe that this situation qualifies. Stopwaste’s role in approving the O-MRF was very minor. Stopwaste does not directly permit the O-MRF. Other agencies directly issued permits related to the O-MRF, but they are not being sued. This lawsuit has cost Stopwaste staff time and money which could have been better used implementing Zero Waste programs.
  6. Impact on WMAC. Some of the things said above about Stopwaste also apply to WMAC and specifically to the Davis St. Transfer station, which provides valuable recycling and Zero Waste education services to the region. NCRA famously sued WMAC over expansion of the Altamont Landfill, and is rightfully proud of the results. However, the O-MRF project is not a landfill expansion. It is the opposite. It is a recycling and composting facility designed specifically to divert discards away from the landfill. Northern California needs more composting capacity – especially for organics from commercial businesses and multi-family dwellings – and the indoor aerobic composting facility being constructed adjacent to the O-MRF will help to provide some of that capacity. Suing WMAC over this project sends Waste Management the wrong message. It is punishing them for doing the right thing. WMAC staff literally spent decades convincing Waste Management corporate headquarters to invest millions of dollars at Davis St. to increase sorting and composting capacity to meet the local demand for waste diversion. Waste Management could have invested that capital in a landfill elsewhere, but they chose to invest in diversion in Northern California. I think that type of investment should be encouraged, not discouraged.
  7. Why Single Out This Facility for Opposition? As previously noted, the Sunnyvale SMaRT Station has been processing mixed waste for over a decade. It also sends organics recovered from mixed waste to the Z-Best composting facility in Gilroy. There are other established mixed waste processing facilities in the Bay Area, and more in the pilot or permitting stages. To me, it seems that the O-MRF project – and WMAC, Stopwaste, and the City of Oakland – are being unfairly targeted by this lawsuit. Why stridently oppose this mixed waste processing facility and not others?

I believe that NCRA should support the development of more recycling and composting facilities in Northern California and be skeptical of the NIMBY movements that oppose them. I believe that NCRA should support good faith efforts to achieve Zero Waste, and should encourage experimentation and innovation by different cities and business who are working towards our shared goal. There is more than one road to Zero Waste.

# # #

A Review of Peak Plastic

By Neil Seldman, Waste to Wealth Initiative, Institute for Local Self Reliance, Washington, DC, 5/25/19

A long-term NCRA collaborator, Seldman also serves as co-chair of the Save the Albatross Coalition with Captain Charles Moore of Algalita Marine Research and Education.

Editor’s Note: Click for a PDF Version of this review or a free SANET download of Peak Plastic

Hourly, it seems, an email arrives with fresh news about the planetary crisis posed by plastic production and waste. The earth’s ocean, a source of life, is turning into seas of plastic waste, floating bits of disposed packages and microscopic particles as the plastic breaks apart. Invasion of the entire biosphere is now a reality. “We are no longer looking at a plastic ocean,” says Captain Charles Moore of Algalita Marine Research and Education, “we are now talking about plastic fish and plastic people.”[1] The issue is being addressed by federal agencies such as the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (part of the Department of Commerce), foundations such as the Ocean Conservancy, and international environmental organizations such as Greenpeace, the Global Anti Incineration Alliance, and the Save the Albatross Coalition – a campaign of Zero Waste USA.

The U.S. Congress held hearings on April 30 to explore Emerging Technologies in Plastics Recycling and the technology gaps that drive up the cost of recycling that fall on municipalities and businesses. The Center for International Environmental Law calculates that in 2019, plastic production and incineration will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere — the equivalent of pollution from 189 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants. In addition, other scientists point to increased methane releases as photodegradable plastic breaks down more readily in sunlight. Even the American Chemistry Council, a trade association representing U.S. chemical companies, concedes the need for “fostering the transition to “zero waste.” Fortune 500 companies that formed the Alliance to End Plastic Waste have pledged $1.5 billion to address the problem.

Plastic pollution issues engulf the Chinese economy as well. The 2017 National Sword Policy, China’s ban on imports of certain mixed recyclables, was in large part a response to the outcries against the primitive plastic recycling system, which moved materials from ports to rural areas for ‘processing’ that contaminated soil and water and damaged the health of those engulfed in plastic smog from the burn-off of residual materials. Videos of ocean plastic pollution have also aroused the Chinese public.

A Comprehensive Solution?
There is no comprehensive path forward to stop the pollution and prevent future contamination so that the world’s vital support systems can recover.

Jack Buffington, a supply chain expert, offers an approach in his book Peak Plastic that integrates the synthetic world of plastic with the natural world by placing once-used plastic back into production supply chains.[2] He lays out the prospect of sustainable local economies, with plastic materials and nature living side by side. Proper use and reuse of plastics can lead to a decentralized economy, a boon to urban ghettos in the U.S., Asia, and Africa, as well as to rural Chinese villages suffering from plastic smog, water pollution, poverty, and poor health. He looks to “innovators, or those companies and government officials who will turn plastic waste into economic viability within a private enterprise model…for the betterment of communities,” as engines of change.

Is this vision technically and economically feasible using the five-step program Buffington presents? Is it politically feasible? Will it take an international mobilization, a grass roots political ‘levee en masse’ to engage industry, elected officials, and policy managers to make fundamental change to business as usual?

Business as Usual is Not Acceptable
Business as usual means uncontrolled production of virgin plastic, even as less than 10% of plastic produced is recycled or reused. It also means recognizing the positive benefits, in fact essential benefits, of plastic products in our daily lives and in the economy. Buffington estimates that by 2030 the earth will reach Peak Plastic, that is, when the marginal benefit of plastic use to society will be less than its detrimental cost to the environment. We are clearly running out of time if he is even close to being accurate.

How Could Something So Good Be So Bad?
Over a few generations, Buffington points out, plastic use has become a “marketing marvel and, at the same time, a planetary crisis.” Since just prior to World War II, annual plastic use has grown from 2 million tons to 380 million tons today.

Buffington pays due homage to beneficial attributes of the material named after the Greek word for “to mold to a form.”

The World War II effort led to a 300% increase in production, making it an essential ingredient for winning the war as other materials fell into short supply. Plastic products were used in health care, clothing, transportation, building materials, packaging, to extend the shelf life of food, and to feed the post-war consumer economy. “In a surreal sort of way plastic is our modern day superhero, able to defy the laws of nature though 50% lighter than steel and at the same time can be in your body intentionally as a stent to open blocked arteries.”

Buffington’s description of the dark side of the plastic revolution suggests the dystopia presented in Bookchin’s Our Synthetic Environment.[3] Even as plastic is the material of choice, it is at odds with nature. It does not break down and return to a natural form. It can cross membranes in the body. Resins, additives, stabilizers, anti-static agents, biocides, flame-retardants, plasticizers, all ‘lurk within the polymer,’ and therefore within the human body and food chain, with unknown consequences for public health and the biosphere. Plastic nanoparticles escape into waterways with every laundry load. Plastic indeed is a ’messy innovation’ that has reached the world’s highest peaks and penetrated the deepest crevices in the oceans. It is a modern day well-intentioned Frankenstein, gone haywire. We cannot recycle our way out of the plastic dilemma. The U.S. EPA reports that the 2015 overall U.S. plastic recycling rate was a dismal 9%[4]. Obviously it hardly impacts the supply chain for virgin plastic manufacturing. Plastic production continues to grow as recycling rates stagnate.

Buffington’s Five Step Program
Step 1: Stop the bleeding by making the plastic industry transparent. Government regulators have failed to protect the country from the obvious threats of plastic pollution. Only a fully informed public can mobilize for change. In addition, a worldwide ban on micro beads and glitter must be put in place. Conventional investment in solid waste management can drastically reduce the 8 million tons of plastic dumped into the oceans annually; 60% from only five countries – China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. The estimated near-term cost is $5 billion.

Step 2: Introduce a private-public open source/open access for plastic innovators, which can lead to a design revolution in materials and products. This will take enlightened stockholders.

Steps 3 and 4: Replace traditional recycling, which is a distraction,[5] with sustainable polymerization: that is, depolymerization (Step 3) and repolymerization (Step 4).[6] Each city, Buffington foresees, could have small-scale production of its own water and soda bottles, with a closed loop de- and re-polymerization system in place. The term “economy of scale in linear production systems will be a relic of the past….Through a combination of automation, 3-D printing and digital design.” Flint, Michigan will benefit environmentally and economically from a de- and re-polymerization production system, rather than a return to refillable beverage containers, the author avers.

Step 5: Invest in measuring technology so that we can see what we currently can’t. “There must be a push for portable powerful devices to detect and then access for clean up.”

Inconsistencies and Barriers
Peak Plastic provides rational and doable steps to both control the hemorrhaging of plastic into the environment and tame the material so that the natural world and this unique material can live side by side. The rise of open source manufacturing is in sight. Hopes for this future are based on the emergence of an open source system that will inform organized citizens, government agencies and private firms. “3D printing and open source design will definitely be disruptors in the 21st century by many accounts.”[7]

Is Peak Plastic too optimistic about the possibility of change among corporate leaders, considering past bad behavior? Is ‘clean up’ a credible solution once plastics in the ocean start breaking down into minute particles? What are the comparative costs of de- and re-polymerization? And, critically, can progress be made along the lines Buffington favors without a grassroots, bottom-up movement?

The grassroots recycling/anti-incineration/zero waste movement has won the hearts and minds of the country in the past 50 years. This movement led to new rules that established post-World War II recycling in the U.S.: mandatory recycling, minimum content, unit pricing, purchasing preferences, capital accumulation, and investment programs. These rules made recycling part of everyday life in U.S. cities and towns. No fundamental change can occur without the mobilization of this homegrown recycling, anti-incineration, and zero waste constituency.

In fact, this movement, which crosses gender, race, class, and age, has already started to achieve the bans essential to pushing back on the virgin plastic industry. State and local bans on polystyrene, single use food wares (e.g. plastic straws and cutlery), and plastic bags are now common throughout the U.S. Kraft Foods, Aldi, Amcor, and Nestle’ have pledged to have zero waste packaging (reusable, recyclable, or compostable) by 2025. But pledges from Fortune 500 companies have been issued for decades with no implementation. Nothing works like organized pressure from below, as people exert their rights as citizens to change the rules and as consumers who purchase goods.

The Save the Albatross Coalition has supported ‘connect the cap’ legislation in California which will require bottlers to leash bottle caps, which when loose in the sea resemble food and are deadly to albatross chicks. While AB 319 and AB 2779 did not pass the State Assembly last session, the Coalition will work to get this bill introduced again next year. In addition, the Coalition is recruiting local governments to file nuisance lawsuits against brand name companies whose containers, wrappers and bottle caps are found on their beaches. “We are acting locally to solve a global crisis,” said Rick Anthony, a recycling pioneer and chair of the Coalition and the Zero Waste International Alliance. “We have to control this at the home and then at the local level. The protection of our quality of life and sustainability starts with local actions.”

Washington State passed a 0.15% tax on grocery and convenience stores and other retailers on items commonly tossed on the street, i.e. litter. This tax goes into a fund to address all of those items you see littered along the highway and in public spaces. In California, Senate Bill 54 and Assembly Bill 1080, the California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, would reduce unnecessary packaging, cut down our reliance on disposable items, and redesign products to be truly recyclable or compostable. Both of these state bills have passed out of their house of origin and will be considered by the other house later this session.

We Must Make Haste
Private industry is responding to the worldwide plastic pollution crisis. No less than 40 companies in the U.S. and Canada are operating low-grade plastic plants at commercial scale. Another 20 are similarly investing in transformational technologies that depolymerize and then repolymerize plastic waste into high value virgin quality pellets for food grade packaging.

Air Canada started to reduce single use plastic on its flights this year, moving towards the goal of eliminating it altogether. Restaurant chains are beginning to recycle plastic gloves used by food preparers with the glove manufacturer.

Not all ‘innovation’ is positive. Dow Chemical and Hefty companies want to build pyrolysis plants throughout the country to turn low-grade plastics into fuels. Phoenix, AZ just contracted with a company to use similar thermal depolymerization to manage recovered plastics.

Hard work lies ahead. The Hefty Energy Bag hard-to-recycle plastics incineration program – now in Cobb County, GA, Boise, ID, Lincoln, NE and Omaha, NE, is a wake-up call. Of the 40 new companies offering plastic recycling alternatives, 27 are thermal processes, or incinerators. The Baltimore Clean Air Act, written by Energy Justice Network and passed unanimously by the City Council, is an example of one tool to force best available control systems on all plants. Taxes on hard-to-recycle plastics and other packages are needed to increase the cost of wasting for cities and businesses. Outright bans on new virgin plastic capacity are in order, given the global emergency. Reduction in plastic consumption is the key goal here.

We cannot recycle our way out of the plastic conundrum. We have to control its production and eliminate post-consumer waste.

This bottom-up citizen’s push and the current scramble by innovative companies to return reprocessed plastic to the supply chain of commerce can work, but it is not clear if there is time before we reach Peak Plastic in 2030.

Peak Plastic is optimistic that we can, in this short time frame. But only if we transcend the false narrative that pits a growing economy against a cleaner environment, and implement the rules needed to reign in laissez faire plastic production.

[1] See, Moore and Cassandra Phillips, Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain’s Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans, 2012; Also, Moore, Charles, “Invasion Of The Biosphere By Synthetic Polymers; What Our Current Knowledge May Mean For Our Future” Acta Oceanologica Sinica, April 2019

[2] Buffington, PhD, is Professor of Supply Chain Management at University College and the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver. He has ample industry credentials as well, and previously authored The Recycling Myth, Praeger, 2015

[3] Murray Bookchin, Our Synthetic Environment, Harper & Rowe, 1975

[4] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Facts and Figures about Materials, Waste and Recycling, Plastics: Material-Specific Data, 2015

[5] For Buffington’s full argument against traditional recycling of plastic see, The Recycling Myth: Disruptive Innovation to Improve the Environment, Praeger, 2015

[6] There are several types of depolymerization including hydrolysis, glycolysis, methanolysis, and thermal (pyrolysis).

[7] Fast Company, Adele Peters, Precious Plastic: These DIY Machines Let Anyone Recycle Plastic Into New Products, 10/7/2017

Let’s All Commit To Plastic Free July Now

By David Krueger, NCRA President
Recyclers and Zero Wasters are perfect conduits for
Plastic Free July! Already familiar with the issues, it will be easy to use our social media platforms to pump out this important message!

So, please plan some level of action now – as individuals, businesses, agencies or whatever works for you, so that we are all prepared to blast it out starting in early June. Be sure to find out what is happening locally first!

The Plastic Free Foundation is a not-for-profit which delivers the annual challenge and works on solutions with communities around the world. They have grown from a handful of participants in Western Australia in 2011 to millions across more than 170 countries today.

Their Plastic Free July Campaign has many wonderful, editable resources including the Grocer Poster –  at right, stating “We’re now longer offering plastic shopping bags and the Action Picker – My Challenge Choices, below. Also, check out these case studies:

My Plastic-free Life Blog and Book
Occasional NCRA collaborator, Author Beth Terry is a Parade Magazine 2019 Earth Day Hero. After many years in the Bay Area, Beth recently moved back to Maryland.

In Our Hands Campaign 
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and 21+ members including the Sacramento Zoo and Monterey Bay Aquarium have pledged a long-term commitment to phase out plastics and provide alternatives including Plastic Free July activities.

Join Existing Local Campaigns
For example, the City of Antioch joined the Sustainable Contra Costa County Network Plastic Free July Challenge and promoted it through their channels including NextDoor.

# # #



Join NCRA at the New Living Expo, San Mateo, 4/27 and 28!

Registration is FREE for volunteers and attendees if you register by Wednesday, 4/24.

The New Living Expo is a revolutionary event focusing on the alternative movers and shakers of our time. It features a myriad of speakers, workshops, classes, panels and special events, all designed to excite, enlighten and motivate.

Panel: Today’s Recycling Challenges and How You Can Make a Difference!

The SF Bay Area leads the nation in recycling and waste diversion innovation. Yet a San Francisco Estuary Institute study found our Bay has some of the highest concentrations of plastic pollution of any major U.S. body of water. Where’s the disconnect? What can we do to shift individuals and businesses into better consumption habits? How are recycling programs addressing the impact of China’s recent limits on recyclables? Why is Zero Waste the answer?