When I first arrived at the Monterey Regional Waste Management District (Monterey, CA) in 1982 to begin work as the District Engineer and Assistant General Manager, little did I know that my tenure would last 28 years, the last 10 of which I would serve as General Manager.
The occasion of my retirement gives me pause to reflect on my career, the development and steady progression of “integrated” programs and services here at the District, and the evolution of the solid waste industry over the last 30 years.
The last four decades at the District, and in the industry in general, have been a period characterized by steady growth and expansion of recycling, reuse, and energy recovery programs.
In 1971, Director Gary Bales, who is in his 45th year of service on our Board, led an initiative to approve a $5,000 study to determine the feasibility of recycling useful materials from the solid waste stream. The study led to early efforts to recover metal and newspaper at the landfill. It also enabled the District to assist in establishing in 1982 one of the first curbside recycling programs in the nation in the City of Carmel.
The District has a history of being an early adopter of programs. In 1983, we installed one of the first landfill-gas-to-energy plants in the nation. Since then, the District has expanded the plant output to 5 MW of power production, and later this year will begin operating a compressed natural gas (CNG) fueling station, which will utilize biogas and pipeline gas to produce CNG.
In response to AB 939, the groundbreaking California legislation requiring cities to reduce their waste by 50%, the District built one of the first mixed waste Materials Recovery Facilities (MRF). We designed the facility to process waste from construction and demolition (C&D) activity and our self-haul customers. The facility achieves more than half of all community diversion and has ensured that our nine Monterey Peninsula member agencies have exceeded the State AB 939 recycling mandate.
After 20 years of MRF operation, we are ready to embark on an ambitious MRF improvement project that will install a new C&D processing line, add a mixed waste processing system, and allow us to process single-stream recyclables. Projected to be online in 2017, the new MRF will position the District to ensure local compliance with new legislation phasing in a ban on landfill disposal of organics (AB 1826) and to achieve the state “goal” of 75% diversion by 2020 (AB 341).
In 2012, the District negotiated an agreement with Zero Waste Energy to develop the first dry anaerobic digestion (AD) compost project in California. We had been windrow composting food waste since 2008 and were looking for a better way to manage organics. The AD project became operational in 2013 and is now operating at full capacity of 5,000 tons per year. This project helped us prove the viability of extracting the energy value from food scrap organics while serving as a model project for others from across California and the United States to emulate.
In 2014, our Board adopted a strategic plan with five “Pillars of Sustainability” to guide the District into the future: People, Finance, Environment, Community, and Innovation. With this initiative, People are formally placed as the Districts most valuable resource. A sustainable revenue model is at the heart of our Finance pillar while Environment and Community define our beautiful location on the Central Coast and our responsibility to be a good steward; innovation represents our history of developing new programs in response to new ideas and our commitment to continue on that path.
As I began my career in the early 1980s, the terms renewable energy, zero waste, and carbon footprint were not part of our industry vocabulary. Over the years, we put programs in place to recycle and reduce waste and to recover the landfill gas, because it seemed like the right thing to do and made sense to do so for our community. Today, looking to the future, there is much more work to be done to recover the resource value from the waste and to reduce our carbon footprint.
Science has shown that emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are at unsustainable levels and are beginning to cause measurable impacts on our environment. Measurable changes are being observed in the oceans and the sea life that live there. Since the ocean environment produces 70% of the planet’s oxygen, these changes impact all of us. As I look to my future pursuits, it is clear to me that I need to do everything I can to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. It is encouraging to see that the industry is headed in the same direction as we work here in California, and elsewhere, to drive organics out of landfills and into energy conversion projects.
As I think back on nearly 30 years here at the District, it has been a pleasure to serve this community and to work for an organization that has become internationally known as the “Best Solid Waste System in North America” as recognized by SWANA in 1987. That recognition is a real testament to the hard work of the employees of the District and the thoughtful governance provided by our Board of Directors. Over the 64-year history of our District, the integrated portfolio of programs and services where “waste” is truly managed as a “resource” will continue to serve this community well into the future.