Organic Waste: The Brown Bins Are Not the End of the Story

By Leanna Sweha

The Davis organics collection program has been around for almost two years. Brown-top bins are now a part of the weekly garbage routine.

The city is conducting both an organics disposal study and a solid waste rate study to decide what rate increases will be needed to pay for the organics program.

On top of that, council next week will decide whether to approve Recology’s purchase of Davis Waste Removal (DWR), the city’s franchise waste hauler.

With Recology, how might the equation change for organics disposal options?

DWR currently hauls organics to the county landfill.  From there, organics get repacked and trucked to Napa Recycling and Waste Services. (Organics were hauled to Zamora until November, 2017).

The goal of the city organics disposal study is to determine “the most environmentally and economically preferred destination for delivering organic material for processing.”

Before Recology entered the picture, the study was looking at two disposal options:

  1. Davis builds an anaerobic digestion and/or compost facility at its waste water treatment plant or at the Old Davis Landfill.
  2. Davis sends organics to an expanded anaerobic digestion facility at the Yolo County Central Landfill.

If Recology buys DWR, there is this third option:

  1. Recology trucks organics to its Vacaville composting facility, Jepson Prairie Organics, located about 25 miles from Davis.

So, what are the likely economic and environmental costs and benefits of these options?

If Recology takes organics to its Jepson site, it would incur no tipping fees, and it can turn the waste into commercial compost products.  It does that now with over 100,000 tons of organics annually from the Bay Area.

On the other hand, Recology would pay county tipping fees to take organics to an expanded digester at the county landfill.  Recology won’t be able to turn these organics into commercial compost products.  Instead, the organics would be turned into biogas.  Currently, the county combusts gas produced from its digester to make electricity, which it sells to PG&E. The county is seeking state permits to expand the facility to accommodate increased organics volume.

A new Davis site would charge no tipping fees.  It would likely clean up the biogas produced for use as truck fuel and market the solid compost products.

So, the third option would decrease Recology’s costs relative to the first and second.  The city would incur the highest costs under the first option by building a digester.

Looking at environmental issues, there would be higher vehicle emissions if Recology hauls organics to its more distant Jepson site versus to an expanded county digester or new Davis site.  (The highest vehicle emissions would result if organics continue to be hauled to Napa.)

Anaerobic digestion and composting qualify as recycling under state law, and both methods reduce greenhouse gas and other emissions relative to landfilling. However, controlled anaerobic digestion results in less air and water pollution than straight composting.

The current franchise agreement, which Recology will step into if it buys DWR, doesn’t dictate where organics must be delivered.

However, expect the franchise agreement to be amended to give the city the right to tell Recology where to haul organics.  It’s included as a “point of importance” to all the parties in DWR’s revised waiver request letter and as an “additional term” in the city’s February 20 wavier resolution.  In other words, council’s decision to approve the sale of DWR to Recology rides in part on the city having this right.

The city began organics collection in 2016 as a one-year pilot program to achieve state landfill diversion and recycling mandates.  Solid waste reserve funds were drawn down to pay for the pilot, which was deemed a success.  Now that reserve funds are depleted, service rates must increase to cover program costs.

The organics disposal study is being conducted by Clements Environmental and should be complete soon.

Leanna Sweha has been a Davis resident for over 20 years.  She is an attorney specializing in natural resources and environmental law, with a background in biological research.  She has worked for the California Legislature, the California Resources Agency, and the UC Davis Office of Research.

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  1. Alan Miller

    Apparently rate increases are the end of the story.  Don’t remember that part of the bin deal — wasn’t there supposed to be saving us from the reduction of the claw?  These increased city fees, especially the water, are slowly clawing away our skin. So, about how much of an increase?

      1. Alan Miller

        No of course not, because running a big diesel powered machine around the whole of Davis every week with a paid person on it doesn’t cost anything.

  2. Todd Edelman

    If technically-feasible, compost pick-up rates should go up to encourage limited clearing of leaves from lawns and mulching (processing on lawns themselves with lawn mowers, which is a great way to provide nutrients to trees!) and composting in-situ (at home whatever can’t be left on or near lawn areas).

    This should be combined with a near-total leaf blower ban, which will make clearing leaves off of lawns both expensive and silly. Of course, any leaf blower ban should start with a program to provide continued and ideally higher skill-set work for current landscaping crews.

    Results: Healthier trees, quieter and safer streets, less energy use, better jobs, less ultra-fine particulate matter blown around our homes (when we forget to close windows).

    I like the idea of using organic waste to make biogas locally, then cleaning it and using in locally-operating organic waste pick up and other waste pick up vehicles powered by methane. It’s not necessarily the best from an economic or environmental point of view but it has a nice symbolism.

    There should be more incentives to install drought-tolerant landscaping. Lawns are cozy of course and for free I now propose to all City Council candidates that their platforms should include a policy for the City to work with UC Davis and our waste processing providers to develop the soft, cool, and with other “Can’t believe it’s not butter!” qualities “DavisLawn”, an artificial turf product made from recycled plant material and other – e.g. plastic – waste!

    1. Ken A

      I don’t care if Davis bans the loud two stroke leaf blowers but want to let everone know that the new battery powered electric leaf blowers are amazing.  We got one about a year ago that runs on the same batteries as my drill and saw.  I use at least once a week and the kids like it so it is easier to get them to clean up before a party than it was with a broom (and unlike the gas powered blowers you can use it inside your tool shed and garage).

      1. Todd Edelman

        The problem is the


        in your clean:

        Dust goes up into the air. The dust you can’t see is what’s most dangerous.
        The leaves go up into trucks, streets and so on.

        Certainly electric leaf blowers are better than two-stroke. And I like parties, too.

        Do your kids wear breathing protection whilst leaf blowing?

        Why do we so easily let convenience become narcissism?

        1. Howard P

          Do you understand how most trees, other plants release pollen? Goes up and out (depending on winds).  Pollen causes more respiratory problems than I-80 or UPRR, or fireplaces (even using wood) in this region.  We are a “hot spot” for pollens…

          Affects folk with asthma, COPD, allergies, etc.

        2. Todd Edelman

          I got allergies, dude. Pollen? All the leaf blowing also stirs ’em up good-n-well. Perhaps you will argue that leaf blowing encourages pollination, but all the other crud that would otherwise start to settle in the soil or attach to sticky trees etc. stays airborne.

          Asthma and COPD are serious concerns, yes! No one’s lungs benefits from the leaf blowers. Wood smoke toxins, brake lining bits, un-obliterated Diesel pieces etc. just add to the health burden of pollen. Allergies are simply annoying for most but micro-particulates are very expensive to remove from the bloodstream.

        3. Ken A

          I am pretty sure most of the leaves, pine needles, dust and dirt my kids blow off the patio and patio furniture with the 20V blower does not make it out of our yard and is not flying up over Davis adding to the “toxic soup”.  The kids don’t wear anything when blowing since the amount of dust is so low (maybe 0.001% of the dust they suck in on a 20 mile mountain bike ride)

    2. Tia Will


      which will make clearing leaves off of lawns both expensive and silly.”

      I wish my mother had shared this opinion. When we were at home, my sister and I spent many hours hand raking a lawn the size of that at the Davis Commons because my mother insisted it be kept leaf free. After we left home, she maintained it herself well into her 70’s without “benefit” of a leaf blower.

      I would love to see a leaf blower ban. I feel to see that these devices offer any benefit at all that could not be accomplished by hand.

      1. Don Shor

        Just for the record, in most cases leaves can simply be mowed repeatedly on lawns and will become mulch in situ. I realize there are neighborhoods with very large trees where that is not feasible. Leaves can also be mulched heavily around existing shrubs and trees and will typically decompose into organic matter if we have normal rainfall. Even better, just spread them out onto your vegetable garden area or around your fruit trees. In most cases leaves and lawn clippings don’t need to be taken off site.

        The blowback I am hearing, and it is from across the political spectrum, is dealing with the branches and debris from pruning and yard cleanups. It is not realistic to expect people to cut branches down into container size, and a yard or garden of any size or planting density creates a large amount of woody debris. I have heard more negative feedback about this organic waste program than about almost any other city policy I can think of over the years. People are frustrated and angry about it. The council needs to extend the weekly street pickup through at least January, and preferably through much of February. We want people to garden and to grow their own food. Gardening and yard work are some of the healthiest things any individual can do. I strongly suggest a review of the policy.

        1. Ron

          I strongly agree. Also, that “woody material” is usually from trees which produce shade (and thereby save energy). Seems like Davis is heading toward a path of discouraging both trees, and vegetable gardening.

        2. Ron

          Of course, most of the new developments (and much of the infill) seems destined to eliminate yards, anyway!  Maybe folks in the future will still be able to see what they used to look like, on the Internet.

          I suspect that even having a yard might make one a “social pariah”, in the future. (Waste of water, and space needed for more housing.)

          Hey – have all of your food supplied by trucks, large-scale farms and supermarkets, instead.

        3. Todd Edelman

          Ron wrote:


          To grow food we can do a lot with flat roofs, with parking lots empty most of the time but too small for proper housing, car width gardens where cars used to be (how much clean, organic food, raised in fresh air could be produced on 700 parking spaces worth of land at Nishi?)… conversion of the ornamental or the narcissistic into the nutritional (lawns to plowshares).

        4. Ron

          Todd:  I understand and admire your goals to some degree, but I don’t think they’re consistently realistic.

          On a broader level, I don’t see ever-increasing density (or sprawl) as desirable goals.  What I see is a diminishing quality of life for everyone, unless growth levels off.  It’s one reason that more people are moving out of California, than moving to California from other states. (I recall recently reading that the population growth that is occurring is primarily due to immigration from other countries. I can try to find that article later, if needed.)

          Regarding “ornamental” or “narcissistic” yards, do they not add beauty, shade, recreational opportunities for families, habitat for birds and small animals, and improve overall quality of life?  (Even if they’re not used for food production?)  Are such yards going to be the latest “casualty”, regarding the goal of never-ending development (e.g., due to the “need” for space for housing, and the resulting need to supply water for an ever-increasing population? (Unfortunately, I think I already know the answer to that one.)

          Regarding cars, they (or something similar) occupy a permanent place in society, e.g., due to their ability to transport people and goods comfortably, and over longer distances.  Bicycles simply cannot (and will not) replace them, no matter how many parking spots are eliminated, or how much infrastructure is built to support bicycles.


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