Tajiguas Landfill as an Environmental Leader
By Robert Bernstein
The Tajiguas Landfill has been in the news lately as a result of the damage caused by the Alisal Fire. I was recently privileged to tour the Tajiguas Landfill along with other Sierra Club local leaders. This was a good followup to a similar tour that I was on in October 2008.
Here are my photos of our recent tour.
The short version of my takeaway which is very relevant right now: Tajiguas is not just a dump. It is a sophisticated material recovery facility. It is vitally important to recover as much waste as possible for productive uses. This is essential for reducing precious land needed for storing waste.
Equally important is their innovative program to prevent methane emissions as a Climate Crisis issue.
Now I will say more about our tour and what I learned. Here was the view as we approached the entrance. It is notable that none of the landfill is visible from the freeway.
Project Leader Carlyle Johnston was our guide who gave us some orientation as we gathered our group together.Our first stop on the tour was the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) which also houses the Education Center for the facility.The key issues for reducing waste are the three R's. 1) Reduce. Reduce waste by not consuming things that are not necessary in the first place. Use reusable water bottles rather than disposable water bottles. Use reusable food containers rather than disposable ones. Likewise with reusable shopping bags. Whenever possible, buy in bulk, bring your own containers and choose products that use recycled content. Recycling only works if people buy recycled goods.
2) Reuse. Many items can be reused rather than thrown in the trash. Clothing can be mended. Disposable bags and containers can be reused. Many scrap things can be repurposed as art or for other uses. Think of how your grandparents did things. Under normal circumstances Art From Scrap takes many such materials which are used in art classes.
3) Recycle. When all else fails, recycle these things: Clean paper, cardboard, glass, steel, aluminum, rigid plastic.
They had this handy chart on the wall of which items are currently being recycled and what is the destination for that recycling:One thing that impressed me was the latest technology that allows some recycled materials to be salvaged from the regular trash bins. Here we saw huge bales of this salvaged material.There were several monitors that showed how this material was being captured. This one showed how clean white paper was being diverted with precision air jets out of a rapid stream of trash on a conveyor belt! My photo caught one of these air jet captures as it was happening!A similar process can recover some plastics out of the trash. Other materials can be captured with magnets (iron and some steel) and powerful eddy currents (for aluminum and some other steel).
Still, it is much more cost effective and environmentally helpful if you sort clean recyclable items into the blue recycle bins. Clean paper, cardboard and plastic materials fetch a higher price on the recycle market than those that have been pulled from the trash. Here you can see clean cardboard on a conveyor belt.Many organic materials can be recycled at home as compost. We live in a condominium with no yard and just a small patio. Yet my wife is able to compost our food scraps and grow a variety of vegetables on our patio and front porch. You may need to buy some earthworms to get things going, but otherwise it is pretty easy and takes little space.However, a huge amount of organic material ends up in household trash. This turns out to be far more than a problem of filling up landfills too quickly.
In 2016 NASA did flyovers to identify methane super-emitters. Oil and natural gas production is a major source of these emissions. But so are landfills. Here is NASA's explanation of this mapping:
They currently have pipes like this to capture as much methane as possible from the landfill. But this is not the best solution.The Tajiguas Anaerobic Digester Facility is the better answer to this challenge! It was just getting going at the time of our tour. They were just starting to load organic waste into the facility. It would take weeks or more for the digestion process to become sustainable and for the pipeline of material to come out as useful compost. Carlyle gathered us in a parking lot that would soon be going away to be used to store the compost.
This was the view inside the Digester building.The process is able to capture methane that otherwise would go into the atmosphere. That methane will be used as fuel in this electric generator when the digester is fully operational.
It not only will provide electricity for the Tajiguas Landfill, but will create surplus electricity to sell to Southern California Edison.
How important is this? Methane is about 80 times more potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. The Tajiguas facility will reduce 117,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. The equivalent of taking almost 29,000 cars off the road!
One of the most important lessons we took away from our tour is that this is a terrible place for a landfill. Except it is better than any alternative! Yes, it is in the coastal area that we all know and love. But we are a coastal community locked between the ocean and mountains. Any other location would mean even more environmental impact due to longer trips with trucks. And why should we dump our problems on someone else?
The other key lesson: Being an environmentalist is not just about stopping bad projects. It is even more important to support projects that offer a net environmental benefit. It takes a lot of money and resources to build a project like the Tajiguas Anaerobic Digester Facility. Yet the benefits are enormous in terms of helping with the Climate Crisis.
Our guide explained that this is just one of many huge projects that will be needed. As citizens and activists we need to expedite these projects as best we can.
One final bit regarding the Tajiguas Landfill and the Alisal Fire. Carlyle was kind enough to take the time in the middle of all of this to give me an update on the impact of the fire. Here is what he wrote to me:
"The buildings themselves were untouched by the fire, however, some ancillary equipment was destroyed and the fire is still raging with the 101 blocked off so the facility is closed. After the fire is put out we will likely miss a few weeks until we can get everything back on track.
The digester was working and has about 3 weeks worth of organics in its bunkers. It is now running in “safe mode” with lower temperatures and lower methane output until further notice."
For more information about local resource recovery, waste management and how you can help, please go to the Less is More web site: https://lessismore.org/
October 15 Update from Tajiguas Landfill Project Leader Carlyle Johnston:
"I have less idea when we will be back online. Although the buildings were undamaged, we did lose some equipment and replacement could be difficult. Also the power poles were burned down so now when those can get back up and reconnected is up to SCE which we have zero control over and this project is not a priority for them. Any date I, or anyone, could put forward would be pure speculation."