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Manteca needs to ban takeout food containers that aren’t compostable
Dennis Wyatt
Dennis Wyatt

Burying our trash — including items that could be recycled — is a growing problem.

If you doubt that take a hike to Mt. Stockton — the 200-foot high and rising mound that is Republic Services’ Austin Road landfill that is the highest point of ground around San Joaquin County’s largest city. It’s under the approach to Stockton Metro Airport that a half dozen Amazon Prime jets daily fly over on their way to drop off more consumer goods that will be repackaged using Styrofoam peanuts that will be tossed into brown carts, and buried at the North Austin Road location where it will take hundreds if not thousands of years to break down.

It is just one reason among many why the Manteca City Council needs to get a bit more pro-active and push for city ordinances that will reduce what non-recyclable and non-compostable trash is created while at the same time looking to implement a recycling stream that is more resistant to market whims and those residents that have little regard for rules put in place for the benefit of the entire community.

Before we get off on the usual chest pounding debate between those who are, for want of better words, “radical greenies” and those who view any tighter rules as “anti-business or un-American”, let’s go back a few years in Manteca politics when then Councilman Vince Hernandez was the lone voice in the wilderness when it came to green initiatives.

Like most of us who have lived in California since at least the 1970s Hernandez had  the virtues of recycling drummed into him. But Hernandez was never a glassy-eyed or foaming at-the-mouth greenie. Instead he weighed green initiatives on a scale that most of us should respect — the financial costs in the long-term.

He started driving hybrid cars early on because there were true green as in saving money as well as being more environmental friendly. Anyone who has driven a hybrid for years and has done so without acting like Starsky & Hutch behind the wheel knows the long-term operation even after higher upfront costs are taken into consideration saves money. Those savings run the gamut from less frequent brake maintenance and lower fuel consumption to less wear-and-tear on engines. 

For years he pushed for the city to buy hybrid trucks when they replaced vehicles in the solid waste fleet. They cost more upfront but there is less break work which is a big cost item on a truck hauling tons of garbage with mostly stop and go driving. They also use less fuel and are quieter to operate.

Eventually Hernandez got his point across and the city purchased solid waste hybrid collection trucks. But before they did he endured years of barely veiled barbs about being a greenie.

Hernandez was no Green New Dealer ahead of his time. He insisted that if there were green initiatives that made sense from the perspective of saving greenbacks the city should pursue them such as the solar farm that is now going forward at the wastewater treatment plant. His mantra was the city needed to look at such options, pencil the expenses and savings over the long haul and then decide whether to move forward.

The hybrid truck decision was a precursor to the food waste to fuel project going on line later this year that will take methane gas from the wastewater treatment process and combining it with food waste from restaurants, schools, grocery stores, and other commercial accounts and convert it to liquid compressed gas to power solid waste trucks.

In one fell swoop it reduces two sources of air pollution — diesel powered trucks and methane gas being burned off at the wastewater treatment plant — as well as reducing waste being landfilled. It also avoids being slapped with stiff state fines coming down the pike aimed at penalizing cities that don’t attain targeted diversion levels when it comes to not burying waste at landfills.

It’s an expensive proposition upfront but Hernandez’ analysis of such a project based on his efforts as councilman would address the issue no one wants to think about — the extremely high cost of finding and developing more locations to serve as landfills.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a solid waste expert who believes that there will ever be another landfill established in California given the state’s environmental review process that can be weaponized with protracted lawsuits. That would leave the expensive option of exporting garbage to another state assuming they’d take it.

Add to the fact the three landfills in the county have a set life. The Republic Services landfill on Austin Road is expected to run out of space in 2055. The San Joaquin County landfill near Lockeford is expected to stay operational until 2046 and the landfill near Linden until 2083.

Future cost is certainly a reason why the City of Manteca should move to outlaw any operation that sells takeout food or drink from using containers that aren’t compostable.

Such a ban would dovetail into an initiative that city staff plans on exploring — and with the council’s blessing pursuing — to possibly establish a composting operation at the wastewater treatment plant. It would take food waste dumped into residential carts and combine it with fiber-based items such as newspapers, envelopes, office paper, letters, and other fiber-based products, and create compost.

You cannot create compost with Styrofoam. Also there are a number of containers coated with plastic such as coffee cups that make them difficult to recycle and problematic to compost.

Starbucks that generates 6 billion such cups a year — one percent of the paper and plastic cups that are used worldwide annually according to the International Coffee Organization — to its credit is doing something about it. Earlier this year they committed $10 million to a competition to develop a single-use coffee cup that can be composted or is easier to recycle. In an age where edible water bottles have been developed and are in their infancy, it seems a fiber-based cup that uses natural material to do what plastic and Styrofoam derived from oil can do is plausible.

Some might view such a dictate imposed by the City of Manteca as being radical green policy and somehow being anti-business.

But if you apply Hernandez’ middle-of-the-road approach weighing long-term costs it makes a lot of sense. 

The people making money upfront — those who sell takeout — have other options right now for food containers that are compostable. As things stand now all of us even if we never buy takeout are going to foot the bill for burying those containers.

Yes, it is clearly an environmental issue especially since some takeout containers such as Styrofoam mirror a timeline to break down more like rocks being worn down into sand instead of organic-based items to decompose and re-enter the soil.

It is also a solution that makes it difficult for a small minority through laziness, complete disregard, contempt, or whatever reason to undermine the recycling efforts of other Manteca households.