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Manteca working toward becoming arguably greenest City in California
trash sep
On three conveyor lines at a material separating facility, fiber items including paper, cardboard, and boxboard are pulled out by hand and dropped into chutes over separate bins. Then they are ready to be fed to a conveyor that goes to the fiber baler. Fiber is just one of the items separated from recycling.

Manteca’s next big thing might just end up being garbage.

That’s because Manteca — one of the few full-service cities left in California meaning it doesn't contract out any basic municipal services such as solid waste collection — is working toward turning the land around the wastewater treatment plant into arguably the “greenest” spot in the state.

And garbage will be the piece de resistance of that effort.

Manteca is continuing to ramp up its food waste to fuel efforts. Food waste that restaurants, schools, and supermarkets toss combined with the methane byproduct of the treatment of what we flush down the toilet is already powering some of the trucks that collect our garbage.

Work has started on a massive solar farm to generate electricity to run the wastewater treatment plant. The city is now paying in excess of $1.5 million to PG&E a year for energy costs.

The next endeavor being pursued is a low-tech operation that will keep help temper future rate increases, assure that recyclables that can be recycled are recycled, and generate revenue to help offset solid waste costs that will benefit ratepayers in the long haul.

It involves establishing a material separating facility along with a composting operation.

This may not sound glamorous but it is a seismic event in the city’s endeavor to save green by becoming even more green.

Material separation facilities are a dime a dozen. What is unheard of is a material separation facility operated in conjunction with a wastewater treatment plant that is essentially set up as a fuel refinery.

Toss in a composting operation and you have the opportunity for Manteca to come as close to 100 percent as possible to repurposing the solid waste its residents and businesses create. That’s because paper products that are contaminated with food waste — both are fiber-based — would be turned into compost. As markets grow and are developed for clean paper product recycling, Manteca would be in a position to sell those items that once enjoyed as big a demand as clean cardboard. That’s before our sloppy individual recycling habits caught up with us and emerging Third World countries were no longer willing to take our contaminated recyclables by the shipload, separate and repurpose what they could, and then bury the rest.

And if the City Council ends up adopting an ordinance staff is crafting at their direction to require compostable food take-out containers and to move away from single use cups, Manteca will take a large whack out of items that can’t be recycled with any degree of success such as Styrofoam.

The self-proclaimed hubs of the green movement — Davis, Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and others — won’t hold a candle made out of recycled fats, oils, and grease to what Manteca would be able to do.

And it is because Manteca essentially controls both its wastewater and its solid waste collection operations.

The advantages of a system of solid waste that a city can exert as much control over as possible was underscored by the 2018 ban by China on waste imports that other nations quickly followed suit. Just like with much of our pharmaceutical needs, recycling industries were concentrated in China and decimated in this country due to labor costs. American recycling for repurposed products can’t grow if our recyclables are contaminated to the degree they have been for years. As long as China et al was willing to buy contaminated recyclables we smugly told ourselves how green we were and that we were saving the earth while in fact we were exporting garbage.

And now since we have been under stay at home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, firms such as Waste Management that have franchises with various cities with a combined 18.3 million residents are reporting residential waste has increased 15 to 25 percent. Unlike commercial recycling that is substantially cleaner, residential recycling tends to be highly contaminated.

This significantly increasing tipping fees — the charges per ton that is paid to bury garbage and recyclables that are contaminated and therefore can’t be recycled.

It is also creating more truck trips as solid waste trucks are filling up quicker and therefore end up serving fewer homes before they have to head to a landfill or a sorting facility.

As the food waste to fuel operation keeps gaining momentum with the replacing of more of the solid waste truck fleet with vehicles running on compressed gas plus commercial demand picks up at the filling station that is now in place, the city’s game plan has always been to contract with other nearby cities to take their food waste.

Given the state has mandated that less food waste be landfilled, there are few food waste to fuel privately operated facilities on the West Coast, and only a handful of cities in the Northern San Joaquin Valley that still collect their own solid waste and operate a wastewater treatment they could tap into for methane to create an efficient food-to-waste operation Manteca is in a unique position.

And if Manteca is also able to contract with other nearby cities to sort recyclables and even garbage in a bid for other cities to meet looming state mandates while being able to put the separated items to use, it would create a solid revenue stream. That would provide the city’s solid waste enterprise fund with steady income to help reduce the potential and size of future rate increases paid by city residents and businesses.

Such a green wastewater treatment complex is a boon for the environment.

*It takes methane gas — one of the valley’s most problematic air quality problems — that’s a byproduct of the wastewater treatment plant and instead of polluting the air turns it into clean burning fuel to power refuse collection trucks.

*Food waste that is some of the heaviest garbage wouldn’t be buried at the landfill where tipping fees are based on tonnage.

*Given audits have put Manteca’s food waste at 30 to 40 percent that would be 30 to 40 percent less landfill space eaten up.

*A fiber based compost operation would mean what food scraps couldn’t be converted into fuel along with contaminated paper or used paper that is clean enough for recycling but there may be no demand for could be converted into soil conditioners. Arguably the world’s largest market for soil conditioning exists in the fertile and agricultural rich San Joaquin Valley.

The city could even make it a win-win-win situation by hiring workers such as the rehabilitated homeless that organizations such as Inner City Action work with to get off the streets and back into being productive members of society.

None of this would be possible or be within reach if city leaders 20 years ago succumbed to the temptation to privatize solid waste collection for what would clearly have been only short-term gains.

Compare Manteca all you want with other cities when it comes to beauty contests but what really counts is how effectively and efficiently a city delivers basic services to its residents.