Next generation recycling comes to Petaluma

The county landfill near Petaluma gets a makeover with a $5 million project, including a new sorting contraption.|

A newly-installed system to sort recyclable material at Sonoma County’s Central Landfill is being lauded as a way to bring the county closer to its goals for sustainability, diverting as much as 30,000 additional tons of materials away from the landfill just outside of Petaluma each year.

The $5 million project, which includes the new recyclable material recovery facility and a 6,000-square-foot warehouse to store recyclables before they’re transported to off-site markets, is part of a 25-year agreement between the county and the landfill’s private operator, Republic Services. Construction began in December and the machine is slated to turn on this month.

The idea for the recycling center was developed during a three-year collaborative process between multiple jurisdictions, county officials and public stakeholders in the Sonoma County Waste Advisory Group. A 2014 study found that construction materials, such as wood and metal, and dry commercial material, including corrugated cardboard, paper and some plastics, were still making their way to the landfill, despite the fact that they’re easily sortable, Sonoma County Director of Transportation and Public Works Sue Klassen said.

To combat that trend, the sprawling machine built inside the existing 32,000-square-foot central transfer and processing facility at the county’s only landfill will primarily handle those two material streams from dumpsters and residents who bring their own waste, Republic Services Division Manager Pete Pouwels said. When it’s switched on, materials are funneled onto a conveyor belt, making their way through a series of 14 stations where employees sort out the recyclable materials from trash by hand.

After sorting, paper materials are compressed into bales, which will be stored in the new warehouse before they’re shipped for sale. Recyclable construction materials are also separated by hand before a machine sorts out fine materials that can also be salvaged and reused. The remaining waste is directed to the landfill.

“We’re excited about the capabilities of this system,” Pouwels said.

The Ratto Group, a Santa Rosa-based waste company, has been subcontracted to operate and staff the new recycling facility, Pouwels said. The company did not return requests for comment about expected revenues, operation expenses or added jobs.

The project is part of a $119 million investment in capital projects Arizona-based Republic Services will put into the facility during the life of the contract signed in 2015 to handle the day-to-day operations of the county-owned landfill, Klassen said. The State Water Resources Control Board forced the formerly county-run site to cease operation in 2005 amid pollution concerns and Republic was first hired to operate the landfill on a limited basis in 2010.

The bulk of county’s roughly 300,000-ton waste stream is directed to Central Landfill, Sonoma County Waste Management Agency Executive Director Patrick Carter said. As part of the contract, operators are asked to divert 67,000 tons of waste from the landfill each year. In 2016, about 20,000 tons of waste were kept out of the landfill, and the new infrastructure is expected to provide a significant boost, Pouwels said.

The facility is also expected to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to a healthier environment.

“Any kind of recycling and reuse helps lower the demand for new material to be made - any paper or cardboard or things like that can be recycled and made into new products, so we’re cutting down less trees and preserving more natural resources,” Klassen said.

Petaluma residents will be unaffected by the work in the city’s backyard, as the city in 2012 approved a 15-year agreement with Petaluma Refuse and Recycling, a subsidiary of the Ratto Group, to haul its curbside waste and recycling to the Redwood Landfill in Novato. That arrangement, which the city argues is more economically viable for its ratepayers, will continue, said Dan St. John, the city’s director of public works and utilities. Residents can pay a fee to haul truckloads of materials to the county sorting facility, Pouwels said.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt said the new facility will be “an integral part in achieving overall goals” of keeping 80 percent of waste from landfills.

He said the next challenge will be to identify a location for a composting site, though the Central Landfill is off the table.

The Sonoma County Waste Management Agency is seeking to find a private operator to handle the green waste from local jurisdictions and a request for proposals will likely be released later this month, Carter said.

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