By Matthew Vollrath
Special to The Almanac
San Mateo County is running out of dump space. Ox Mountain, the county's sole landfill, will reach capacity in just 15 years, according to a new report from the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury.
This is one of a number of pressing waste management challenges identified in the report -- challenges that the county's current waste management plan is not equipped to address, the grand jury asserts.
"The plan is now 20 years old and utterly fails to address the major issues facing us today," grand jury foreperson Michael Patrick said in a July 30 press release.
Like all California counties, San Mateo has a Countywide Integrated Waste Management Plan (CIWMP) that sets goals and policies for its waste disposal practices. The current plan, which has been in place since 1999, was built around the goal of diverting 50% of solid waste away from landfills. The good news is that this goal has largely been achieved, the grand jury reports. The bad news -- 50% waste diversion isn't enough anymore.
Ox Mountain is a case in point. At current levels of garbage generation, the county's dump site near Half Moon Bay will be full by 2034. Prospects for more landfill space are slim -- opening a new landfill would be "really difficult," according to grand jury interviewees, and using another county's landfills would be costly in terms of both money and fossil fuels.
The best option, the grand jury says, is to start diverting more waste, which would extend the life of the current dump site. This would require a comprehensive update to the countywide plan setting new, more ambitious targets for waste diversion.
There are also many other reasons to update the plan, the grand jury asserts. In recent years, state and local goals for waste management have increased significantly. California AB 341 sets a statewide goal of 75% waste diversion, and multiple cities in the county, including Menlo Park, now have even higher targets of 80%, 90%, or 100%.
In addition, the county's current plan does not address the growing problem of organic waste, the report said. According to CalRecycle, nearly 71% of landfilled garbage is food and other organic matter, which releases harmful methane gas as it decomposes in the dump. Given the profound impact of food waste on climate change, state goals of 75% organic waste diversion and 20% edible food recovery should be reflected in the county plan, the report asserts. The county should also consider banning the disposal of organic waste in landfills entirely, according to the grand jury.
Based on its findings, the grand jury calls on the county Office of Sustainability to create an updated CIWMP by 2021. The plan should address, "at a minimum," the new state and local waste diversion targets, the impact of waste practices on climate change, and "a strategy and schedule" for dealing with the looming landfill problem, the grand jury said.
The report also emphasizes the need for the county to consider whether new policies and decisions, such as where to site a new composting facility, would have a disproportionate effect on disadvantaged communities.
The Office of Sustainability and the County Manager's Office declined to comment ahead of the county's official response, which is due in about 60 days. Sustainability Program Manager Gordon Tong said only that his office is "already in the middle of the review process for the CIWMP."