Currently, one-third of the waste entering landfills in Washington State is organic materials, a large portion being food waste. Much of the food waste is viable and safe food that people or animals could consume. Unfortunately, decomposing food waste in landfills is a significant source of methane emissions, an incredibly potent greenhouse gas (GHG).

HB 1799/SB 5731, a new bill, hopes to address these issues by diverting most organic materials from landfills. But counties have concerns.

Counties already have diversion programs for organic materials like lawn clippings, shrub trimmings, clean wood waste, and other yard and landscaping debris. A few jurisdictions also have programs for handling food waste outside of the landfill. But food waste diversion is not as widely available. Not even close. Expanding programs to handle it differently will take time and significant investment.

Under HB 1799/SB 5731, all local governments with a population higher than 25,000 must provide organic solid waste collection services to residents and businesses and provide for organic materials management.

For counties, the collection is only required in unincorporated areas where the population density per census tract exceeds 75 people per square mile. Unfortunately, the census tract metric may cause problems for implementation. Including urban growth areas with other rural lands in census tracts can impact the density thresholds and result in a patchwork of regions requiring service, leading to inefficiencies and higher costs.

Organic materials management includes composting, anaerobic digestion, and other means. But there are many unknowns in deploying widespread composting or other processing that the bill does not answer. For instance, how much infrastructure will be needed to handle all the waste being collected, where will it be built, and how much will it cost? Where will the funding come from to provide the resources? In California, which is currently implementing similar programs for organic waste, some ratepayer increases have been as high as 71% to pay the implementation costs.

We also don’t know the effect on existing revenues as our solid waste business model dramatically shifts. We receive a large portion of funding by sending materials across the scales and into landfills or transfer stations. The current system may not be a good idea anymore, especially considering one-third won’t be part of it if this bill passes.

Counties support the overall policy goals of this bill and reducing methane emissions to help the state meet its GHG emissions reduction goals, and address climate impacts from solid waste management operations. We need to treat waste differently, adapt our systems, and reduce the effects that accelerate climate change; however, we also need to rethink how we pay for solid waste management.

We still need solid waste management systems, and we’ll need resources to manage them. We’ll also need help to make improvements and invest in new systems.

Before jumping into such significant system changes, we need to figure all of this out.