In Central Contra Costa, composting food and other organic materials is very popular. Many people have backyard compost systems, whether they use a container or have an open "pile." But there are other options for organics recycling in addition to the traditional backyard approach.

And, since landfilled organics are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, it's beneficial when those materials are put to a higher use.

According to Cal Recycle, the state's waste agency, approximately two-thirds of what we landfill is compostable. Food scraps, yard trimmings and paper are all compostable, given the right circumstances.

Compost is actually a byproduct of the microbial deterioration of organic materials. If this deterioration happens in the open air, it producescarbon dioxide and, potentially,methane gas. The less oxygen present during the decomposition process, the more methane is produced. That means landfilling organics creates literally "tons" of methane, which is the second largest segment of greenhouse gases.

There are other good reasons to compost, other than reducing the amount of associated landfill gases. Applying compost to soil increases its fertility, and reduces water runoff and erosion.

While all this sounds wonderful, large scale composting plants pose an issue in California. Cal Recycle encourages composting programs because they significantly decrease the amount of landfilled materials, and thus greenhouse gases. On the other hand, California's Air Resources Board has very strict regulations regarding large industrial composting facilities because of their potential to produce carbon dioxide, methane, dust and odors. So, being able to obtain a permit from the State to site a traditional commercial compost facility is onerous.

But, where there is a will there is a way. New ways of composting are currently being tested in California. One of the most promising is happening right here in the East Bay. The Central Contra Costa Solid Waste Authority teamed up with East Bay Municipal Utilities District and Allied Waste Services to develop their "Food Waste Recycling Project." Allied collects post-consumer food waste from restaurants, schools, and grocery stores in the waste authority's service area and takes it to the East Bay MUD sewage treatment facility in Oakland.

East Bay MUD's was the first such facility in the nation to develop a food scraps to energy program via "anaerobic digestion;" which takes place in huge fully enclosed metal vats. In the anaerobic digester, bacteria break down the food waste and release methane as a byproduct. The methane is then captured for use as a fuel, a renewable source of energy to power their treatment plant. After the digestion process, the leftover material can be composted and used as a natural fertilizer for nonagricultural applications.

This process gets around the methane gas issue by capturing it for beneficial use, making the program an all-around winner. The project has been up and running for about three years and has been very well received by large food producers in the area because it decreases their garbage. This project is a testimony of the ingenuity of Californians, when faced with challenging circumstances.

For more information on the waste authority's Food Recycling Project, visit www.wastediversion.org/app_pages/view/688.

If you have a question, comment or idea about current or future solid waste programs, please email them to lois@wastediversion.org