When in Doubt… Recycle it!

I went to Cold Canyon Landfill yesterday and learned all about where our waste ends up. My mission was to find out why polystyrene (aka styrofoam) is not recycled in our county.


I learned that a productive compost system has been removed, recyclables make up the bulk of what is buried in the trash mountain and that education is the key role in creating a zero waste world.

Cold Canyon was opened in 1958 and covers 100 acres with a southern expansion in the near future. Mike Dimilo was our tour guide, a worker for the San Luis Obispo County’s Integrated Waste Management Authority (IWMA). They set up this management in 1994 when a law called AB939 was passed in California. This law required every landfill to reduce the amount of waste by 50 % by 2000 or be fined $10,000/day.


The IWMA runs the education and tour program to teach the public about the benefits of sorting recycling from trash before it ever gets on the truck reducing the amount of waste that ends up being buried with all the other trash.

When the Trucks leave the neighborhood with all the trash, recycling and green waste they drive to the landfill and are immediately weighed on a large scale. Cold Canyon serves San Simeon to Nipomo and is the largest landfill in the county with an average of 500 tons (1,000,000 pounds) of trash and recyclables a day.IMG_2708

Once weighed they either head for the trash pile, green waste chippers or recycling center on site.

The trash pile starts out as a large hole lined with black plastic, gravel, clay and soil on top.

IMG_2702 *takes 4-6 weeks to fill this large pit.


Then the trash is dumped and compacted reaching from 10-20 ft high. Each layer is known as a lift and once full a 1-2 ft layer of soil is put on top. For bird and plane flight tracks and aesthetic, the landfill is not going to build a Mt. Everest of trash but rather expanding to the south to make the landfill have a longer “life”.

Wild animals such as rats and western gulls sometimes come after the large trash pile to pick out the 12-14% of the trash that is  food scraps. The landfill does not want these “pests” going through the trash so they employ resident falcons to scare them off.


Paper (potentially recyclable/compostable) is the largest part (29%) of the solid waste stream and 12-14% is food waste (potentially compostable). Because so much organic material breaks down inside of the buried trash pile Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and Methane gases are released and have to be pumped out in pipes so it doesn’t leak into ground water/soil. Billions of cubic ft per month are pumped out and treated at the front of the landfill. It is then put into an internal combustion engine that generates electricity to power a little over 200 homes.

If more people were educated about organic waste (green waste such as food scraps, paper and wood) and 100% of it was composted, No harmful gasses would be produced.

Cold Canyon had a wonderful composting system set up until a couple years ago when some neighboring residents complained about odor. They would compost green waste and would sell back the nutrient rich compost to landscape companies to be used throughout the county.


Now-a-days there is no compost system and all 2,200 tons per month of greenwaste is chipped up and used for layering in between trash lifts. Some is sold to landscape companies as wood chips.

Right now they are trying to create a new compost system using the curbside green waste and food waste from restaurants to produce nutrient rich compost and minimal odor. The landfill hopes to have this up and running within a few years.

IMG_2743After driving past the green waste plot, a large green 500 sq ft building comes into view where 1/5 of the materials that enter the landfill end up. The Materials Recovery Facility processes 100 tons of recyclables a day.

The largest material entering the recycling center is again paper, taking up 50% of the recycling stream. Glass, steel, plastic, paper, and aluminum are all sorted, compacted and shipped off in large compact bales of material. The only way a recycling center will recycle a certain material is if they can sell it to a company that will make something new out of it. Which is the main reason why they do not recycle Polystyrene (aka Styrofoam). 

It would be great if we could find a company that would buy the polystyrene from the dump and make it into something new. It would reduce waste in the landfill and have a less harmful impact on the Earth.


The recycling is dumped on a concrete floor where a tractor takes over consolidating materials and pushes the material onto a series of conveyor belts. There, the materials are either sorted by hand or machine and dropped into their respective material shoots.This labor intensive process creates 50% more employment opportunities at the recycling center compared to the landfill.cover-recycling_workers_horz2 Once the materials have been sorted they are compacted into large bales, a bale of plastic bottles could weigh up to 1000 pounds.


Aluminum is the most valuable material.

                      *photo by Steve Miller–>

90% of the materials are sorted and shipped leaving only 10% of residual waste.

Cold Canyon has to get their numbers from 69% (where they are at now) to 75% less waste by 2020. I think banning polystyrene from restaurants and school would help a lot with those numbers.

As the percentage of less waste becomes higher and higher zero waste is definitely the future. Any business, home or city where 90% of all their waste is kept out of the landfill is considered ZERO WASTE.

zero waste system













This trip to Cold Canyon Landfill has been a very educational experience. The main idea I came away with is the REDUCTION of waste with a goal of  ZERO WASTE through policy change (banning certain items that are taking up valuable space in the landfill), education (teaching citizens about what can be recycled, responsible consumer choice and composting), and Composting organic matter in a system that would produce limited odor.

When in doubt, RECYCLE IT.

My goal is to always be aware of WHAT I am consuming and how much of it ends up buried in a mountain of trash left for future generations to deal with. What does it say about our society today that we create potentially toxic materials that will outlive us? What if the companies that made these materials were responsible for the end of their materials life?

2 thoughts on “When in Doubt… Recycle it!

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