Beyond a disposal society

Methane gas is produced through the decomposition of discarded waste in landfills. To keep this noxious gas from entering the atmosphere the normal practice was to direct it to a chimney-like structure and burn it off. But the Pestonis of Napa Valley had other plans.

“My father (Bob Pestoni) wanted to harness the fuel and turn the landfill into an alternative energy producer,” said Christy Pestoni Abreu, director of community outreach for the Clover Flat Resource Recovery Park (CFRRP).

“To make it work, the money for this project came out of his own pocket, but he had a dream, and today we are witnessing the fruits of that effort. Our power-generating facility is transforming gas that we used to just burn off, but now we’re converting it into a useful resource for the community.”

Because of the structure of the local grid, Calistoga is the recipient of the power.

“The City of Calistoga is thrilled to actively support energy conservation efforts like those of the Clover Flat Resource Recovery Park,” said Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning.

He also serves on the board of the Upper Valley Waste Management Agency.

“Learning to live in a more sustainable manner is not only good for Calistoga but also good for the Napa Valley community and beyond.”

A history of conservation

Like his father and grandfather before him, Bob Pestoni would eventually come back to making wine, opening Rutherford Grove Winery in 1994.

Before then, however, he and his brother Marvin departed from their family’s farming and winemaking heritage and instead, in 1963, created Upper Valley Disposal Service, becoming the refuse hauler for the upper Napa Valley.

Three years later they took over the operations at Clover Flat Landfill, always with an eye toward conservation. By the early ‘70s the Pestonis had become pioneers of recycling winery byproducts such as glass, cardboard and wood pallets, separating the material for recycling. They also had been composting for years.

“We’ve been composting ever since I can remember,” Christy said.

“At our Whitehall Lane upper valley disposal and recycling center, grape pomace (skins, seeds and stems) composting used a bucket loader in the 1970s. In the 1980s we used the windrow method using a piece of equipment called a scarab, resembling an Egyptian beetle. By the mid-1990s to today we used a method call ASP, Aerated Static Pile. We force air on timed aerators that blow air into the large piles of decomposing grape compost and green organic material. Our permit allows us to compost up to 37,000 tons of organics.”

When California passed such laws as the Integrated Waste Management Act (AB 939) in 1989, which, among other requirements, mandated that waste facilities divert a percentage of their waste to recycling and composting, the Pestonis had efforts already underway to divert what had been normally discarded and buried, and instead made it into something reusable and useful.

“We are currently at 72 percent diversion,” said Garry Lowe, CFRRP’s onsite manager.

“The state currently mandates 50 percent, but we are ahead of that and have been for some time.”

New mandates, new challenges

“SB 1383 Short Lived Climate Pollutant is a bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown recently and it will have new impacts on how we operate,” said Christy. “This law will require us to find additional ways to reduce short-lived climate pollutants, such as wood and other organics.”

One of the options for reducing wood waste is to convert it through a process called biomass gasification, which results in both clean energy production and biochar (charcoal) that is potentially a carbon-sequestration material that can be used as a soil additive. However, the equipment for gasification is expensive and the future market is uncertain.

“It used to be that there was a decent market for such things as recyclables, but that market has softened,” said Canning. “It’s becoming more expensive to deal with many of the new requirements, and some of the material is stacking up, like wood waste. But the CFRRP and others in the valley are looking at different options.”

“We are hoping to find a way to build a biomass gasification plant in the coming years,” Christy said.

“The technology is available and there is a real need locally — we could potentially process all the discarded vineyard vines, many of which are currently just burned in the field after they’ve been removed. We have the permit for the plant, but we need to find a way to bring the community together so that we can make this a sustainable decision for all of us. For example, if the county had an ordinance that kept the local wood waste in the valley, keeping it in a closed loop, then it’s likely this would make more long-term sense. We are still evaluating our options.”

Moving beyond a disposal society

“When you come down to it, ‘garbage’ is really only the commingling of different types of potentially useful and reusable items,” Christy said.

“We are no longer a disposal society, but we still need to reduce the amount of waste we produce. From where we are now we can continue to separate out and reuse as much as possible, using technology, human innovation and vision to drive the process forward.”

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Originally published in the Napa Register, December 2016