2861 Mission Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95060 (Room 247) sustainablesystemsresearch@gmail.com 831.708.5836

Waste Not, Want Not

Problem summary: The United States and California face a waste management crisis. Landfills are filling rapidly and building new ones face numerous obstacles from governments and opponents. Various California laws  (SB 1383; AB 341; AB 876; AB 1826) are imposing ever more waste management and disposal requirements on local governments, leading to rising costs to customers and businesses. Most serious of all, China’s “National Sword” policy has virtually halted the import of U.S. plastics for recycling, leading to growing stockpiles with no place to go.  

Santa Cruz County, its cities and institutions–including Santa Cruz and Watsonville–are not insulated from these challenges. AB 876 and 1826 require organic recycling by local businesses, but Santa Cruz has established no program to accept these materials. Watsonville has closed its landfill and is shipping trash and recyclables to Marina, 15 miles to the south. The County’s Buena Vista landfill has opened it’s last “module” and is expected to close within the next 15 years. UC Santa Cruz is facing a cutoff of access to the GreenWaste composting facility in Marina, California and its highly-touted recycling program is diverting only about 50% due to contamination, leading to a large fraction going directly into the Santa Cruz Landfill.  At the same time, the volumes of disposable packaging are growing, with no means of identifying and reducing packaging materials along supply chains. As Pete Seeger once asked, “What will we do when there’s no place left to put all the garbage?” 

What is lacking in all of this is a countywide comprehensive, coordinated plan among the three governing entities and UCSC for dealing with flows of trash, compost and recyclables now and in the future. The County and cities of Santa Cruz and Watsonville have established an “Integrated Waste Management Local Task Force”  to study future garbage disposal options, including a new landfill in Santa Cruz County, transfer of refuse to landfills to sites outside of Santa Cruz County, composting, and emerging waste conversion technologies. Notably, UC Santa Cruz is not a member of the Task Force even though, with a student, faculty and staff “population” of more than 23,000 (and likely to grow), it is the largest single largest trash generator. in the county.  The disorganized local approach to this problem stands in contrast to the waste management systems of Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon, which are comprehensive, utilize best practices and are very successful.  There is no reason that Santa Cruz cannot do the same.

WNWN goals: Through “Waste Not, Want Not,” SSRF seeks to act as an interlocutor and coordinator in designing and costing a comprehensive waste management plan for the region, identifying financing options and writing proposals to pay for the plan, and developing management and governance tools for plan implementation. The project has the following objectives.

Pilot Waste Audit Program (PWAP): This was a 12-week pilot project consisting of recycling bin audits at two UCSC colleges. It is the first phase in the Waste Not, Want Not initiative, a new program launched by the Sustainable Systems Research Foundation (SSRF) to work with the University of California and the City and County of Santa Cruz to address the region’s ongoing waste crisis. SSRF collaborated on PWAP with two UCSC departments—the Sustainability Office and the Resource Recovery Unit—to test the impact of service, signage, and educational changes on recycling contamination rates. The results of this pilot will be used to influence and ensure the maximum effectiveness of educational consciousness- raising efforts and changes to waste management infrastructure in support of the UC Zero Waste commitment. The final project report is available here.

Mushroom composting: This is a project cosponsored with Rachel Carson Colleage at UC Santa Cruz to advance waste diversion by exploring the viability of training mycelium to grow on food-soiled cardboard, particularly pizza boxes, supplemented with coffee grounds to produce bioavailable fertilizer in the form of nutrient-rich mushroom compost. 


1. Preparation of a policy paper that identifies the scope of the crisis, the requirements for dealing with it, best practices and solutions in progress or implemented elsewhere, potential costs for difference solutions and scenarios, and a plan for moving forward;

2. Establishment of a waste auditing and assessment program that can quantify flows of goods and materials into public facilities, private homes and businesses, flows and categories of wastes that flow out, a “cradle-to-grave” analysis of these flows, and an individualized source reduction plan; 

3. Design of a broader source reduction plan that identifies mechanisms for reducing inflows of goods and materials, substitutes for nonrecyclable and noncompostable items, and strategies and incentives for changing producer and consumer behaviors and practices.

4. Creation of a local working group including principles from UCSC, the City of Santa Cruz, and Santa Cruz County, to meet regularly to discuss problems and identify potential solutions, evaluate methods and approaches applied elsewhere, and develop a plan.