Clarifying the Definition of “Solid Waste” in the Context of AB 341 and AB 1826

Some of the information in this blog post from July 2018 is out of date, subsequent to new information being provided by CalRecycle in January 2019. Please see Update: Re-Clarifying the Definition of “Solid Waste” in the Context of AB 341 and AB 1826, for the latest information.

While not traditionally counted among life’s great mysteries, in recent weeks here at Recyclist we’ve been spending a lot of time asking, what is the definition of the term solid waste? As it turns out, what counts as solid waste actually depends on the context.

If you ask the EPA, solid waste is just about anything a person or business disposes of, with very few exceptions, according to the agency’s Criteria for the Definition of Solid Waste and Solid and Hazardous Waste Exclusions.

CalRecycle offers a comparable definition in its Glossary of Waste Prevention Terms:

In general terms, solid waste refers to garbage, refuse, sludges, and other discarded solid materials resulting from residential activities, and industrial and commercial operations. This term generally includes used oil. … For regulatory purposes, hazardous waste is a subset of solid waste.

Similarly, CalRecycle’s Solid Waste Characterization data looks at solid waste, broken down into disposed tons, recycled tons, organics tons, and other diversions.

For these reasons, at Recyclist we have always presumed that commercial solid waste means all of the waste — including garbage, recycling and organics — generated by a commercial entity.

Enter one of our new Program Tracker customers. When we’re onboarding a new customer, the first step in our process is a kick-off call where we go through all of the customer’s existing spreadsheets, notes, hopes and dreams for their commercial waste program. On a recent call, when the topic of AB 341 and AB 1826 compliance came up, we discovered that this customer was identifying regulated businesses based not on total waste generation (garbage, recycling and organics combined), but solely on garbage generation.

This took us by surprise, so we decided to dig a bit deeper. An accurate definition of commercial solid waste is critical to our operations because our software automatically assigns AB 341 and AB 1826 compliance statuses to businesses and multi-family properties based on their service levels. Suddenly we were wondering, do we need to rewrite our algorithm?

The short answer is yes. We did need to make a change, and so we have. We were able to confirm the following with a Senior Environmental Scientist at CalRecycle:

1. For AB 341, the 4 cubic yards of commercial solid waste per week threshold refers to garbage only. This is verified in Subsection (a)(1) of the Final Statement of Reasons – Mandatory Commercial Recycling Regulations in this rulemaking document:

This also clarifies that the threshold for businesses (not including multifamily residences) is 4 cubic yards or more of commercial solid waste per week, not 4 cubic yards of commercial solid waste and recyclables. The definition distinguishes between recyclable materials that already are separated prior to any commercial solid waste being discarded — and thus excluded from the 4 cubic yards — versus potentially recyclable materials that are not separated and instead are included in the commercial solid waste being discarded. Establishing the threshold to include only commercial solid waste should make it easier for a jurisdiction to determine which businesses are subject to the regulation; a jurisdiction does not have to conduct a waste generation study to determine if 4 cubic yards of commercial solid waste is generated. Within this definition then, the term “generates” simply refers to commercial solid waste produced and disposed, excluding previously separated recyclable materials; it does not refer to other uses of the terms “generates” or “generation” that mean the amount of commercial solid waste diverted plus the amount of solid waste disposed. “Business” also includes a multi-family residential dwelling of five units or more, regardless of the amount of commercial solid waste generated.

Well, I never expected to say “Wow!” to anything I read on page 39 of a 285-page rulemaking document. But…wow!

2. For the January 1, 2019 threshold of AB 1826 (“Businesses that generate 4 cubic yards or more of commercial solid waste per week shall arrange for organic waste recycling services”), the same definition of commercial solid waste applies.

Because there are no related regulations for AB 1826 (statute only), there is no rulemaking document comparable to the one above for AB 341 to support this definition. And in the CalRecycle Mandatory Commercial Organics Recycling (MORe) Frequently Asked Questions you’ll find examples in Questions 16 and 17 that could be read as supporting the opposite definition of commercial solid waste:

Q: A multifamily complex generates 5 cubic yards of solid waste (3 cubic yards of refuse service, and 2 cubic yards of green waste and wood waste) per week, and the property’s landscaping service has been hauling the 2 cubic yards of green and wood waste to a recycling facility since 2014. As of 2019, is this complex subject to AB 1826 requirements, and should it be monitored as part of the jurisdiction’s mandatory commercial organics recycling program?

A: Yes, since this complex generates a total of 5 cubic yards of commercial solid waste then the complex will be subject to AB 1826 requirements as of January 2019, when multifamily complexes that generate 4 or more cubic yards of solid waste would be subject to the law. 

But as CalRecycle explained to us, there is a difference between a business being covered and a business needing to be monitored. That same FAQ answer goes on to explain:

A complex meeting this threshold would need to arrange to have its green waste, tree trimmings, and nonhazardous wood waste recycled. Although the complex in this example may currently be compliant in terms of using a recycling option for the green waste and wood waste portion of its waste, the complex would need to continue to be monitored annually to ensure the covered materials continued to be diverted.

In this case, the complex generates only 3 cubic yards of garbage, so it’s not technically covered. But it generates more than 4 cubic yards of all waste streams combined, so it does still need to be monitored.

So what does this mean for us at Recyclist? Well, one of the useful things that the Program Tracker can do is provide our customers with total cubic yardage of all waste streams combined, so this remains a useful number for monitoring. But as for AB 341 and AB 1826 compliance, our algorithm is rewritten, and onward we proceed, better informed thanks to our customers. In the end, this change affected only a small percentage of the commercial accounts tracked across all of our customers’ Program Trackers — it’s really just those that have less than 4 cubic yards of garbage but more than 4 cubic yards of total service. This means that fewer businesses are covered under AB 341 than we previously thought, and that some businesses we thought were covered under Phase III of AB 1826 (the January 1, 2019 deadline) would be covered only if Phase IV goes into effect. It’s an important distinction nonetheless, and one that also has an impact on the automated Electronic Annual Report data that our Program Tracker generates. We’re very glad to have this clarified — case closed!