19 min read

Interview Transcript: Recycling and Composting the Smart Way - Nick Lapis from Californians Against Waste (#1)

Enjoy this transcript of our interview with Nick Lapis, the Director of Advocacy at Californians Against Waste.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: So, Nick, first of all, thanks for joining us. This is the first and only podcast dedicated to helping people learn from others who are changing the world. Tell us a little bit about what you do and how you got started.

NICK LAPIS: Sure. Thank you for having me on. I'm not sure I'm changing the world, but I appreciate the compliment.

My name is Nick. I work for an organization called Californians Against Waste. We are an environmental organization in Sacramento, California. Been around for 45 years, working on state policy around recycling, waste reduction. And in recent years, we've been heavily involved in composting and organics policy and also plastics and plastic pollution.

That's some of the stuff that we work on. For me personally, I've been with the organization since 2007. I started right after college, went to Davis for environmental policy and then immediately after college started at CAW.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: Okay. You know, since you've touched on college, do you feel that the program you took prepared you for what you were going to face?

NICK LAPIS: That's a really good question. I would say largely no, just because I think what I do is such a narrow niche area that it's kind of hard to go to school for this specifically. I mean, we do lobbying, we do coalition-building, policy development, stuff like that. I went to school and my major was actually environmental biology, but I minored in environmental policy and political science.

So all of that taken together is basically what I do, but most of my job is just learning on the job. I don't think I necessarily learned how to do it ahead of time.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: Let’s dive into the deep end and keep swimming. If someone wanted to create change in government policy and going to college, wasn't what prepared you, what could they do? Or what would you do differently knowing what you know now?

NICK LAPIS: I think what you should do is find an organization that you feel like is effective at causing change and reach out to them, email them cold, call them, say “Hey, can I meet you for a cup of coffee?” and sit down with the person who has the job that you want to be doing and ask them how they got there.

If they have any internships, if they have any openings. Really, I think that's the best approach. What I've learned over my time at CAW is that it's not always obvious that this is a career that people want to do when people want to effect change, but there are so many different ways to affect change. And the political space is one way to do it, but it also takes a very specific mindset.

I don't think most people realize whether or not they're cut out for it or something they want to do until they try it. So I would say an internship.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: What are some of the hallmarks of an organization that it is in fact in acting change and not just paying lip service to it?

NICK LAPIS: You know, that's a really good question and I'm not sure there is a very tangible way to measure that.

I mean, you could say, look at the bills they have passed, look at the land they have conserved, look at the actual metrics. But that's not always the best indicator. You can pass a lot of bad bills that don't actually help at all, and actually maybe hurt an issue. Or you can spend years on a campaign for one bill that has a really big impact so it's kind of hard to measure in that sense.

I don't know if there is a metric. It's like gut level thing for me more than anything.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: What are you most proud of accomplishing there or that your organization has accomplished?

NICK LAPIS: Well, our organization has accomplished a lot and a lot of it predates me and, you know, as an organization, I think we're probably most proud of creating the Bottle Bill, the beverage container deposit where you pay a nickel and then you get it back.

That's become a model for other states and for other countries. It's a very effective recycling program. But that most of that predated me. I personally am probably most proud of the work we've done around composting and organic waste. That's something that wasn't really very much on the radar at the state level when I started.

But we've been pretty successful in getting it prioritized and legislation and regulations. We're about to start seeing composting rolled out statewide actually at the end of next year. There are new regulations that we worked on that just got adopted and they go into effect on January 1st, 2022.

Basically, everybody in California is going to have composting service for their food waste, their green waste, and other organics.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: We got a lot of tangents we can go on from that so I'm going to start unpacking that. Let's rewind a second. Imagine I am a teenager sitting in a city and I want to bring composting to my state, run me through the mechanics that your organization had to go through in as much detail as possible to educate someone who actually wants to enact legislation. What does that look like?

NICK LAPIS: Yeah, I mean, I think it's about identifying opportunities and being prepared to act on them. Let me start with where we were 14 years ago. There were some composting programs in the Bay Area. San Francisco had a good one but it wasn't super widespread.

As a state and as a country, we weren't doing a good job with our organic waste. We were good at recycling bottles and cans and paper, but organic waste wasn't being considered at all. And there are a lot of reasons why you want to recycle it. First of all, just makes up like two-thirds of the garbage in the landfill.

But there's also, you know, climate change benefits of getting it out of landfills because, in landfills, it rots and releases methane and methane is a really strong greenhouse gas.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: Just for the listeners, methane, if I'm not mistaken, is about 18 times more toxic than carbon monoxide, which is what comes out of cars. Right?

NICK LAPIS: That's actually pretty outdated. It's 33 times, I believe, is the most recent. And even that's looking at a hundred-year timeframe, but actually, methane has its entire impact in its first 12 years. So if you adjusted for a 20-year timeframe, which is another way that they measure, it's 80, some odd times more powerful.

So the methane from the landfills is one angle. The other angle is we're taking the stuff that has a lot of value and we're destroying it. And the same stuff that we're putting in a landfill could be made into a product that helps agriculture that makes soils, be more resilient to droughts and to fires.

A lot of the impacts of climate change that we're seeing, it also allows more regenerative agricultural systems to sequester carbon. There are a ton of benefits and I can geek out about compost for hours, but I won't do that. But as an organization we prioritized - this is really where we need to focus, this is a high priority. And the vision that my boss at the time had was that climate change seemed like the opportunity to engage on that issue because of all the climate connections there. And I know he sought out grant funding to hire me to work specifically on climate change. I was basically hired immediately after California passed its landmark greenhouse gas law, which was AB 32.

Under this law, the legislature told our state air board to regulate greenhouse gases and to reduce climate change. And my job was to make sure that that conversation included recycling, included composting. At first blush, it's not something that people think about when they think about climate change.

People tend to think of tailpipes and smokestacks. But they don't think about landfills. They don't think about the potential to reverse climate change through the use of compost. And it actually took a while to break through and to get that to be part of the conversation because when the air board did their first models, they basically said: ”Well, landfills are 2% of the emissions. And if we put in better gas systems, we can get that down. And that's what we're going to do on waste”.

It took a while of organizing, getting other advocates to show up at meetings, meeting with staff over and over and over, and explaining the huge opportunity with diverting the organic waste, to begin with, as opposed to trying to capture gas from a 500-acre hole in the ground.

That was really one of the big turning points is when the air resources board started including organics diversion and composting into their climate plans. They actually proposed, requiring all businesses to have composting service as part of their regulations. That lead a lot of folks who had previously sort of opposed, or not really wanted to be involved in organics, recycling.

It really led them to engage and try to find a way to make it work, because if you're a garbage company, what comes down to you is you want to make sure you're being paid to provide a service. And you might be in the business of running a landfill, but ultimately if the state is going to stop landfilling, then you want to be in the business of collecting and processing the material, whichever way the state wants you to.

That's where I think most of our successes have been - really talking to the local governments, talking to the waste hollers, trying to figure out what they need in order to be successful. We've partnered with companies like Recology and some of the other big garbage companies.

We've partnered with them on legislation, requiring businesses to have composting, ending a practice that had been in place for a long time where green waste was used as landfill cover every day. And eventually, this regulation I mentioned earlier, SB 1383, which is a comprehensive policy on organics and took a lot of work, it was passed in 2016.

I think it took arguably 10 years of work to get to that point. Then after the legislation was passed, the implementation period started and the regulations were just finished now. So that's 2020. My whole time at CAW that 13 years or however long it's been, has been about building up towards this one comprehensive policy.

I'm really excited to see it actually go into effect in 2022.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: Congratulations. Again, you've given me something that we can really unravel and unpack pretty deeply. So, one of the things is first, I'd love to have you back on the show to try and create a blueprint for anyone that wants to try and start that 14-year journey that you have behind you now, and that allowed you to start creating change on the ground through composting, right?

NICK LAPIS: Yeah. Well, there are huge logistical challenges, but maybe the political will is really the bigger challenge. Once you decide you want to do it, once the local government decides they want to do it, their waste holler, their service provider can take care of the logistics, but having the political will to raise rates, for example, is much harder.

I didn't really answer your question, but if I were to say, what I've learned the most about actually effecting change, it would be that I started off thinking that I had to be right. And if I was just right, if I just explained why this was the right thing to do, the world would just align.

And it doesn't really matter if you're right if you're not solving the concerns of the people who are opposed, you know, the way the California legislature works. And I think most legislatures is that one interest group can't really just override everybody else. So whether you're working on any kind of public interest policy, you've got to find a way to partner with unusual folks, businesses, local governments, et cetera.

Because it's very easy to be an environmentalist making an environmental argument, and that won't necessarily go very far. But what lawmakers like to see is: ”Okay, the environmentalists have found a solution and a timeframe and an implementation schedule that works for the industry that has to deal with it.”

Really listening to the industry and trying to hear what their real concerns are is a lot more important than trying to convince somebody that you're right.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: You're one of the more...I don't want to say even-keeled...but you have very good clarity on what it takes to enact change. And I think that only comes from some painful experiences.

NICK LAPIS: Yeah, definitely. Again, we really should have a longer conversation at some point, but you know, one of my first bills, I remember one of the first bills that I worked on was a bill to get rid of diversion credit. That's what it's called for green waste. That’s using landfill cover.

Basically what happens to most of the yard waste that you generate is that you collect it, you put it in your green bin on the curb, the garbage company picks it up and takes it, believe it or not, to the landfill and puts it on top of the garbage.

And the reason for that is they are supposed to cover garbage at the end of each day to make sure that, you know, rodents and seagulls and other things don't get to it. But we actually ended up incentivizing that by calling that recycling.

It turned out to be one of the cheapest ways for cities to meet their recycling goals was by taking all your green waste and just putting it in the landfill and calling that recycling.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: They were just checking a box on weight, basically, when they passed it away.

NICK LAPIS: Exactly. It was used way more than it needed to be because there's just such a cheap way to get recycling. And so one of my first bills was to clarify that that is disposal, not recycling. I think I approached it from such a self-righteous perspective of being right.

Really, if people just knew what was happening to their green waste, they'd be riding in the streets. And I remember the lobbyist who I won't name because everything is on the internet forever, but I remember the lobbyist for one of the garbage companies basically kicked my butt.

I thought he was the most evil person in the world because he was fighting to continue this practice that I thought was so evil. But then I realized in talking to them, there are specific issues why it was hard for them to sign on to this. They had contracts that basically would have left them on the hook with some of these costs and they wouldn't have had a way to recover the costs.

There were implementation timeline issues or infrastructure issues, et cetera. The more I talked to them, the more I realized that we can actually work together to achieve both the environmental goal, but in a way that actually makes sense for them. Since then I've worked with that lobbyists a lot, especially in recent years.

I think he's an amazing lobbyist and he advocates for his client effectively. He's not the evil villain that I felt he was when I first met him because he's advocating for his client's position. His client's position is rational and reasonable. And if I want to overcome the status quo, I can either build such a big coalition that has climbed position doesn't matter, or I can work to address their concerns.

Every group, every environmental organization, every public interest advocate is going to have a different balance there of how much you compromise, how much you fight, where the line is, where you've compromised too much, but really finding that line and finding the way to actually accomplish change is the most interesting part of my job.

People hear that I'm a lobbyist and they think I am talking to legislators nonstop, trying to convince them of things. Or they imagine that I'm at swanky parties. It's kind of one of those two things, but neither of them is true.

Yes, we meet with legislators and we make our case. Yes, we meet with staff and make our case. But for the most part, it's about trying to solve the problem and looking at how do you solve the problem?

If the company says: ”Well, we can't do it because we don't have composting facilities”, then let's unpack that. How do you, how do we make it so that composting is economical for you?

“Well, we don't have markets to sell the compost.”

Okay. Let's unpack that. How do we build markets? How do we increase the agricultural use of compost?

Permitting is an issue?

Okay. What's what are the barriers to permitting? And it's kind of putting all those pieces of the puzzle together and I'm sure there are plenty of folks who felt that we missed the mark, we went too far in the environmental direction, but finding that balance is really the most interesting part of my job. It's not about being more right than the opposition.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: That was so good. Thank you. Let's get into the business side of things. Perhaps we have a listener who says, how can I make money while helping the environment? What, what would you say to an entrepreneur? That they could potentially do. I'm sure you have so many ideas that since you're the one creating these opportunities, what might you point people in the direction of?

Perhaps it doesn't have to be a huge business today, but maybe it's going to be a really important business 5 or 10 years from now, or maybe even 20 for people with longer horizons.

NICK LAPIS: Yeah, I hear buying Tesla stock is a good way to get rich.

(Both laugh.)

NICK LAPIS: There's a self-deprecating joke that the composters sometimes make. Do you know the best way to make a small fortune in the compost business is to start with a large fortune?

I think that there's some truth to that, that this isn't necessarily a good way to get rich. There are a lot of folks who have great ideas for technologies, for processing organic waste, and making products out of it.

The most economical way to compost is almost always the most low-tech way, which is a large facility with rows of material that get turned. Nature does all the work and that's how we're going to end up handling the majority of the material.

But there's no patent on that. There's no way to sell a fancy product.

So there are a lot of people who see what they think is an environmental business opportunity of: ”I'm going to take this product and I'm going to pyrolyze it, and I'm going to make biochar. And then this biochar is going to be worth a bazillion dollars a pound and I've come up with the next iPhone”.

But realistically, there's a reason why other people haven't done that because the costs involved, the energy involved and et cetera, doesn't really merit the margins that we're talking about here.

So to some extent, I tend to discourage a lot of entrepreneurs who come to talk to me. I tend to be a cold blanket. Or a wet blanket, I guess, because almost every idea they have is something that's been tried and didn't work for some reason. And you can't get rich quick composting. That said, we will need a bunch of different technologies, a bunch of different approaches.

You know, there's some folks who want to take food waste, for example, and grow black soldier fly larvae, and then use that larvae to feed fish that they grow and then they can sell the feed or the fish. And you know, there's ideas like that. There's worm composting. There's anaerobic digestion.

There's aerobic digestion. There's enzymes, there's fuel production, et cetera. There are a million different ways to process the stuff. And there are entrepreneurial opportunities there, but I think you have to be realistic about the margins involved, the economics involved in handling large, large quantities of organic waste.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: And on that topic, what about, for example, taking organic waste and using it to supply your pig farm? And so you lower the cost of feed at your hog farm. Is that something you've seen done?

NICK LAPIS: Yeah, definitely. It's actually very commonly done. From what I understand, it's one of the most closely guarded secrets of a lot of folks in the grocery industry or like food banks and other folks. They never want to tell anybody who their hog farm is because they're afraid somebody else is going to go and undercut them.

It's one of the only places where you can take your food scraps and actually get paid for them as opposed to having to pay, to make them into a new product. And it's a great thing. We love it. You know, take something we can avoid growing crops to feed to animals. That's going to be more sustainable than anything else we can do.

We talk about a food waste hierarchy and kind of the reduce, reuse, recycle, except for food waste where the top priority is feeding people. If you have a bunch of produce at a supermarket, the top priority is to either sell it or get that to a food bank, to feed hungry people. If you can't do that, if it's spoiled, if you know it's contaminated, whatever, then the next highest priority is feeding animals.

And again, because otherwise there could be material that, or there could be crops that are grown for that purpose, which has a lot of impacts. But if you can't feed animals and there's only so many animals out there, and there's only so much capacity, then the next step is what I call “feeding the soil”.

So making a soil amendment, compost being the biggest, but you know, it could be liquid fertilizers and other, other things you could make. And that's sort of the loading order, so to speak for handling food waste, environmentally and logistically. It's not a new concept. We've been feeding scraps to animals for as long as we've had animals. Right?

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: That’s right. That's a very good point. I've done a lot of food recovery and taking it to food banks. Myself. And I had a lot of trouble finding a source of food. When I went down the, well, what would I say, quote, unquote, obvious places, supermarkets, and whatnot. They'd all say: ”Oh, we already compost this.”

And then I'd say, why are you composting a slice of pizza? Somebody could eat it, right?

But then I discovered an untapped source and that was catering companies. I had a buddy with a catering company and after every event, I'd pick up 800-900 pounds of food and drop it off at the homeless shelter. The people, the staff there would be so appreciative because now they didn't have to cook as much cause they could just warm this food up.

that was a little unexpected upside on recovering food from catering companies and going to the homeless shelter. And by the way, there's over 900,000 catering companies in America. I don't know what that number is going to be now with COVID, but I imagine that they'll come back at some point.

I urge our listeners who want to have an impact to just contact these catering companies. They actually are very happy to have someone to pick up the food. It helps their staff be happier. Because when their staff sees all this food going to waste, they actually feel bad. And at the same time, it makes the owner feel good about what he does for a living.

They're very happy to have him pick up the food, but you will have to cover the bill on your gas, on any containers you're going to use. They're not going to give you their own supplies to pick up the food. Then you got to get it to the homeless shelter fast enough so that it doesn't spoil because there, there are a few rules around that.

But I don't think most people should worry about, for example, being sued because - and I'll let you fill in the blank here, Nick, for our listeners -, not enough people realize that there's actually laws that protect people who don't make food. Can you tell us about that, please?

NICK LAPIS: Yeah, thank you. That's great. I didn't feed you the question, but that is an issue we've worked on quite a bit. California was actually the first state in the country to pass what's known as a Good Samaritan law. Meaning you can't get in trouble for doing something as a Good Samaritan. You can't get in trouble for donating food.

And that was, I believe in the late seventies, early eighties that we passed that. And then it was copied by a lot of other states across the country. And then there was a federal bill in the nineties called the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act, which is about basically saying you will not get in trouble if you give something to a food bank and then somebody gets sick.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: There's one caveat though. The only caveat on that is, as far as I remember, is as long as there's not willful negligence - you didn’t leave fish out of the sun for three days and then try and feed people.

NICK LAPIS: Exactly. And there are some researchers out of Harvard and at the natural resources defense council that came up with a list of recommendations for ways to strengthen the protections. And we introduced a bill that we actually worked on with the food banks to expand California's Good Samaritan law to cover all of those other areas. So making it clear that our law was, I believe, it's negligence and we changed that to gross negligence.

But also expanding it to say that if you're donating directly to individuals, if you're not donating to a food bank, you're still protected. So really in California, unless you're intentionally trying to make somebody sick, there's no way you will face any liability from donating food. And this updated California Good Samaritan Act is the strongest in the country.

Really, for the most part, those changes weren't necessary. There are no cases out there that I know of, of people actually getting sued. But you know the managers of restaurants and grocery stores, et cetera, are always worried about liability. And so it's more about putting them at ease than actually stopping any real liability threat.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: Yes. And if we have any listeners that are connected to anyone at the restaurant association, or even OpenTable who can get a message out to every restaurant owner, let them know they can do this and they are legally protected to donate food and they won't get in trouble. Because I've come across very intelligent people at the Four Seasons, general managers who are afraid to donate the leftovers of their buffet every Sunday because they think they're going to get sued. And so they just throw it away. Someone, and maybe it's you and I, can create a little system and then start putting the word out to people because there's a lot of restaurants and a lot of hotels throwing away a lot of food.

NICK LAPIS: And if you want some resources to give to a hotel manager or a restaurant manager, the California Association of Food Banks has a one-pager that summarizes this new law.

The California Directors of Environmental Health, basically, the restaurant health inspectors also have materials that they put together that talk about the protections. They both have them on their websites and sure you can just Google “California”, “Good Samaritan food donation law”, and either “food banks” or “environmental health” and you'll get there.

Their fact sheets are really detailed. The nice thing about the environmental health folks is that it's coming from the restaurant inspectors is coming from a trusted voice.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: I see. You know Nick, I'm enjoying this so much. I want to travel to you and buy you a drink for all the good you're doing and just really pick your brains so much because you have got so much knowledge in there that people need to hear.

So what I'm going to do is end this now, because we've gone over a lot of time by a little bit, and I don't want to end it. I'm doing it when my teeth grit.

But why don't we try and get back together when it's good for you and dive deeper into some of these topics, especially the mechanics of the day-to-day?

We don't have to cover everything. We could find one or two topics and start peeling back some of the layers to help other people who are just starting to try and do what you do. But don't have your 14, 15 years of painful lessons, and let's, let's help them turbocharge their lobbying. What do you say?

NICK LAPIS: That sounds great. Looking forward to it.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: Me too, Nick. Enjoy the rest of your day. I got to tell you, I am so excited that I met you. You're awesome. And going back to the beginning of the podcast, I stand by what I said - you very much are changing the world and I thank you for that.

NICK LAPIS: All right. Well, I'll look forward to our next conversation.

JEAN-PIERRE KHOUEIRI: All right. Thank you, Nick.

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