It sounds like a Rube Goldberg cartoon, and resembles a big mound of dirt, but city officials are hoping a humble pile of organic material could start a revolution in large-scale composting.
Their endeavor, which began recently at the Mt. Vernon Avenue Recycling & Composting Facility, is a pioneering method of composting -- using a solar-powered blower to aerate the hot mess.
Bakersfield is believed to be one of a very few municipalities in the state composting this way -- and one of fewer than a dozen California cities that owns and operates its own compost facility.
How it's done is slightly complex -- and the "why" is more complicated still, because while composting helps cities satisfy state requirements restricting what can be sent to landfills, it's not a big revenue source.
Composting's basic premise is timeless: converting large amounts of organic matter -- including food scraps, biosolids, greenwaste and manure -- into fertilizer with regular applications of sun and water. It's worked like this for millenia.
But as recycling regulations ratchet up and air quality officials try to clear the valley's famously unhealthy skies, the state's recycling goals keep changing.
Cities are currently mandated to keep at least 50 percent of their garbage out of the landfills, under state legislation passed in 2000. In 2011, legislators set a statewide goal of diverting 75 percent of our trash by 2020 — but that’s not a requirement.
Composting is increasingly seen as a way for cities to meet state goals.
"It's an industry that's been around dozens and dozens of years but it's really coming into the limelight now," said Renee Robertson, recycling specialist with city of San Diego, which composts more than 100,000 tons of material a year.
Bakersfield, which opened a new $12 million recycling plant at Mt. Vernon earlier this month, is ahead of schedule on the first goal and should meet the second.
It diverts 62 percent of metropolitan Bakersfield's garbage from the landfill -- and with the completion April 22 of the 18-month roll-out of those blue recycling carts, that figure is expected to rise.
Composting, as well as recycling, will help.
COMPOST NOT A BIG MONEYMAKER
A new way of making compost could be an even bigger help -- because making compost is a winner for the city in virtually all ways but two.
Bakersfield earns beaucoup karma points for composting, and it sells a pickup truck-full of compost to the public for about $20 -- but doesn't earn a profit on its compost.
The city composts because that helps it meet landfill restrictions -- and because otherwise it would have to pay a private composter to take city waste.
It took in 200,000 tons of useable material in 2013. Of that, 80,000 tons was wood materials and 120,000 tons was compostable material -- which after composting shrank down to 40,000 tons.
Bakersfield city mulched its wood materials and sold them for $900,000. It sold its compost for $4 to $6 per ton, earning between $160,000 and $240,000 -- but spent about $4.8 million to run the Mt. Vernon plant last year.
Remaining costs were covered by refuse fees -- which Solid Waste Director Kevin Barnes points out haven't been raised in six years.
A compost expert said he and other industry watchers hope to some day turn more of a profit.
"We're excited and we're trying to promote it, but the compost industry doesn't have the money the medical industry has or the large agriculture industry has," said Dan Noble, executive director of the Association of Compost Producers, the state chapter of the U.S. Composting Council. "Compost is just basically organic dirt. Not super high value. That's our mission, to demonstrate and market that value."
EMISSIONS ALSO AN ISSUE
Large-scale composting also causes pollution when its long windrows -- high-piled rows of compost -- are turned and watered.
Windrows, which both Bakersfield and Los Angeles use, are the preferred method of commercial composting because of their simplicity, but they're not as efficient as they could be.
Compost must be aerated and watered, or else it will stink and not properly break down.
Aerating windrows means turning them with huge diesel-powered turners. Similarly, watering them is done using diesel-powered water trucks.
Both devices have huge 400- to 500-horsepower engines that burn fossil fuels and emit pollutants.
In its annual State of the Air report released last month, the American Lung Associationranked the metropolitan Bakersfield area third nationally for ozone and both kinds of particulate pollution.
Ozone occurs naturally in the higher parts of our atmosphere -- but it increasingly appears in the lower atmosphere, thanks to air pollution from commonly-known sources like engines and power plants.
Composting contributes to the ozone layer, because turning conventional, windrow compost piles produces elevated levels of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.
"Composting facilities do create a large amount of VOC emissions, and we have to be considerate of just saying that we need another 100 composting facilities in order to meet CalRecycle's waste diversion goals," said Errol Villegas, San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District program manager.
"We need to make sure we balance out the emissions created by these newer facilities, because they could have a significant impact on our attainment strategy."
Robert Horowitz, supervisor of the organics unit at CalRecycle, the state recycling agency, agreed composting facilities emit large quantities of emissions -- nearly six pounds of emissions per ton of compost in the San Joaquin Valley -- but said their role in creating ozone may be overstated.
"Not all VOCs are equal when it comes to making ozone," Horowitz said. "These are not the most reactive kinds. Given the right time and conditions they could form ozone, but it's not like something that comes off an oil refinery."
Bakersfield's new pilot compost pile buries emissions problems -- literally.
It's made from a series of slightly Goldberg-ian PVC pipes similar to those found at hardware stores. Holes are drilled in them; they're glued together in a grid and hooked up to the electric blower from a children's bounce house.
The blower is wired to a solar cell and the pipes are covered by a compost pile.
When the blower blows, it aerates the pile -- which is continually covered with fresh compost to capture natural emissions.
The idea behind it comes from a 2012 study done in Tulare and published last May. So do the blower and the solar cell, which -- like the study -- were funded by a $230,000 grant from the SJVAPCD.
It compared windrow composting with an aerated static compost pile over 22 days and found the pile reduced VOC emissions by nearly 99 percent, from 8.6 pounds per ton to less than one-tenth of 1 pound.
Ammonia and greenhouse gas levels also dropped significantly.
"I was impressed by the reduction in emissions and how they were looking for ways to reduce the impact on the environment," said David Crohn, an associate professor and compost expert at UC Riverside who helped plan the study and examined its findings. "That's exactly what the industry is trying to do, they're trying to work with the air quality boards to find a way to reduce emissions ..."
Horowitz and Noble also worked on the study -- and so did Barnes, who is spearheading Bakersfield's pilot program.
In 100-degree heat. In August.
"Kevin just about passed out, a few times out there," Horowitz said. "If anyone's going to design the system of tomorrow, it's going to be Kevin because he's the MacGyver of composting. He can make things out of other things."
Robertson, the San Diego recycling specialist, said other cities have piloted aerated static compost piles -- including hers, in 2009 -- but officials are definitely keeping an eye on what Bakersfield does.
"I think most large-scale facilities have done some small-scale pilots," she said. "Bakersfield is very innovative and trying new things, so it's fun to watch."
Barnes is a little more, well, down-to-earth about composting.
"I was an environmental engineering major," said Barnes, who also has a business management degree. "I'm one of those guys who's supposed to put two and two together and get four. I did pull in ideas from various things you see in life and I really just put this together ... to reduce the emission and cut the cost.
"Really, it's keeping an open mind to see how something cool or a process from somewhere else can be adapted to benefit the process we're in. It has to make business sense."