One step ahead

Features - Operations Focus | Organics Processing

Athens Services prioritizes community outreach and technology advancements to align with the requirements of S.B. 1383.

October 7, 2022

© Vera Kuttelvaserova |
Family-owned and operated since 1957, Athens Services has grown to become one of the leading waste and recycling service providers in Southern California. The company was founded on the principle of providing exceptional service while fostering a safe, healthy and sustainable environment, and “The Athens Way” has launched the company toward new heights in waste diversion.

Until several years ago, the company mainly collected and processed waste and recyclables for residents and commercial customers throughout Los Angeles, Ventura, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

Athens Services uses a fleet of more than 900 heavy-duty collection trucks, as well as four recycling facilities, two container management facilities and seven operation service facilities to accommodate its customers, servicing roughly 2.2 million residents and 40,000 commercial customers in more than 40 communities. In addition, the company manages and operates five landfills and nine transfer stations in San Bernardino County, which are all county-owned.

Although Athens has found great success in its waste, organics and recycling operations, the company recently expanded food waste collection and recycling to more cities in light of California’s Short-Lived Climate Pollutant Reduction Law (S.B. 1383), a law that requires residents and businesses to separate food waste and food-soiled paper from the waste stream.

With the new organics collection requirements taking effect at the beginning of January, Athens says it needed to take several steps to prepare cities for the service changes. Athens Services Executive Vice President Gary Clifford says preparations began several years in advance, with priority being given to community outreach and marketing campaigns.

Clifford says outreach efforts included customer notification letters, presentations, informational videos, social media updates, flyers and more. Athens Services also organized extensive staff training across all functions of the company, including customer service, government affairs, collections, recycling outreach and education, as well as sales and marketing.
“These characterizations were instrumental in determining how much outreach and education was needed ... to help drive customer behavior to minimize contamination.” – Gary Clifford, executive vice president, Athens Services

Assessing the field

Photo courtesy of Athens Services

As outreach plans were developed, the company also expanded upon its organics collection logistics.

“Athens analyzed current waste streams and conducted waste characterizations of all residential refuse/mixed waste loads in each community,” Clifford says. “These characterizations provided Athens with the understanding of how much organic material was currently in those streams so the company could establish a baseline and goals for ensuring that material gets placed in the organics container.”

All residential routes in each community were evaluated and organics containers were rolled out to cities that did not currently have them, he adds.

“These characterizations were instrumental in determining how much outreach and education was needed ... to help drive customer behavior to minimize contamination,” Clifford says.

In addition to analyzing community waste streams, Athens also needed to install the necessary equipment to facilitate large-scale organics recycling. Clifford says the company invested “hundreds of millions of dollars” into improving existing material recovery facilities (MRFs) with the latest technology to help municipalities meet their individual diversion goals.

“All Athens facilities were equipped to meet the requirements of S.B. 1383. This includes, but is not limited to, reporting, data management, contamination monitoring, load checks and safety practices,” Clifford says.

Examples of this can be found in the installations of Organic Separation Presses (OSPs), which Athens developed in collaboration with Ohio-based Komar Industries, at two of the company’s MRFs.

“The OSP is the first system of its kind to recover organic liquid from waste for reuse,” Clifford says. “Using a large auger screw, the OSP presses waste to separate nutrient-rich organic liquid. The liquid is [then] harvested and transported to a wastewater treatment facility to be converted into renewable natural ga. This system is now in use at two [of our] MRFs; no other company in the five-county area [is using] this technology.”

The company’s American Organics composting facility in Victorville, California, also underwent a recent expansion, adding new sorting technology and a covered aerated static pile composting process.

Staying on the cutting edge

Photo courtesy of Athens Services

The renovation at American Organics included a 22,000-square-foot, covered processing center that handles 50 tons of organics per hour on a fully automated line. The redesigned facility was converted from a traditional windrow composting system to a covered aerated static pile (CASP) system.

“The CASP system creates a smaller footprint due to high-pile construction. It allows for more processing capacity per acre and shortens the first phase of composting to 22 days, one-third of the time [with] the previous windrow system,” Clifford says, adding that static aeration also reduces the release of odor by pumping air through the pile instead of turning it by hand.

Since the installation of the CASP system in 2020, compost production at the American Organics facility has increased from 460 tons per month to 700 tons per month.

As S.B. 1383 closes in on the one-year mark since it first took effect, Athens has continued to fine-tune its organics collection and recycling operations.

Clifford says Athens is collecting organic waste and transferring it to its American Organics facility, where team members remove contamination before placing material on a sorting belt. As the material travels along the belt, it passes over an auger screen that sorts out material 3 inches or smaller, while larger material continues along the line where non-organic materials are removed by hand.

“Material that is larger than 3 inches goes into a grinder to reduce its size and then is added to a stockpile, which will [undergo] the covered aerated static pile process,” Clifford says.

Once materials are placed on the CASP system, ventilation fans force air through the piles. These piles are monitored for temperature, moisture, oxygen and carbon-nitrogen ratio.

“The piles heat to at least 131 degrees for 72 hours to eliminate pathogens,” Clifford explains. “The material is screened again to remove any remaining contaminants, [and] then cures for two months to create nutrient-rich compost.”

Finished compost primarily is sold to agricultural end users or donated back to cities for community use.

While the company’s organics collection and composting efforts have proven successful, Athens also has developed an internal app to help with outreach and education track results. Clifford says the app collects customer information, along with additional vital information pertaining to the waste and recycling program.

“This data will be used to identify opportunities for additional outreach on recycling, organics, contamination and edible food recovery,” he says.

The author is associate editor of Waste Today and can be reached at