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The City and Small Businesses Are Fighting Over Table Scraps

A handful of unlicensed small businesses that collect food waste from local restaurants will lose all their clients in the city of San Diego at the end of June under a new city policy.

There’s a food fight raging between the city and a coalition of small businesses and nonprofits – a food scrap fight to be precise.

Restaurants’ leftover and spoiled food is often tossed in the trash and ends up in a landfill, where it creates methane gas. But old food is filled with nutrients and can instead be used as animal feed or processed into compost that fertilizes soil.

Last year, a new state law began restricting food from going to landfills, but it only targeted big waste producers. Large restaurants, cafeterias and places like Costco that generate about a dumpster full of food scraps a week, for example, must make arrangements to have it picked up and recycled under the new law.

Right now, smaller restaurants and markets that produce less than a dumpster full of food waste are excluded from the law and most still throw leftover and spoiled food in the trash.

But some small restaurants and other food-waste producers have nonetheless set up programs to recycle their food waste, and there’s a handful of small local businesses and organizations that charge fees to pick it up and process it into compost.

The city, though, wants to change up who can legally charge fees to pick up food waste. Starting July 1, only 21 companies like EDCO that are licensed through the city and pay fees to the city will be authorized to do it. Currently, the city has no plans to open up its licensed waste hauler program to other businesses that want to apply.

That means the handful of unlicensed small businesses currently collecting food waste will lose all their clients in the city of San Diego at the end of June. Those businesses say they were blindsided by the city’s decision to put an extra layer of regulation on food waste collection, and they’re working hard to get City Council to reverse course.

Breweries that pay people to pick up the spent grain left behind in the brewing process could be impacted by the new policy, although most breweries give spent grain away to local farmers, and free exchanges of food waste aren’t subject to the new regulation.

The businesses that will feel the biggest hit are small companies like Closing the Loop, which picks up food waste from restaurants for a fee and uses worms to process it into fertilizer for a local farm.

Closing the Loop’s Abriana Young said she’ll lose 60 clients, or about 75 percent of her family’s business if the policy change goes into effect as planned.

In an email, spokespeople for the city’s Environmental Services Department said the city wants to make sure food scraps are picked up safely and efficiently. They said the regulations also make it easier to comply with the new state law requiring businesses that produce a lot of food waste to arrange for pickup and composting. And they said the change will bring in licensing fees that will help fund and implement the city’s Zero Waste Plan, which seeks to divert 75 percent of waste from landfills to recycling centers by 2020, and to get to zero waste going to landfills by 2040.

“They want to do this for good, and that’s cool, but they’re going about it the wrong way,” Young said. “They don’t need to cut me out.”

Young is one of about 25 members of the Healthy Soils Coalition, which recently sent a letter to Councilman David Alvarez, who chairs the Council’s environment committee, asking the city to reconsider the policy change.

She and other members of the coalition are also meeting with representatives of the mayor’s office and City Council staffers to make their case for why the new policy isn’t just bad for a handful of local businesses, but for the future of innovation and sustainability in San Diego. They’ll hopeful that the mayor and City Council will reverse course when they see how the change will hurt small, environmental businesses.

“We need to be fostering innovative entrepreneurship in food waste, why would we want to slow that down?” said Young.

Many of Young’s clients have told her that they’ll likely have to go back to putting their food scraps in the trash come July 1. Many said they don’t want to work with the big waste management companies that charge more for services.

“How strange does it seem that clients who have been diverting food waste now, for years some of them, I’m going to have to tell them that they now have to start putting that food waste back in the trash?” Young said.

Bill Brenza, business development director for The Resource Management Group Inc., a hauling company that specializes in recyclables, said the change will negatively impact his business, too.

He said his company saw the new state law as an opportunity to expand its food waste pickup program since businesses that create about a dumpster full of food scraps every week are now required to separate food waste and have it picked up and recycled.

He said his company invested in special containers, which it gives to clients to safely store food waste until its trucks pick them up. He said the company was blindsided by the city’s policy change, which would completely derail its food waste collection expansion plans.

“We thought we had a good food waste collection system here and we basically are in the process of patenting this system when we heard about this,” he said.

The city, though, says it did plenty of outreach and notified stakeholders well in advance of the new rules. In a letter written in response the coalition’s letter to Alvarez, Darren Greenhalgh, assistant director of the city’s Environmental Services Department, said his office had done “extensive outreach” via community workshops.

Elly Brown, director of the San Diego Food System Alliance, a coalition of 30 local organizations that advocates for a healthier regional food system, said the workshops with the Environmental Services Department did happen and representatives of the coalition were there, but that the change related to food waste collection wasn’t communicated well.

“Those meetings were under the umbrella of the city’s Zero Waste Plan, so there was a lot being discussed,” Brown said. “It either wasn’t brought up at all or it wasn’t clear.”

In the letter addressing the coalition’s complaints, Greenhalgh brought up an example he said makes the case for the change: The city recently sent cease-and-desist letters to Closing the Loop after neighbors complained about flies and odors coming from piles of food scraps.

“Unlike other forms of solid waste, the collection, transportation and disposal of food waste is particularly susceptible to the creation of nuisance odors and vectors,” he wrote. He said the Closing the Loop case “exemplifies why food waste must be treated as a highly regulated waste material in order to protect health and safety.”

Young said the cease-and-desist letter came last year while the company was moving to a new facility and briefly got backed up with food waste. She said once it got the notice, the company quickly cleaned up the site. She said the effectiveness of the cease-and-desist letter, which resulted in a quick cleanup, proves that the current system for regulating businesses like hers is adequate, and the city’s extra regulation isn’t necessary.

“We’ve been operating for five years and this is the first time any issue has come up,” she said. “I wish the city had more ammo for making the case for this. Is that really all they’ve got?”

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