Cities Now Have to Collect Our Food Waste. The San Diego Region is Scrambling to Comply.  | Voice of San Diego

Science/Environment

Cities Now Have to Collect Our Food Waste. The San Diego Region is Scrambling to Comply. 

Jurisdictions knew about the demands of SB 1383 since its passage in 2016. Yet, the San Diego region seems to be scrambling.

Republic Service workers stand near piles of compost at the Otay Landfill’s new compositing facility on Dec. 10, 2021. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

A new California law is forcing cities to cut down on food waste in landfills. To meet the requirement, San Diego cities are increasing costs on residents and businesses to launch a new waste collection program on the fly. 

The law, SB 1383, aims to cut down on the powerful planet-warming methane gas that largely comes from rotting food in the airtight domain of a landfill. While the San Diego region is woefully behind on meeting the Jan. 1 deadline to provide organic waste collection to all homes and businesses, a handful of cities raised rates in anticipation of the new, costly waste stream. 

Carlsbad just inked a new contract with franchise hauler Republic Services to take over waste collection services. Come this summer, residents will pay an extra $3.82 per month, a 15 percent increase, from $24.20 in 2021 to $28.02 in 2022. Carlsbad residents automatically get a trash cart and up to three recycling and green waste bins, the cost of which is lumped into one monthly rate. The majority of that cost increase is to process all this new organic material, said Jamie Wood, Carlsbad’s environmental management director. 

Now commercial businesses must stop throwing food waste into the trash too and instead throw it in with green waste and yard trimmings the city already collects. But Carlsbad is lowering the rate of that organic recycling program 20 percent from last year, and instead increasing rates on trash 16 percent. “We want to incentivize people to do the right thing by charging more for trash. It’s kind of like putting a (tax) on gasoline,” Wood said. “If we make organics recycling cheaper, then they’ll do it.” 

Dana Armstrong, seen here on Dec. 10, 2021, is the compost supervisor at Otay Landfill. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Chula Vista, which also contracts with Republic Services, is raising rates on homes by almost $3 on the smallest trash cart (32 gallons) and an extra dollar on the two other larger cart options. Encinitas, which contracts with private hauler EDCO, raised residential rates by $3.88 per month for organics recycling, a 25 percent increase.  

The League of California Cities, a statewide lobbying group for local governments, estimates 92 percent of California cities will raise solid waste and recycling rates between one and 20 percent in the next three years to comply with SB 1383.  

Not only does each city have to negotiate new rates to cover a new waste stream, but the region also needs infrastructure that can handle all that food waste, like the giant composting facility atop a mesa of the Otay Landfill launched by franchise hauler Republic Services. Local governments or private haulers, depending on the terms of the contract, have to provide countertop bins and large, green curbside carts for every apartment, home, restaurant, hotel and grocery store. And both cities and private haulers must hire new staff to audit every address and figure out who actually needs those extra bins, plus educate everyone on how to correctly recycle food waste in the first place.  

The new organics recycling law will cost the state almost $21 billion through 2030, according to a report by CalRecycle, a bit more than the $17 billion expected economic return. Republic Services estimated the rollout of the food waste recycling program in Chula Vista alone would cost the city $11 million, according to reporting by the San Diego Union Tribune. 

For residents in cities contracting with Republic Services, diverting food waste should be easy: throw food waste into the green, formerly yard waste-only, bin. The company will haul that waste to its compost facility at Otay Landfill where workers hand-pick out any stray trash.  

Workers have to hand pick trash from this pile of green waste at the Otay Landfill. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Then food waste mixed with mulch is laid out in long piles. Pipes run through each pile, pumping air via solar power into the food waste that’s capped with a camping tent-like substance called GORE-TEX. That GOR-TEX layer traps in all the good bacteria and controls food waste temperature and juices. Once fully built, Republic Services’ new composting facility will turn 60,000 tons of food waste into rich, organic plant food per year. 

A layer of compost at the Otay Landfill is covered by a layer of GORE-TEX, a water and windproof material on Dec. 10, 2021. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Four days after the deadline to begin, the city is still planning the rollout of its full food waste recycling program. In responses to emailed questions, Ken Prue, deputy director for city of San Diego’s Environmental Services Department, said the city is working on a plan to implement the new organics recycling program to qualifying residences this summer, which includes doubling the frequency of collection and expanding the city’s foot print. The city has already ordered 43 new sanitation vehicles, hundreds of thousands of green organic waste carts and hire 40 more sanitation workers. Supply chain woes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic delayed shipments of those orders, however, Prue told ABC 10 News. The waste will end up at Miramar Landfill’s composting facility where yard waste and food scraps are already processed.

“It’s complicated but we’re charting new territory,” said Risa Baron, a spokesperson for Republic Services. “This is happening everywhere in the state. But the saving grace for all of us is that we have … a two year window to design and put these programs in place before fines get imposed.” 

CalRecycle, the state’s department of resources recycling and recovery, won’t start cracking down on local governments until 2024. It’s up to those same local governments to enforce the law on local businesses that generate edible food, like restaurants and supermarkets. That’s also when home and property owners could start facing fines if families and tenants are throwing too much food in the trash. 

“We really want to focus on behavior change in homes and businesses… That’s really what the state legislation is all about,” said Jessica Toth, who leads the Solana Center for Environmental Innovation, which contracts with cities for composting education and outreach. 

Jurisdictions knew about the demands of SB 1383 since its passage in 2016. Yet, the San Diego region seems to be scrambling. Toth surveyed the top five largest cities in California in 2019 and found San Diego households were left in the dust without food waste collection of any kind. Los Angeles and San Francisco had a separate waste stream; San Jose offered municipal waste sorting and Fresno allowed food waste to combine with yard trimmings.  

“It’s a tremendous amount of infrastructure that’s needed because we generate 1.66 million tons of organic material a year,” Toth said. “There’s definitely not a financial incentive … with the landfill being so cheap.” 

The new law requires jurisdictions to create a marketplace for the compost trash haulers create with collected and processed food waste. Cities will be required to purchase a portion of the compost their citizens create for landscaping and golf course application.    

Not only are residents now paying more for someone to dispose of their waste, they’re paying to buy a portion of it back. Put another way, tossing food into the trash is like burning cash. The best way to save on food waste is to not create it in the first place, Toth said.  

Corrections: This story has been updated with the correct name of the statewide lobbying group, the League of California Cities. 

This story has been updated to include information on the city of San Diego’s ongoing planning efforts to comply with SB 1383.

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