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MacKenzie Elmer's biweekly environmental news roundup (Mondays)
Students demand San Diego Unified take stand against Big Oil, the city is holding public forums on its franchise fee agreement and more in our biweekly roundup of environmental news.
Yesterday I was mucking about Solidarity Farms (on Pauma Band of Luiseno Indians land) for an upcoming story, when its caring tenders shared a problem with me: Farmers want city table scraps to make better compost and crops but it’s really tough to get them.
“Diverting and changing the waste stream takes a lot of cooperation,” said Elle Igoe, owner of Solidarity Farms. “The struggle is that it’s difficult to get all the involved parties moving forward together.”
The benefits would be multifold. Separating food waste from your garbage can mean more space at the landfill, so governments won’t have to spend money and land on a new one. And less organic matter in the trash mix means less planet-warming gases like methane are stewing underneath a plastic-capped landfill. All that good organic gunk could get recycled back onto farms to help plants grow and soils retain water in arid San Diego County, which has more small farms than any county in the United States.
Easier scribbled down than done.
Landfills in the county might be maxed-out by 2028, according to its 2017 strategic waste reduction plan. By 2020, the entire state of California was supposed to reach a goal of reducing the amount of waste headed to landfills by 75 percent through recycling, composting or changing residents’ garbage habits. That ain’t happening. In fact, people recycled less and tossed more trash to the landfills.
That’s partly because neither the city of San Diego nor the county has a convenient composting programs. Some, but not all, San Diego neighborhoods can get a green bin for yard waste only. Though you’re not supposed to include food waste like apple cores and eggshells in there.
Businesses like restaurants can send their food scraps to the Miramar Greenery composting facility at the landfill, but they have to get a permit and comply with a bunch of other rules. There’s already a smattering of participants that includes schools, hotels and the military.
City residents don’t have that option yet. Residents can apply for a voucher to cover about half the cost of an at-home composting unit but that doesn’t help you get it to farmers who want it.
You also can’t independently drop off your food waste to Miramar.
Back in November, a city spokeswoman told me San Diego plans to provide citywide composting by 2022. It’s already mandatory in San Francisco, where building owners can be fined if they don’t provide trash, recycling and composting bins.
City residents can pick up some free compost for their own gardens from Miramar Greenery. But non-residents have to pay by the yard, which amounts to another cost barrier for a small farmer already driving almost 80 miles to Miramar and back for the payload.
Igoe would love to take food waste from the nearby Harrah’s casino or country clubs, but that food waste can’t sit on the property.
“We could feed it to our pigs but not the soil,” Igoe said. “It is a common practice among farmers but wouldn’t it be great if we could do more and turn it into soil?”
Other barriers are the lack of available equipment to spread compost on the fields. A smaller farm like Solidarity can’t afford to both haul the compost from landfills and cover the cost to purchase different specialized equipment to turn it and spread it.
Maybe farmers could band together and purchase shared equipment, or perhaps the government could subsidize shared-farming tools (if that isn’t too kolkhoz of me to suggest — a term for Soviet-era collective farms).
The county is writing a new Climate Action Plan to set goals for things like waste reduction, a problem it’s already spent 86 pages detailing in a Strategic Plan to Reduce Waste. The goal is to divert over 165,000 tons of food and yard waste per year until we’re at zero waste by 2040. Supporting on-site farm composting would help with 7,500 tons of that. Making commercial collection easier with less requirements would help with 21,000 of that.
That could go a long way for private composting companies trying to fill in the gap. Mary Matava wants to add food waste to her private composting facility in Otay Mesa, but said all the work that goes into permitting costs over $100,000.
“It’s expensive to compost,” Matava said. “If we want to put (compost) on agricultural land we have to come up with a better pricing structure.”
A whip-smart high school freshman at Canyon Crest Academy called me up to say students want their school board to take a stand on fossil fuels.
“San Diego Unified School District is the second largest district in California and they have a powerful say,” said Keala Minna-Choe from the newly formed spinoff of San Diego 350 called Youth v. Oil. “It’s a place where students like us can be heard.”
Minna-Choe and a handful of other high schoolers wrote a three-page resolution the board is supposed to consider during its Jan. 26 meeting. They want their message to reach the ears of Gov. Gavin Newsom, whom they decry for approving more oil and gas fracking permits during the pandemic.
“Because we have such a strong oil dependency, we have to hold our leaders accountable to make steps so we can start to wean off of it,” Minna-Choe said.
The 15-year-old was born in Boca Raton, Florida, as Hurricane Wilma clobbered the southern coast, killing 25 people and cutting power to over 3 million people. Minna-Choe said she’d never heard of climate change until she moved to San Diego at the end of elementary school.
“Obviously in San Diego we’re feeling it in a totally different way with droughts, wildfires and heat warnings,” she said. “I learned how much fossil fuels contributed to this so I wanted to work on stopping the source, not just mitigating the effects.”
(In case you’re interested, this high schooler is also researching COVID-19 in her spare time, somehow. Kids today … are giving me hope.)