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OCH BLOG

Beyond Landfills: Organic Waste Recycling

With each passing minute towards irreversible climate catastrophe, it is now more evident than ever that decisive action needs to be implemented quickly and on a large scale. Human activities have been responsible for nearly all of the rising greenhouse gasses (also known as GHGs) over the past one hundred and fifty years, contributing to climate change (US EPA, 2015). GHGs are gasses that trap heat in the atmosphere (acting like a blanket) and prevent it from escaping into space, thus resulting in global warming (US EPA, 2024). Among the more infamous sources and commonly targeted areas are those stemming from burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation. However, in the battle against climate change, another major issue that remains unsolved is more efficient waste management. 


Did you know that landfills are the third-largest source of methane, a potent GHG, in California? Around 30% of the rise in global temperatures is due to methane (IEA, 2022). According to CalRecycle, organic waste in landfills emits 20% of the state’s methane—a “climate super pollutant 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide”. Organic waste is biodegradable material that comes from either a plant or animal; think food waste or food-soiled papers, and green waste. Proper management of organic waste helps reduce GHGs, particularly methane, which as mentioned, is a potent climate pollutant when organic waste decomposes anaerobically in landfills. Even though methane has a shorter atmospheric lifetime than carbon dioxide, it absorbs much more energy while in the atmosphere. Not only does methane contribute to global climate change, the air pollutants from landfills can also cause respiratory problems, such as asthma, for populations living in close proximity to them (National Geographic Society, 2023). All that trash piled in one place creates breeding grounds for disease-carrying pests like rodents, flies, and mosquitoes and these can spread diseases to nearby communities so landfills pose huge health risks. From soil and water contamination to habitat destruction and limited land availability as well as the financial burden to maintain, the repercussions of our waste mismanagement are profound and far-reaching. Proper recycling of waste is crucial for mitigating environmental impacts and reducing organic waste and diverting it from landfills is an effective way to lower the emission of short-lived climate super pollutants like methane.


Watch this short three minute video by CalRecycle, "Food and yard waste recycling is the fastest way to fight climate change in California right now."


Combatting waste and reducing reliance on landfills requires a multifaceted approach that integrates various strategies aimed at prevention, reduction, recycling, and responsible disposal. The current recycling process is as follows: Material is picked up from commercial or residential buildings and is turned into globally traded commodities. The U.S. doesn’t have a national law and can afford a more lax recycling attitude in comparison to other countries because there is no urgency for one and for two main reasons; our backyard is so humongous (so there is space for the landfills) and the U.S. used to ship much of its recyclable waste to other nations. China was the main destination for U.S. plastic waste up until 2017 because of China’s “National Sword” initiative (Alves, 2023). This initiative changed China’s import policies and banned the import of 24 recyclable commodities like mixed paper and mixed plastics because much of the recyclables they received were heavily contaminated (Operation National Sword, 2024). With China limiting foreign imports of these materials, most of U.S. was impacted, but California especially as they export one-third of their recyclable materials to foreign markets and around 60-80% of that used to go to China (“Inside Solid Waste Produced Quarterly by Los Angeles County Solid Waste Management Committee/Integrated Waste Management Task Force,” 2018). Since the exporting of recyclable materials was a key part of California’s recycling process, this forced California and many other countries to change how they handle their recycling. This also influenced other countries to become more selective in the recycling and waste they were taking in as well. So this initiative made the processing for recycling more expensive. After the National Sword Policy, there is now a more urgent need for stricter recycling laws and action needs to be taken. Our recycling system currently relies heavily on eco-conscious citizens, which is not reliable as it depends heavily on how educated citizens are as well as the efforts they put in to sort and ensure their recyclables are not contaminated. To make matters more difficult, different places have different standards for what type of material they can accept to be recycled. As there is no national law mandating the practice of recycling in America, the regulations and recycling process is different across not only states but even across local governments (Monaghan, 2024). Here is a timeline showing the past and current California legislation in effect for statewide organic waste recycling and surplus food recovery. 


Graphic by Cecilia Kuang, OCH Intern. Information from Rachel Marks, Total Recycling Program Manager at Waste Management (WM)

While recycling rates have increased over the years due to these legislations, a sizable portion of recyclable materials still end up in landfills due to inadequate infrastructure, limited incentives, and inconsistent recycling practices across states and municipalities. Until waste management policy and laws are updated or national action is taken to create tax policies to create an economic incentive for towns to recycle, there are still steps you can take to help! With each passing day, more landfills are overflowing, posing greater threats to our environment, public health, and bringing about social and economic consequences. Our planet’s waste crisis needs to be addressed and proper recycling and decreased food waste/waste in general from every citizen would make a huge difference. Educate yourself and others on proper recycling and take the effort to sort your recycling and ensure it's not contaminated. Do you know what objects are and aren’t recyclable in your area? A huge issue that hinders the recycling process is contamination of recycling streams. There should be no food or liquids in recycling bins and plastic bags are to be kept out of recycling carts. Many people are not aware of this and put their unrinsed recyclables into a plastic bag to throw into the recycling bin. In addition to that, many people recycle their packaging even when it’s wet or soiled by food. Here is an infographic on common recycling do’s and don’ts to follow as a general rule of thumb. 


Graphic created by Cecilia Kuang, OCH Intern

Organic waste, encompassing materials like food scraps, yard waste, soiled paper products, wood waste, and agricultural waste, represents a significant portion of the waste stream that we can divert from landfills through composting. The primary types of organic waste—food waste and yard waste—should be placed in green waste bins designated for composting. In 2018, food was the largest component of landfills at about 24%, whereas paperboard made up about 12% (US EPA, 2017).  As food waste is typically the largest contributor to landfills, properly composting it instead of sending it to landfills would lead to significant environmental, economic, and social benefits, contributing to a more sustainable and efficient waste management system. Items such as paper and cardboard, if properly recycled, or composted when soiled, would also greatly help reduce landfill waste, conserve natural resources, and minimize greenhouse gas emissions. California’s new law, SB 1383, mandates organic waste recycling and composting to reduce methane emissions. This law requires residents and businesses to separate organic waste from other trash, turning waste into valuable compost instead of methane-producing landfill material. Generally, acceptable composting materials include fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, eggshells, grass clippings, and leaves, while items like meat, dairy products, and oily foods are typically not suitable for composting. For detailed information on city-specific regulations and composting guidelines, residents should visit their local city or county websites. 


Graphic from Plastic Score - Composting 101

Keep in mind that every area has their own standards for what is acceptable or not acceptable for recycling. You can check by contacting your local town Department of Public Works or Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) to learn more about the details. Most importantly, reduce! The most helpful thing to do as a consumer is to reduce your waste. Avoid disposable options (utensils, water bottles, most single-use items, etc.) and go for reusable items. A huge challenge for the MRF is contamination, so by keeping your recycling clean, you can help your local MRF. You can do so by washing out wasted food and sorting them appropriately so your recyclables are clean (What Is the National Sword? • CET, 2024). The movement towards comprehensive waste management and recycling embodies the principles of a circular economy—a regenerative system where resources are conserved, waste is minimized, and environmental impacts are mitigated. By closing the loop on organic waste, we can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and alleviate the burden on landfills. 




References


Alves, B. (2023). U.S. plastic waste exports 2015-2022. Statista.

CalRecycle. (n.d.). California’s Short-Lived Climate Pollutant Reduction Strategy. CalRecycle

IEA. (2022). Methane and climate change – Global Methane Tracker 2022 – Analysis. IEA.

Inside Solid Waste produced quarterly by Los Angeles County Solid Waste Management

Committee/Integrated Waste Management Task Force. (2018). In CalRecycle. Inside Solid Waste. https://dpw.lacounty.gov/epd/tf/isw/isw_2018_04.pdf

Monaghan, M. (2024, April 14). The American Recycling System Explained | CleanHub.

National Geographic Society. (2023, October 19). Landfills | National Geographic Society.

Operation National Sword. (2024, April 14). Wikipedia.

US EPA. (2015, December 29). Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions. US EPA.

US EPA. (2024, April 11). Overview of Greenhouse Gases. US EPA; United States

US EPA, O. (2017, October 2). National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes

What is the National Sword? • CET. (2024, January 11). CET. https://www.cetonline.org/what-


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