Updated: Mar 18
California is making huge strides in their sustainability goals by requiring that all jurisdictions provide organic waste collection services to any and all residential and commercial generators beginning January 1, 2022. This means that residents and businesses will be required to properly separate their organic, biodegradable waste products into their green waste trash bins. Two Orange County waste and recycling companies, Waste Management and CR&R, have outlined their compliance policies online.
The coming years will also see a change in roadside bin colors for some in an effort to standardize color codes in California. Bins will now be marked as black for trash, blue for recycling, and green for organics. For the time being, however, residents should continue to use their bins as they are labeled until the bins are replaced.
Through this program, all food waste is acceptable. This includes fruits, vegetables, cheese, bread, rice, pasta, coffee grounds (and filters), tea bags, cooked meat, bones, fish, soup, small amounts of grease, eggshells, and food-soiled paper. These food waste products can be placed with other green waste such as yard clippings.
It is important to note however that some of these materials cannot be composted by a residential composter and is only possible due to the anaerobic digesters that will break this material down. Anaerobic digesters are oxygen-free tanks that contain microorganisms which in this case break down organic waste. These tanks are professionally monitored and thus employ a much more controlled and sophisticated process than home composting bins which allows them to break down items like meat and bones that home composts cannot.
Jurisdictions that fail to provide organic waste collection services to residents may be fined up to $10,000 per day. Furthermore, failure to comply with this law could result in fines for residents of up to $500 per day. It is important to note however that these penalties will not go into effect until after 2024. Waste Management, one of the waste and recycling service providers in California, has indicated that they will audit trash to look for contamination. If any contamination is found, Waste Management will work with the resident that is not in compliance and provide them with training and educational materials to help address any misunderstandings of the program. The program will be monitored and enforced by CalRecycle, a branch of the California Environmental Protection Agency. More information about CalRecycle’s program can be found under their Frequently Asked Questions section.
The reason for this change? Methane.
Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, about 25 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere, and made up about 10% of the United States’ total greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 according to the EPA. Methane stays in this harmful form in the atmosphere for about ten years, much shorter than carbon dioxide. Greenhouse gasses are necessary for life on Earth as they trap some heat in the atmosphere, keeping temperatures in an adequate range. However, in too high of quantities, greenhouse gasses trap much more heat raising temperatures and leading to global warming.
As organic waste decomposes at landfills, methane is emitted. Separating organic material from other waste will help substantially reduce the amount of methane emitted at landfills. Instead of the waste decomposing in landfills, causing large amounts of methane to be released into the atmosphere, the state instead wants to redirect this organic material to composting centers or anaerobic digestion facilities. Here the waste products can go through a process in which the organic material breaks down and produces biogas in the form of methane and carbon dioxide as well as digestate. The biogases can be captured and used for activities like powering garbage trucks while the digestate can be used as a fertilizer.
To combat this problem, California enacted Senate Bill 1383. This bill’s purpose is to reduce the emissions of short-lived greenhouse gasses like methane. Around 20% of the methane emitted in California comes from landfills. By 2025, California’s long-term goal is to reduce the organic waste entering landfills by 75% of 2014 levels, which equates to about a drop from 23 million tons to 5.7 million tons per year. This does however mean that refuse collection rates may increase due to the fees incurred by the increased use of anaerobic digestion plants.
Some residents are concerned about how to store their organic waste during the week before waste and recycling companies collect them. It is suggested that households keep a kitchen pail or compost bin that they frequently empty and clean. This method will help reduce any possible odors. Furthermore, freezing food scraps in a reusable container or layering the scraps with yard trimmings will limit odor. It is also important to know that residents are being asked not to clean out their roadside containers with water as it is a very water wasteful practice and will cause problems with runoff pollution. If worried about roadside cans getting dirty, it is suggested that cans are lined with any lawn trimmings or food-soiled paper since biodegradable trash bags are not being accepted in the program, as they take too long to break down at the facilities.
While this will help substantially reduce the amount of methane emitted in California, alternative methods can be employed by residents as well. At-home composting is another great way to reduce the methane emissions from landfills and it provides nutrients that can be used to enrich the soil and produce fruits and vegetables grown in home gardens. If pursuing at-home composting, it is important to remember what can and cannot be composted. While many of the same food waste products that are accepted in the CalRecycle program can be composted at home, items such as dairy, grease, meat, fish, and bones cannot. Organizations such as the EPA have composed online guidelines for home composting.
An even better way for households to reduce their environmental impact is by decreasing food waste in general. Shopping more mindfully and frequently can help lessen the volume of food that is ultimately not used and subsequently thrown away. Having a “leftovers” or “soon to spoil” shelf in a very visible area of your refrigerator can act as a reminder of what food should be used or eaten first, ultimately reducing food spoilage and waste.