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San Diego Opens Door To Small-Scale Community Composting

A pile of food scraps sits in a compost bin at the UrbanLife Farm in City Hei...

Photo by Andrew Bowen

Above: A pile of food scraps sits in a compost bin at the UrbanLife Farm in City Heights, Feb. 6, 2018.

Steam rises from piles of compost at UrbanLife Farms in City Heights as three interns shovel brown mulch and food scraps into bins. The natural breakdown of organic matter, which includes squeezed lemons and spent coffee grounds, brings the compost to temperatures of up to 140 degrees.

The interns are part of a community composting program called Food2Soil, which trains volunteers in good composting techniques. It collects vegetative food scraps from local restaurants, composts the scraps at two urban farms in San Diego and sells the finished product to local gardeners looking for high-nutrient soil.

Technically, Food2Soil's activities are illegal.

Waste hauling is tightly regulated in San Diego, and just under two dozen companies have permits to collect all the waste thrown out by residents and businesses. Those haulers are all subsidiaries of three parent companies — EDCO, Republic Services and Waste Management of San Diego.

In late 2016, the City Council created a new class of small-scale haulers that, with a new kind of permit, could collect up to 1,000 tons of recyclable materials per year. Those haulers were forbidden, however, from collecting food scraps.

RELATED: Composting In San Diego Feels Growing Pains

A group of business owners and nonprofits raised the alarm with city officials, who began working on a solution. Then on Jan. 23, the City Council voted unanimously to legalize Food2Soil's activities by allowing them to apply for small-scale waste collection permits. That application process is expected to reopen sometime this year.

"That's a huge door that's opened up for community-scale composting, because now we can do it legitimately, and we can really bring up these hubs that Food2Soil wants," said Sarah Boltwala-Mesina, executive director of Inika Small Earth, the nonprofit that started Food2Soil.

The changes did prompt some resistance from the city's contracted waste haulers, which stand to lose market share if the new operators grow too fast. Jim Madaffer, a former city councilman and lobbyist for the waste hauling industry, asked the council to impose a cap on the number of permits for small-scale compost and recyclables collectors. The council demurred, but did agree to evaluate the program's results in the fall.

Madaffer also argued the program could slow down the city's Zero Waste goals. Community composting keeps organic material out of the landfill, but it also deprives the city of the fees it charges to its franchised waste haulers. A staff report estimated the community composting business could deprive the city of between $54,000 and $324,000 per year.

That money would otherwise be funding the equipment and infrastructure needed to keep more waste out of the landfills — things like recycling facilities and anaerobic digesters, which can process large amounts of organic waste.

Boltwala-Mesina said composting programs like Food2Soil could coexist with the city's existing waste management system, and will ultimately relieve some pressure on the larger, expensive facilities the city will ultimately have to build.

"We will have to get smarter about the way we handle our waste, and provide solutions that are customized," she said. "Community-scale solutions will not work for everyone. They're not meant to. But they will ... make the community richer."

Waste hauling is tightly regulated in San Diego, and just under two dozen companies have permits to collect all the waste thrown out by residents and businesses. Those haulers are all subsidiaries of three parent companies — EDCO, Republic Services and Waste Management of San Diego.

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