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Composting moves from backyards to city waste facilities in San Diego County

Jessica Photo.PNG
Thomas Fudge / KPBS
Jessica Toth prepares to lift the lid of a compost bin at the Solana Center for Environmental Innovation in Encinitas on Jan. 26, 2022.

Jessica Toth opens a composting bin at the Solana Center for Environmental Innovation, where she is executive director.

For years, the center has been doing what a new state law now requires cities and counties to do: compost.

RELATED: Food-scrap recycling starts Jan. 1, but most San Diego cities aren't ready

Toth said SB-1383 will make a difference.

“It was a kick in the seat of the pants that we really needed as a region to address the shortage we have in the capacity for managing our food waste,” Toth said.

And there is a lot of food waste. The San Diego region creates an estimated 500,000 tons of it every year.

Toth estimates that San Diego county now has the capacity to compost only 30% of its food waste.

One big problem with landfilling food waste is methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that’s produced by rotting food.

“Statewide it’s responsible for 20% of the amount of methane that we emit into the climate,” Toth said. “The composting process uses microorganisms to break down the material, which is not what’s happening in the landfill.”

Methane is created by food waste in a landfill because all trash is combined, and new waves of waste are constantly being dumped on top.

The microbial process that takes place in a compost bin does not occur in the landfill.

Along with methane production, landfilling food waste means that the valuable nutrients in the food are lost to the environment.

With composting, greenhouse emissions are reduced and nutrients are returned to the soil, as compost is used for agriculture and gardening.

In fact, land-applied compost actually becomes a “carbon sink,” absorbing carbon that’s in the atmosphere.

The city of San Diego is one of the communities that got that “kick in the pants” from SB-1383.

The city expects to roll out an expanded food recycling program this summer, according to Ken Prue of the city's Environmental Services Department. That is when San Diego residents should get their new green containers, Prue said.

The change is made possible because the city found $9 million in the budget to fund the expansion.

“It allowed us to do key initial steps for implementation,” Prue said. “To be able to move forward with the hiring of 40 drivers and buying 43 collection trucks and moving forward with all the containers. There are a lot of pieces to it.”

Another example of keeping food waste out of landfills is found in Escondido, where the private trash hauler EDCO has built an organic waste digestion facility.

The digester breaks down the waste, in a closed container, which deprives the food waste of oxygen, making the process anaerobic. The machine then captures the fumes that are created to produce natural gas for the company's fleet of trucks.

San Diego is planning to soon build its own digester.

Composting moves from backyards to city waste facilities in San Diego County

Environmentalists like Jessica Toth say San Diego County is lagging behind many other cities in California, and the Pacific Northwest, when it comes to food waste recycling.

Prue said that may be true but he adds, in the city’s defense, that the long-standing People's Ordinance prevents the city from charging homeowners for waste collection.

“We have unique budget challenges that even other local cities don’t have. Because, if you wanted to add a program like organic waste collection for all customers, normally the hauler would do it through a rate increase. But, for the City of San Diego, there are not rates, and no rate increases,” Prue said.

Composting moves from backyards to city waste facilities in San Diego County