Composting moves from backyards to city waste facilities in San Diego County
Speaker 1: (00:00)
A new state law will require food scraps be composted instead of being tossed into landfills while the change presents many environmental benefits and also highlights the county's limited capacity when it comes to managing food waste, K PBS science and technology reporter, Tom fudge has been covering this and joins us. Now, Tom, welcome
Speaker 2: (00:20)
Very much Jade. So
Speaker 1: (00:21)
Can you start by telling us a little bit about Senate bill 1383 and what changes it brings? Right.
Speaker 2: (00:28)
Well, 1383, which was signed by governor brown a few years back requires organic waste collection service to be offered by all municipalities in California. In addition to making sure that the city is out there collecting food waste for recycling. It also requires companies to donate eligible food. And there we're talking about supermarkets, restaurants. If they have edible food, they're not supposed to throw it away. They're supposed to donate it.
Speaker 1: (00:58)
So then will this mean green compost containers, San Diego residents?
Speaker 2: (01:03)
Yes, it will, but you probably haven't seen yours yet because in the city of San Diego, anyway, they're getting sort of a slow start. I talked to Ken PR who is with the environmental services department and he says they expect to truly roll out, um, their green waste recycling program this summer, even though they're required to do it now, they need little time to get everything in place. That's what I was told and
Speaker 1: (01:28)
Independent environmental organizations across California have been doing this for years. Why is this practice only, just now becoming law?
Speaker 2: (01:36)
That's difficult to say it may have to do something with political will. It may have so to do with the fact that a lot of cities have moved ahead with doing this kind of recycling this food recycling. It just so happens that San Diego has not been one of them. So it was signed by governor brown just a few years ago, and now we're finally getting going. All right.
Speaker 1: (01:58)
So, so let's take a step back here. Exactly. Why is discarded food, food waste so bad for the environment?
Speaker 2: (02:05)
Well, before I answer that question, Jade, let me talk about the extent of food waste in our country and in our community. An estimated 40% of food is thrown away. I mean, that's kind of shocking to me and it should be shocking to other people, but that is why we have so much food waste. And as a matter of fact, when you look at the landfill, 20% of the garbage in the landfill is food waste. So we just throw away a tremendous amount of food. Now, the problem with that food waste ending up in the landfill is methane. Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas, more powerful than carbon dioxide. And when you just put the food in the landfill and don't compost, it, it creates a tremendous amount of methane. And so that's probably the biggest problem with, uh, food waste.
Speaker 1: (02:53)
And so we have these new laws, but does San Diego have the capacity to deal with all of this food waste?
Speaker 2: (02:59)
Not yet. In fact, one of my sources that I talked to said, when you look at San Diego county, they are currently able to only process about 30% of the food waste that is coming into the system. And so we've got a little ways to go. Now, there are some interesting things that are happening in the county. For instance, EDCO, the pride of a trash hauler has built an organic waste digestion facility. Now what this does, it's a machine that breaks down waste in a closed container and captures the fumes that are created to, uh, create natural gas that they can use to, uh, fuel their fleet of trucks. And so these digestion facilities is modern technology and this city of San Diego is going to get this one fairly soon. Can you give us
Speaker 1: (03:42)
A few of the benefits of composting and why it's so important?
Speaker 2: (03:46)
We already talked about methane when food is composted and not just put in the landfill. That means that it breaks down in a, in a certain way. And in that certain way, it does not produce the kind of fumes, the kind of methane that is it. When you put it in the landfill, also when you create compost and apply to the land, it is actually, it actually behaves like a carbon sink. In other words, that compost applied to the land will suck carbon out of the air. So it has a very positive effect in that way, too. You report that
Speaker 1: (04:18)
The region has law long, had few resources for dealing with food waste. What can you tell us about that? Well,
Speaker 2: (04:25)
The city of San Diego has had a yard waste recycling program for quite a long time, but they have just until they were forced to, by this law, got a kick in the seat of the pants, as one of my sources, uh, in the way that one of my sources put, it just didn't take the steps that they needed to do to recycle food waste. They didn't have the green containers. Uh, they didn't really have the capacity at the landfill to deal with all of this waste. Now they have to do it. And so they are taking those steps. Like I said, they say that they, the city of San Diego is going create its own organic waste digestion facility. They are revamping some of their practices when it comes to composting to deal with this. But, uh, they're not at a point where they can deal with all the food waste. Hopefully that will happen fairly soon. So how does San
Speaker 1: (05:18)
Diego stack up against other cities or regions with food waste recycling?
Speaker 2: (05:23)
Well, you know, Jade, uh, one story that I can tell is I visited the city of Toronto in Canada, and this must have been about 15 years ago. And when I was there and I was just visiting, I didn't live there, but even visiting, I remember that the place where I was staying, we had to take our food waste and put it to a certain container. So the city could pick it up. That was 15 years ago. And San Diego is just starting to do this now. So there's no question. San Diego is behind the times. Uh, I talked to a person with the environmental services department and he said in the city's defense, that it's kind of difficult for the city of San Diego to create new processes like this because of the people's ordinance and the people's ordinance prevents the city of San Diego from charging single family home owners to pick up the garbage. And so they can't raise the rates. And that's one thing that does make it difficult for San Diego. Tom
Speaker 1: (06:22)
Fudge is K PBS's science and technology reporter. Tom, thanks so much
Speaker 2: (06:27)
For joining us. Thank you, Jade. Happy to do it.
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.
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.