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Q&A: San Diego's food waste recycling program

A green bin is pictured in a San Diego backyard, June 2, 2021.
Megan Burke
A green bin is pictured in a San Diego backyard, June 2, 2021.

This Wednesday, some San Diegans will put their shiny new green bins on the curb to be taken to city composting facilities, and for the first time they will include food waste. It’s part of the city's new organics recycling program, which began rolling out last week with the delivery of thousands of new kitchen pails and green bins to local residents.

The program, which is mandated by the state of California, is part of an effort to combat climate warming carbon emissions.

Matthew Cleary, assistant director, of the city of San Diego’s Environmental Services Department joined KPBS Midday to talk about the program. The conversation below has been lightly edited for clarity.


The city’s new organic waste recycling program will make it possible for residents to recycle a lot more than we are now. What's included and what isn’t?

Cleary: I think the best way to think about it is if it grows, it goes in the organic bin. So anything that was once alive, which includes non-treated wood waste, fruit, vegetable peels, coffee grounds and filters, plate scrapings, including cooked foods, food soiled, paper napkins, plant clippings or other yard trimmings, can all go in the green bin.

There are lots of items now that are packaged in compostable material. I'm thinking about some produce bags, coffee filters and takeout containers, but those can't just be put in backyard compost bins. They require industrial composters. Will those things all be compostable through this new program?

Cleary: Unfortunately, they won't. Anything labeled compostable isn't compatible with our processing system, especially plastic bags that some folks might want to use to line their green bins with or their kitchen pails with. Those plastic bags labeled organic don't compost at the same rate that our facility processes food waste, so it'll end up with contaminants in the finished product that we want to stay away from.

How should the residents who have the new bins dispose of their food waste? Should it be bagged up or just put in the bin?


Cleary: Just put in the bin free with no bags, especially no bags that are labeled compostable. As I mentioned earlier, it's best to layer your organic waste so it prevents the bin from getting yucky, for lack of a better word. If you put some yard trimmings or some plant tripping clippings in the bottom of the bin, and then layer it with food waste, and then layer it with another layer of plant or organic yard trimmings. It'll keep the bin clean, which is what we really want our residents to be aware of, so that the bin doesn't get yucky and gross.

Will people then be required to participate in this program?

Cleary: Everyone living in California. This is a California state law which mandates that all residents and businesses reduce organic waste, which includes food scraps and yard trimming sent to landfills. And this is one of the easiest things we can do to curb climate change. So all residents will be required to participate.

What will the city be doing to ensure people participate in the program?

Cleary: Well, there will be an enforcement component. The city will start with an education first component of enforcement. And as we move further into the future, there will be enforcement actions taken for egregious offenders. But most immediately, the city will be participating in an education first approach.

And how will you know if people aren't participating?

Cleary: We'll be doing bin checks. We'll be walking neighborhoods and looking in refuse bins and determining if there's any organic waste that's in those black bins.

Is there a fine?

Cleary: Initially, no. As I stated, the city is going to take an education first approach, but the regulations imposed by CalRecycle (California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery) will require fines, effective beginning in 2024, if people don't comply.

You know, one thing I thought about is these bins full of rotting food possibly attracting animals like raccoons. Is that expected to be a problem?

Cleary: We don't expect it to be a problem ... The bins will be collected weekly for those residents who currently receive organic waste collection every other week, which is similar to the blue bin recycling program. But we are moving toward weekly collection for these green bins to prevent any sort of vectors from contaminating the bins.

And some homes already have green bins. Can they continue to use those for all of their organic recycling or are there special bins designated for food?

Cleary: They absolutely can use those bins. And for those 40,000 homes that currently have green organic bins serviced by the city of San Diego, they will know when to start organic recycling after they get their kitchen waste bin and food pail. Once they receive that food pail, that will be the sign to go ahead and put all food waste into that green bin and inform them that the collection will move from every other week to weekly.

Does this program affect everyone in the city? Whether you live in a house, multi-family unit or work at a business?

Cleary: It does. It affects all residents and businesses throughout the city.

And how much more organic waste is the city expecting to compost as a result of this program?

Cleary: Well, the City of San Diego currently composts about 35,000 tons a year, which is collected by our collection services division initially. Once the rollout is complete, we are anticipating to triple that and compost about 90,000 total tons.

What investments has the city made in its composting facilities in order to recycle all this additional waste?

Cleary: Yeah, it's a great question. So the investments the city has made in the Miramar Greenery, we've actually been composting food since 2016, and we do that with a process called covered air and static pile system, and that breaks down food waste in a covered and controlled system. The process infuses air and maintains a specific moisture content to break down and process organic waste into nutrient-rich compost. The finished product is a nutrient rich soil amendment that is produced without the byproduct of methane. So the city currently processes about 90,000 tons of organic waste annually. And we are in the process of constructing an organic processing facility, which will be a facility that will take and process organic waste and move that material through those covered areas static piles more efficiently and effectively. That project is expected to be completed in 2024, but until then, the city has capacity at its current greenery to process the anticipated organic waste.

The organic waste recycling program is part of a state law, Senate Bill 1383, which was supposed to go into effect at the beginning of last year. Why did it take an additional year to begin rolling out the program?

Cleary: Well, CalRecycle and the City of San Diego have been in constant contact since this regulation has been put into place. CalRecycle is fully aware of the hurdles that the City of San Diego faced, which included not having all of its residents subscribe to the organic waste program. Additionally, the city had to purchase additional vehicles to collect the waste. We had to hire sanitation drivers to drive those vehicles, and we had to put a contract in place to purchase those additional containers that were busy rolling out this week. CalRecycle is aware of these obstacles, and many other jurisdictions throughout the state are having similar issues. And because we've been in contact with them and because we've been working with them, they're not concerned about the 2022 deadline, the January 1. That's when the regulations took effect, and enforcement begins in 2024. We're firmly in the implementation phase, and we're well ahead of the rollout schedule for city homes. The biggest issue we had was the purchase and receiving trucks. We purchased our trucks in July of 2021, and we're just now starting to receive those trucks to support this program. The City of San Diego is competing with all the other jurisdictions and all the other waste collectors who had to go out and purchase similar vehicles to do this work. And it's taking quite a bit longer to receive those vehicles than we had anticipated.

The city says this is the single fastest and easiest way to combat climate change. What is the individual impact of recycling food waste?

Cleary: Anything sent to the landfill and anything allowed to decompose in the landfill creates methane gas. And methane gas is one of the largest contributors to global warming and greenhouse gases. So anything omitted from disposal to the landfill will help prevent methane gas from getting into the atmosphere.

How will the city be tracking the impact of this organic recycling program on carbon emissions?

Cleary: Good question, Jade, and I know that we've discussed that. At this point, I can't answer that question.

The rollout continues into the coming months. How can people find out when they'll receive their bins and organic waste recycling will start in their neighborhood?

Cleary: Residents can go to, and on that website there is a schedule. If you normally get your trash collected on a Wednesday, the rollout for green bins will be this January and February. And if you normally get your trash collected on a Tuesday, the rollout for green bins will be in July and August.