California's New Law Requires Residents to Compost Food Scraps

Effective Jan. 1, everyone must now separate organic waste from the rest.

bin full of household food scraps ready for composting

Jenny Dettrick / Getty Images

The state of California has introduced a new law that requires households and businesses to compost all food scraps, instead of throwing them into the trash. This law, known as S.B. 1383, took effect on January 1, 2022, although it was signed in 2016 by then-governor Jerry Brown and will still take another two years to phase in fully.

The bill's goal is to reduce greatly the amount of food scraps going to landfill, where they decompose and emit methane, a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. S.B. 1383 will reduce organic waste in California's landfills by 75%, once fully implemented.

A Big Change

Joe La Mariana, executive director of Rethink Waste, South Bayside Waste Management Authority, said on a KQED radio interview that the law has been a long time coming and will be a "transformative step in diverting organic material from landfill," which currently represents 30-40% of waste. 

He explained that, in the mid-2010s, the state commissioned a flyover thermal map of the state and identified landfills as being "primary super-emitters" of greenhouse gases. Hence, the movement to eliminate organic material, while also capturing its many environmental benefits by emphasizing recovery, aka composting.

The benefits are calculable and real. Scientific American quotes state officials as saying that "one year of food waste diversion by 2030 is expected to prevent 14 million metric tons of carbon emissions over that trash's lifetime of decomposition. That equals taking 3 million vehicles off the road for a year."

In order to achieve that, residents must do their part—assisted, of course, by their local waste management service. The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, also known as CalRecycle, is in charge of enforcing the law, and it has left it up to every jurisdiction to decide how best to manage their waste services. 

It will take some time before every jurisdiction in the country has food scrap pickup and composting facilities up and running, so residents who have not yet heard about this development can expect to at some point soon. Kourtnii Brown, board president of the California Alliance for Community Composting, said in the same KQED radio interview that 50% of California's cities will have composting programs in place by July 2022.

What Goes In?

The basic requirement is for people to add all manner of food scraps to a green bin that they likely already have for yard trimmings. CalRecycle says the list of valid items includes "food, green material, landscape and pruning waste, organic textiles and carpets, lumber, wood, paper products, printing and writing paper, manure, biosolids, digestate, and sludges."

The CalRecycle list says "manure," and yet pet waste is not recommended in green bins. Kourtnii Brown explains that, while the waste itself is a great inoculant for starting the composting process, it often comes laced with dewormers or antibiotics that contaminate the final product. That's why pet waste is best put in the black bin (for general household trash), despite having industrial composting facilities that heat organic waste to a high temperature for extended periods of time. 

This mixed message, however, is an example of an obstacle to program uptake. The more confused people are, the less inclined they will be to participate. 

There's a lot more to sort out, too. Cities are still figuring out how best to handle apartment complexes and other areas that are more challenging for haulers to access. Brown says solutions may include composting hubs, where people donate food scraps to a community garden or take them to a drop-off point at a farmers' market, and supporting "micro-haulers", groups that provide pickup services for hard-to-reach residential regions.

Packing for Pickup

As always seems to be the case with composting, there's ongoing confusion over what to put in and how to pack it for pickup. Questions from listeners on the KQED radio show asked about biodegradable plastic bags and LaMariana of Rethink Waste responded that these are "problematic." It's hard for processors to identify which ones are compostable and which are conventional plastic. They end up having to sort it all out anyway.

Here at Treehugger we've written about the problems with compostable plastics before, that studies have shown they don't break down nearly as well as one might hope. 

Other jurisdictions say that clear plastic bags are acceptable, since everything gets opened up anyway. Megan W., a resident of Pasadena, told Treehugger, "Some cities are saying to just throw the food in the bin, but Pasadena wants it in a bag first—and they're recommending plastic." (She also expressed frustration at the $56 fee to buy a compost bin from the city. "We don't currently have one. We will probably buy one, just not from the city.")

A better option may be to put loose scraps in the green bin, but to freeze or at least refrigerate them in a bowl, jar, or bag during the days prior to pickup. You could also line the bottom of a countertop bucket with newspaper or paper towel to absorb moisture, or use a recycled paper bag to collect them.

Another solution is to install a backyard composter and eliminate the need to "pack" scraps for pickup. Backyard compost bins can be used year-round (although most of the decomposition happens during warmer weather) and, by way of a simple process, provide a valuable product for household gardens and potted plants.

Need for a New Mentality

Anne-Marie Bonneau, a resident of California who's better known as the Zero-Waste Chef, told Treehugger that she's had a backyard compost bin for 20 years, so the law won't change anything for her. What needs to improve, however, is people's appreciation for compost.

Bonneau said, "I signed up for ShareWaste quite a while ago and have only had a couple of people ever contact me. One showed up. I was hoping the new law might drum up business for my compost bins (our clay-like soil needs all the compost it can get). So far, I haven't had any offers."

When asked about public sentiment about the new law, Bonneau said she hasn't "heard much grumbling about this new law," but that she's heard it and seen it online about existing trash separation laws. "I don't understand why people get so angry about not being able to throw out as much garbage as humanly possible. I don't think they understand that food in the trash produces methane gas and why that's a huge problem."

Needless to say, education is, and will continue to be, a major component of this new mandate. Communities and individuals will be informed of the tremendous benefits of compost—how it returns nutrients to soil, improves water retention, reduces reliance on pesticides, and more, while creating good green jobs in waste collection and sustainable agriculture, which in turn helps to improve food security.

As Scientific American writes, other states are watching California closely. "This mandate is expected to trigger action in other states, with Oregon and Washington already looking at using the law as a model for a statewide action." New York and Vermont already have mandatory food diversion laws, and Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Jersey are in the process of developing similar ones. 

This could soon be required in your city, too, so you might as well get a head start and set up a backyard compost sooner rather than later.

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