Successes, challenges mount as California launches organic waste recycling program – San Bernardino Sun

The effort is simple and the payoff is huge: By tossing that banana peel in the green bin with your yard waste rather than in the black bin with your trash, you can help reduce climate change.

That’s the basic idea behind a key part of an ambitious California law that kicked in at the start of this year called Senate Bill 1383. The goal is to make a dent in harmful methane emissions in part by requiring Californians to slash the amount of rotting food and other organic waste that ends up in landfills, while also creating incentives to use products such as compost and natural gas that can be made from the reclaimed material.

Six months in, there’s progress to report.

Cities such as Los Angeles have been making significant investments in equipment to process the collected food and yard waste, while community groups such as Compostable LA say participation in their programs has skyrocketed in recent months.

Residents throughout the state also say they’ve started receiving buckets with compostable liners and instructions from their cities or trash company on how to recycle food waste. Others, such as Anne Gordinier of Newport Beach, aren’t waiting.

“I keep the food waste in a large lidded Tupperware-type container in the fridge and add it to our yard waste in the green bin,” she said. “I like feeling I’m doing something, however small, to help the planet.”

But despite these success stories, California has a long way to go to meet key benchmarks in SB 1383.

“We’re not on track to reach our methane goals,” Assemblymember Tasha Boerner Horvath, D-Encinitas, said during a bill hearing put on by the state’s independent oversight agency, the Little Hoover Commission, on Wednesday at Long Beach City College.

Stakeholders told commissioners that, to meet demands of SB 1383, they need more help to cover related costs and with fixing conflicts in state regulations that they say are hampering their efforts.

Many residents also say they haven’t heard a peep from their cities or waste haulers about the new law, while some communities, such as unincorporated portions of Big Bear Valley, still don’t even have green bins for yard waste.

To help get the state on track, the Little Hoover Commission aims to hold at least one more hearing and to produce a report by early 2023 with recommendations for the governor and legislature.

Such progress checks are critical to help California reclaim its somewhat tarnished mantle of being a global leader on climate change, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, said during Wednesday’s hearing.

“We are great at setting goals – goals that at times can be abstract,” Rendon said. “We need to make sure that our accomplishments are tangible and that we are making the desired impact that we want on the world.”

Aspirational goal?

While carbon emissions from smokestacks and tailpipes get most of the attention due to how long they last in the atmosphere, trapping heat and raising global temperatures, other greenhouse gasses such as methane also contribute to climate change. And while methane breaks down much faster than carbon dioxide, it can trap 84 times as much heat over its first 20 years.

In 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 1383 to mandate reductions in methane emissions statewide from the state’s two biggest sources: cows and landfills. Cow burps and manure are a story all their own. But a fifth of California’s methane emissions come from organic waste decomposing in landfills. So SB 1383 set a goal of diverting 75% of organic waste, or some 27 million tons, from landfills by 2025.

To help us get there, residents and businesses were supposed to start recycling their food and other green waste as of Jan. 1, 2022. Many cities got permission to delay implementation through this year while rural communities can push it as far as 2027. But for most cities, fines will kick in at the start of 2024, with penalties of up to $10,000 per day for jurisdictions that don’t have plans in place.

CalRecycle reported the state wasn’t on track in 2020 to reach its goals in terms of organic waste diversion. The agency said a new study is underway now and should be complete later this year to get an updated picture of progress.

“We expect a marked difference now that the regulations have taken effect and California communities have begun rolling out their programs,” Maria West, spokesperson for the agency, said Friday.

Education needed

One key to the success of SB 1383 is getting public buy-in and participation. Parts of California, such as the Bay Area, have done food waste collection for years. But for much of the state, this is an entirely new process. And so far, rollout of local programs to encourage organics recycling at home and at businesses has been sporadic.

Major waste haulers are equipped to take and process food waste, with customers served by Waste Management in Mission Viejo given kitchen pails and instructions months ago. However, some cities that contract with the same hauler, such as Corona, are still putting together information campaigns and supplies. So while Corona residents can put their food waste in their yard waste bins, many don’t yet know that or have supplies like buckets to make the process practical.

Residents in Palm Desert and Santa Monica say they recently got bins to use for food waste, while a Torrance resident said they’re still waiting. A Jurupa Valley resident hasn’t heard anything from the city or their waste hauler, Burrtec. And in Cowan Heights, an unincorporated portion of Orange County near Santa Ana, resident Vicky Schulte said they haven’t heard a word and neighbors are complaining about the lack of action.

When it comes to a statewide education campaign to inform and motivate residents, these inconsistencies are problematic, since the timeline, rules and processes for organics collection at this point vary widely from one city to another.

The state budget approved earlier this month does include $180 million for grants to cities and counties to support efforts around SB 1383, including education programs. But when it comes to meeting the demands of SB 1383, local jurisdictions say those grants are a drop in the bucket.

Costs hitting ratepayers

CalRecycle has estimated it will cost $40 billion for agencies across the state to comply with the new law.

That includes outreach, operational changes and capital costs, with public agencies and private companies working to expand or build new facilities throughout the state to process the coming flood of organic waste.

Without the infrastructure in place to handle the spike in organic waste that needs to be processed, problems have popped up at some existing facilities. In the high desert town of Hinkley, for example, which is near one of a handful of composting sites statewide that mixes sewage sludge in with its green waste, residents are talking about a class action lawsuit due to ongoing issues with fires and odors.

LA County Public Works is taking proposals now to build a new organics processing facility through a public-private partnership on county-owned land at the Calabasas landfill, Deputy Director Coby Skye told commissioners. But he noted such projects typically take at least three years to develop, with more capacity needed before that time.

Stanton-based waste management company CR&R, which a built an anaerobic digester in Perris in 2016 that was the first of its kind locally to turn food and green waste into compost and renewable natural gas, is at capacity with contracts from cities throughout Southern California, according to Senior Vice President Maria Lazaruk. They’re working through permits to expand the facility so they can take on more customers.

Establishing a new organics processing facility in L.A. costs around $100 million. And Barbara Romero, director of LA Sanitation, said handling organics costs $100 per ton vs. $40 per ton to take trash to landfills. So she asked the Little Hoover Commission to request financial subsidies for local jurisdictions, so they don’t have to pass all of those costs off to ratepayers.

CalRecycle estimated SB 1383 might raise rates for residents by $20 and for businesses by an average of $660 per year. But stakeholders in Wednesday’s hearing said rates are already increasing by more than that across the state.

“This sounds to me like a slow-motion car crash,” Commissioner David Beier of San Francisco said.

Along with subsidies to local jurisdictions, stakeholders at the hearing recommended the state use tax credits and cash grants to businesses to incentivize buy-in.

Solid markets needed

Another major challenge in meeting SB 1383 is that there aren’t yet solid markets for the byproducts made from recovered organic material.

Organic waste can be turned into compost or mulch at open-air facilities, with methane not emitted when oxygen is introduced during decomposition. Or that process can happen in enclosed atmospheres, where emissions can be captured and turned into fuel for natural gas-equipped vehicles, injected into existing natural gas pipelines or used to produce electricity.

The state tried to help create markets for those products by requiring cities and counties to buy back a certain portion of the organic waste they generate. For Redlands, that’s 5,692 tons a year. For Anaheim, it’s 28,277 tons.

But as of now, Skye said there isn’t enough compliant byproduct being produced in the state for local jurisdictions to meet the requirements of SB 1373. And even if there was, cities and counties say they’re struggling to find ways to use what they need to buy.

In L.A. County, for example, Skye said even if the workers put compost on every city park and public space in the county, that would only account for 10% of what they’re required to buy back.

There also aren’t solid markets for biogases captured from organic materials. To that end, Sharon Green with LA Sanitation Districts suggested the state’s Air Resource Board reconsider a mandate for all trucks to be fully electric by 2045. She said allowing big rigs to use clean, renewable natural gas that agencies like hers are producing from organic waste would address two issues at once.

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