Photos courtesy of Recology

As a pioneer in food waste diversion and composting efforts, California has made waves throughout the solid waste industry with the creation and implementation of the state’s first organics waste law—Senate Bill 1383.

Signed into law by then-Gov. Edmund Brown Jr. in September 2016, the law aims to decrease emissions of short-lived climate pollutants by setting statewide reduction targets for organic waste disposed of in landfills. These targets include reducing organic waste disposal by 75 percent and redirecting at least 20 percent of edible food from disposal to people in need by 2025.

From 2016 to 2020, the California Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) worked to develop regulations to achieve the goals of SB 1383. These new regulations were finalized by CalRecycle in November 2020 and became effective this January. The regulations have prompted municipalities across the state to implement their own organics management and collection programs.

CalRecycle, a department within the California Environmental Protection Agency that provides oversight for state-managed nonhazardous waste hauling and recycling programs, has been at the root of these efforts.

Since 2016, CalRecycle has been working with local partners and jurisdictions to perform analyses and evaluations to create a comprehensive plan to meet the goals set by SB 1383. These evaluations include looking at jurisdictions and the collection systems already in place, the amount of food waste produced and end-market availability.

“[Organics recycling] on a statewide scale is a huge undertaking and building all the tools in the right places in the state to really facilitate the best products for the best end markets is going to be the trick of making this successful,” says Rachel Machi Wagoner, director of CalRecycle. “We’ve been working on [developing a model for statewide food waste recycling] since the legislation passed in 2016. Our local partners are working away at building their collection systems and finding their recycling partners, and 50 percent of the jurisdictions in California as of January had their collection systems in place.”

To facilitate the ambitious goals of SB 1383, Wagoner says collaboration plays a key role in making widespread food waste recycling work.

“The state is in a unique position to help link all of the pieces [together], and our private partners are just as important as our government partners in this particular case,” she says. “That includes franchises but also new companies that are coming in and building technology here to recycle the waste and helping us build the solution for recycling of organic waste.

“It’s really key that we’re all collaborating together. I really see the role of the state as being sort of the linchpin connecting all of the pieces,” Wagoner adds.

Spearheading the effort

While some jurisdictions across California still are working to perfect their food waste collection programs to comply with SB 1383, one city has been ahead of the curve.

In 1996, San Francisco became the first city in the U.S. to establish a large-scale food composting program—achieving 50 percent landfill diversion by 2000.

In 2002, the city expanded its commitment by creating a new goal to divert 75 percent of its food waste by 2010 and to reach zero waste by 2020. By 2011, San Francisco exceeded its food waste diversion goal, achieving a 78 percent rate.

These successful results can be credited to the city’s partnership with San Francisco-based Recology, a waste management company providing collection and disposal of municipal solid waste (MSW), recycling and organics.

“Recology helped pioneer [food waste collection] in North America over 26 years ago,” says Robert Reed, public relations manager for Recology. “We started collecting food scraps, together with yard trimmings, in San Francisco. Since then, more than 150 cities across the country have followed San Francisco’s lead and implemented curbside food scrap collection for composting. Now, municipalities up and down California are looking to join in and collect and compost food scraps and yard trimmings together to comply with [SB 1383] and help reduce landfill methane emissions.”

By working directly with Recology, the San Francisco Department of Environment (DOE) and the city’s public works department were able to build a suite of strategies to create a comprehensive composting and zero-waste program for its residents and businesses.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), headquartered in New York with offices in San Francisco and Santa Monica, California, the DOE is responsible for drafting the city’s zero-waste policies for consideration by San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. The DOE also manages program outreach, education and policy compliance. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Public Works Department, working closely with the DOE, sets residential and commercial refuse rates, including allocating different fees for different size containers to encourage residents to use bigger recycling bins and smaller landfill bins.

Recology is responsible for operating the technologies and infrastructure that divert material from landfill. To date, San Fransisco’s curbside composting program has kept 2.5 million tons of compostable material out of landfill—a success that helped inspire California’s target goal to reduce the landfilling of organic material.

As more cities follow San Francisco’s lead to comply with the requirements of SB 1383, Reed says he hopes Recology will inspire others to follow a similar model for successful food waste collection programs.

“Recology has provided curbside food scrap collection for composting to many communities for years, giving us a wealth of experience in this area. This foundation allows Recology to offer assistance to the cities we serve—both cities that already have curbside food scrap collection for composting and cities in the process of implementing the program—to help them comply.”

Providing a model

As more and more jurisdictions across California work to develop their own food waste recycling programs, Wagoner says she hopes the ideals behind SB 1383 can spread beyond the state.

“As the fifth-largest economy in the nation, California has the opportunity and the responsibility to really test and model new systems,” she says. “So, for this particular environmental system, what I’m hoping to do is create a model for other states that are similarly situated to California to be able to cut and paste some of the things that we are doing here.”

Looking forward, Wagoner says she believes legislation like SB 1383 and the circular model that comes with it can be used for other waste streams.

“The goal that I’m reaching for is building a circular economy here in California,” she says. “I hope for a change in culture, where we are taking waste out of the system, and everything is looked at as a resource from the minute it is designed on the front end to its next life. We have an intentionality built into every single product for its reuse.

“So, whether it’s a plastic bottle, a phone or a banana peel, my goal is for an understanding that nothing should go to waste and that everything is truly a resource.”

The author is assistant editor for Waste Today and can be reached at hrischar@gie.net.