From farm to kitchen to inevitable garbage can, uneaten food is the most common waste material tossed into landfills by American households. Over a third of all food produced in the United States goes uneaten and discarded into the same bins we hastily throw take-out containers, plastic bags, wrappers and all other things rubbish.
The farther down the chain food is wasted, the greater its environmental impact of food waste; growing, transporting, processing, storing and cooking of food all require immense amounts of natural resources, energy and water. When we waste food, we waste all of the energy we put into bringing it from farm to table.
We assume food waste is landfill-friendly, given it decomposes quickly and returns its nutrients to the soil underneath. In reality, rotting food waste in landfills emits a greenhouse gas 84 times as potent as carbon dioxide: methane. Excess concentrations of greenhouse gasses such as methane perpetuate the absorption of infrared radiation and heating of our atmosphere. In California alone, landfills are the third-largest source of methane; organic waste in landfills emits 20% of the state’s methane. In fact, we could reduce between 6%-8% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions by minimizing food waste – emissions that are equivalent to those generated by 32.6 million cars.
California’s Solution: SB 1383
Originally signed in 2016 by then-governor Jerry Brown, California’s SB 1383 took effect on January 1st, 2022. It is an unprecedented statewide effort to minimize emissions of short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs). The law aims to reduce “statewide disposal of organic waste by 75% by January 1, 2025” and to “rescue at least 20% of currently disposed of edible food for human consumption by 2025.” It is the largest change to the waste and recycling industry in 30 years! The ultimate goal of the new law is to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions through mandatory composting and food recovery programs to mitigate global climate change effects. The bottom line is that California now requires its residents to compost, which is great news.
What is Compost + Composting?
Composting combines organic wastes like yard trimmings and food scraps. A sometimes smelly but extraordinarily nourishing mixture, compost improves soil and water quality, reduces methane emissions, eliminates the need for toxic fertilizers, provides carbon sequestration and can even help wetland, forest and habitat restoration efforts by revitalizing contaminated soils.
Essentially, the accumulation of organic wastes creates compost. According to CalRecycle, “[composting] is a complex biological process involving a succession of microorganisms, each with its own unique role. Human intervention can speed up the process, make it more efficient, and ensure the pile gets hot enough to kill pathogens and weed seeds. This generally involves building a pile with the right mixture of carbon and nitrogen, maintaining a certain amount of moisture in the pile, and ensuring air can reach the pile’s center. These goals can be accomplished through system design and forced aeration, or through manual action.”
Regulations: The Basics
SB 1383 requires jurisdictions to provide their residents and businesses with organic waste collection options. CalRecycle, a department within the California Environmental Protection Agency, is responsible for all of California’s state-managed non-hazardous waste handling and recycling programs. The department defines SB 1383’s “organic waste” as “food, green material, landscape and pruning waste, organic textiles and carpets, lumber, wood, paper products, printing and writing paper, manure, biosolids, digestate, and sludges.” Jurisdictions, defined as a resident’s city or county, are required to provide organic waste collection services. Residents are required to accurately sort their organic wastes and self-haul or participate in their jurisdictions’ organic waste collection service. Additionally, businesses are mandated to provide collection containers for this waste. Public schools and school districts must also abide by the rules and regulations outlined in CalRecycle’s accessible web page.
How is California using the compost?
SB 1383 requires cities and counties to procure a certain amount of organic wastes to ultimately meet their yearly procurement target, calculated based on their populations. If you live in California, your organic waste will be recycled into biofuel, mulch, electricity and applied in your own community!
According to CalRecycle, compost and mulch made from residents’ food waste can be used for landscaping in community and school gardens, city parks and more. Such applications provide benefits such as carbon sequestration, soil water retention, fire remediation and stormwater management.
Additionally, organic food waste can be processed at anaerobic digestion facilities to power cars, buses, buildings, schools and other infrastructure. Los Angeles County alone projects that 1.9 million tons of food waste will be diverted annually and potentially converted into natural gas by anaerobic digestion plants.
Californians’ compost waste will also spike demand for organic waste products, driving infrastructure investment and creating new green-collar jobs in the state. Combined with procurement goals, this mandate will strengthen California’s green, self-sustaining economy.
SB 1383’s Food Recovery Efforts
This new law is also fighting climate change and hunger with food recovery initiatives. According to CalRecycle, nearly 1 out of every 4 Californians is struggling with food insecurity and does not have enough food to eat. Beyond recycling organic waste, SB 1383 requires certain food businesses to donate food they would otherwise throw away to food recovery organizations. Commercial edible food generators, like grocery stores, wholesale food vendors, food distributors, hotels, restaurants and other venues are mandated to donate uneaten foods to food recovery centers and services including food pantries, soup kitchens, food banks and more.
What can I compost?
Compost requires two colors: green and brown. Browns include yard waste items like dead leaves, branches and twigs. Greens, on the other hand, cover most kitchen waste materials, including vegetable waste, fruit scraps and coffee grounds. Your compost pile should include equal amounts of greens and browns. In short, you can compost fruits, vegetables, nutshells, paper, cardboard, houseplants, grass clippings, eggshells, hair, fur and more. Avoid contaminating your compost with items such as coal, dairy products, fats and greases, pet wastes and yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides.
What about the smell?
Coastal California typically maintains a warm 75 degrees Fahrenheit year-round and the state is arguably densely populated. Californians justifiably want to know how to store their kitchen’s organic waste so it does not smell or attract bugs when sitting in countertop compost bins all week.
A Los Angeles Times article compiled frequently asked questions and responded with answers from the Los Angeles County Public Works and the Los Angeles City Bureau of Sanitation. According to the article, “local governments and waste haulers recommend gathering the scraps in kitchen pails, which both L.A. city and county plan to distribute. Frequent emptying (and cleaning) of the pails should limit odors. Some users say lining them with paper towels also soaks up liquid that can raise a stink. The city of Los Angeles suggests two other odor-reducing techniques: layering food waste with yard trimmings or freezing food scraps in a reusable container prior to collection day.”
Where do I start?
Each jurisdiction in California will have its own rules and regulations on how best to manage its waste services but expect new green compost-specific bins to be delivered to your neighborhood.
In the meantime, CalRecycle recommends assembling an at-home compost and recycling system, using worms to compost, or joining your neighbors in a community composting project. Feeling crafty? Build your own compost bin using instructions from CalRecycle! If you want to join a community-wide composting program, check out the chart below from LA Compost as a quick and easy way to survey your community composting options.
LA Compost makes weekly composting easy for Angelenos by providing registration-free and contact-free drop-off options. Or, register for and volunteer at a compost co-op; the benefits to joining such a program include access to 24/7 drop-off and the ability to take home finished compost. Compostable LA also offers a compost pick-up for anywhere between $30 and $45 per month.
As your city figures out how to best handle the composting rollout, you can easily begin composting your food at home. Changing our food throw-away habits will undoubtedly have a steep learning curve for the masses, but the environmental benefits of composting outweigh the trial-and-error of implementing this new way of food waste disposal.
For additional composting tips, check out this list for additional resources!
- The Best Composter for Beginners
- The Best, But More Expensive Composter for Zero Smell
- The Best Composter for Backyard Composting
- The Best Resource to Learn All About Composting
- An Interview with Westside Compost
Are you nervous or excited about composting? Are you composting at home already? Let us know in the comments below!