California Now Requires You to Compost Food Waste to Reduce Potent Greenhouse Gas

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California has set an ambitious goal: reduce scraps and yard waste that go to landfills by 75% by 2025. The new state composting regulation means waste haulers will handle a lot more moldy leftovers.

Some are ready, because they’ve been collecting and processing organic waste for years. Others will need to invest in new infrastructure, which will push up garbage rates. The state plans to help in the form of financial grants.

Reducing methane emissions is the state’s main goal. Its composting regulation requires residents, municipalities and soon more businesses to compost or divert food waste and scraps.

At a sprawling facility in Tracy, food scraps and yard clippings get turned into something useful. Here, an 18-wheeler backs up onto a ramp, dumping a load of waste into a huge hopper.

“There’s a lot of coffee grounds and eggshells and banana peels and things of that nature in there,” said Robert Reed, spokesperson for Recology, the company that hauls away San Francisco’s waste. “All of those materials are natural. Particularly the food scraps are very rich in nutrients, very rich in carbon. They all came from a farm and are to go back to a farm in the form of compost.”

Municipal solid waste landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the country, accounting for about 15% in 2019, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Scientists and engineers see an opportunity to capture methane and use it to create energy. They’re also studying how it can lock carbon in the ground and enhance the soil in fields, orchards and rangelands to help farmers grow crops and livestock more efficiently.

One challenge for the state: building enough facilities like Recology’s, especially in Southern California, where composting is less common. Commercial-scale manufacturing businesses are expensive, and require land and heavy machinery.

Recology began composting decades ago, and Reed argues it keeps greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere.

“This is what helps grow healthy plants,” he said, plunging his hands into a steaming pile. “We’ve got food to eat and it gets carbon back into the soil where it belongs.”

At this stage, the compost is sorted and dried to a fine dust; it has a rich brown color and smells sweet, like a wet forest floor. But it’s not fully cooked yet. It will sit in windrows, long piles that workers will aerate for weeks while bacteria break the “material down into finished compost,” Reed said.

“These piles are eight- to 10-feet tall and chock-full of microbial colonies that are breaking the material down into smaller and smaller pieces,” he said.

Sprinklers add water to make a perfect, spa-like environment for the right microbes.

New compost rules ‘biggest change’ to CA trash since ’80s

The bacteria are key to the state’s new composting standards, which require all municipalities to collect green waste separately, to keep it out of the landfill. When food waste “cooks” under the right conditions, the bacteria give off less methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

“Diverting our organic waste is the single fastest and easiest thing that every single Californian and every American can do to fight climate change,” said Rachel Machi Wagoner, CalRecycle’s director.

She called the state’s composting mandate “the biggest change to our trash since we started recycling in the 1980s.”

The state will require businesses to compost and donate edible food to food banks and charities. First, large grocery stores and food wholesalers will have to comply or face fines. Later, that list will include restaurants and cafeterias.

If California hits its composting goal, the state estimates it would be the equivalent of taking 1 million cars off the road each year in greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

“To go after food waste that aggressively is unprecedented, and it’s a big deal,” said Matthew Cotton, an independent commercial composting consultant. “We have a lot of infrastructure, maybe not enough.”

The cost of this new infrastructure will be offset by a $90 million infusion from this year’s state budget. But Cotton said it’s hard to get permits for composting at this scale….”

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