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From landfills to the soil, California food waste law aims to reduce methane emissions

Posted at 2:47 PM, Feb 16, 2022

ENCINITAS, Calif. — Mimicking nature, employees at the Solana Center for Environmental Innovation turn food waste into nutrient-rich organic material. Through their Food Cycle composting program, residents and small businesses bring their organic waste to the center and collect finished compost for their home gardens.

“Starting out with shredded paper, coffee grounds, eggshells," said environmental educator Jennifer Galey. "Then put worms in there who start to eat food waste.”

From plastics and glass to food waste, the California nonprofit has pioneered recycling in the state for 40 years.

"People will say, is that worm poop? Yes, it is. But it's also the millions and millions of bacteria that have lived and died, as well as other organisms that help with the composting process," said Galey. "And this is how you can grow healthy food.”

But when this natural process is disrupted, food waste becomes a climate super-pollutant, emitting methane into the atmosphere.

“We continue to put layer on layer in the landfill. It does not allow it to naturally decompose and creates these noxious, climate change gases," said Jessica Toth, executive director of the nonprofit.

Food waste accounts for 20% of methane emissions in California. It's the third-largest source, trailing behind dairy manure and methane-producing belches and flatulence from cows.

Volunteers with the Solana Center are on the ground in Southern California, helping roll out the most comprehensive food recycling law in the U.S.

“It's a matter of change. And change is difficult. But this is important, important for the next generations," said Toth.

Enacted this year, the new law mandates Californians recycle food scraps and organic waste like yard trimmings. While the pandemic has delayed the rollout in some areas, cities are building the infrastructure necessary to collect organic waste: distributing green trash bins, purchasing new trucks, and hiring more haulers.

Redirecting food waste from landfills back to the soil, the state wants to cut organic waste in landfills by 75% from 2014 levels by 2025.

“Until the state-mandated that there would be no organic material going to the landfill — the infrastructure, the investment, spending on education and outreach — really did not kick in. That was really the kick in the seat of the pants that was needed," said Toth.

The Solana Center is helping businesses and homeowners understand the new law, offering resources online.

Cities in violation could eventually face fines of up to $10,000. Residents and businesses could also pay the price if they don't comply, from $50 to $500.

“People really want to do the right thing, for the most part. Understanding that organic waste going to the landfill, food waste rotting in our landfills, is detrimental to our environment and that all you need to do is put it in the right bin," said Toth.

Similar ordinances already exist in places like Seattle and San Francisco— ambitious plans advocates hope can help restore the balance in nature.