California’s organic-waste law set a high bar, but most cities struggle to reach it

In 2016, California passed the nation’s most ambitious restrictions on landfilling food and yard waste, with the aim of slashing the greenhouse gases these organic materials generate when buried. The law mandated turning the waste into compost or biogas, with a goal of cutting landfill disposal by 50 percent, from 2014 levels, by the end of 2020 and 75 percent by 2025. But already, cities have fallen behind on setting up the costly systems for collecting and processing this waste. Starting Jan. 1, 2022, lagging communities could be fined up to $10,000 a day.

As organics break down in an oxygen-free environment, they generate methane — a greenhouse gas that, over a 20-year timeframe, is 84 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Globally, methane is responsible for roughly 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. In the United States, municipal solid waste landfills are the third largest human-related emitters of methane, after oil and gas operations and livestock. In California, landfills generate about 20 percent of the state’s methane emissions.

Some two dozen states have regulations in place to reduce the amount of organic waste sent to landfills, and this past July, bills were introduced in the U.S. House and in the Senate to establish grants to support programs that prevent food from going to waste and to promote the composting of food scraps. But California’s law, known as Senate Bill 1383, has the nation’s highest targets, in addition to a groundbreaking requirement that by 2025 the state recover and redistribute 20 percent of edible food that would otherwise have been sent to landfills. Nationwide, an estimated 40 percent of all food is wasted.

If fully implemented, SB 1383 would redirect 26.8 million tons of organics from landfills by 2025, according to the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle). It would reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 4 million metric tons per year by 2030 and yield an additional 5.5 million tons of soil-enhancing compost a year over the 1.8 million tons produced in 2017. The law would also lead to the recovery of enough food to generate roughly 1.8 billion meals for donation, according to CalRecycle spokesperson Lance Klug.

Cities are free to choose the methods they will use to reduce methane emissions from organics. For instance, they can expand their compost operations or upgrade or build new anaerobic digestors, which produce biogas in addition to a soil amendment.

“In order to avoid the worsening effects of climate change we need bold public policy,” said Andrea Spacht Collins, a sustainable food systems specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “And we need every municipality, business, and household to do its part to reduce food waste and our carbon footprints.” To accelerate progress toward the state’s climate goals, Governor Gavin Newsom in July directed the California Air Resources Board to evaluate ways the state can reach carbon neutrality by 2035, well ahead of its current 2045 target.

But the road from good intentions to reality is long and winding.

Timothy Hall, a senior environmental scientist at CalRecycle, acknowledged that the state did not meet SB 1383’s 2020 target: The agency is currently working on a study that will reveal by how wide a mark. “We’re still developing infrastructure to take the additional material,” he said. “It takes a while to get these facilities permitted and built.”

Many residents resist the siting of compost facilities within sight or smell. Existing contract obligations can also cause delays. For instance, the city of Oceanside, in southern California, must wait until its current yard-waste contract with Waste Management expires, in 2023, before it can issue a new request for proposals from interested companies. Meanwhile, the city can’t expand its existing capacity. The problem is common to many cities throughout the state.

Lack of funding is another holdup. The state has provided roughly $140 million in grants and loans to help local governments build out organic waste infrastructure. But CalRecycle has estimated that it will cost between $20 billion and $40 billion to fully implement the law over the next decade, with up to 100 new facilities.

Many jurisdictions are already struggling with pandemic-related labor and budget shortfalls. In a survey conducted by the League of California Cities, which advocates for cities on legal and political fronts, 92 percent of 194 responding cities indicated they’ll need to raise solid-waste and recycling rates within the next three years to implement SB 1383 regulations. The League has asked the state legislature to appropriate $225 million to help cities develop programs to meet the law’s requirements.

Colleen Foster, the environmental officer of Oceanside, expects her city to barely meet the 2022 deadline, but only because it has been collecting and processing food and yard waste for several years. “From a local perspective,” she says, “it’s a huge lift.” Many other cities have not yet built out such infrastructure and will be hard-pressed to do so without plenty of financial and logistical help.

Jack Macy, zero-waste senior coordinator at the San Francisco Department of the Environment, said that the city, which has been collecting and processing organics since 1996, is “in good shape on mandatory collection and monitoring” but “is shifting staff to focus more on” SB 1383 compliance. “There’s scrambling going on by [other] jurisdictions, with some level of freak-out,” he added. Many are now hiring consultants.

Santa Clara County, in the heart of Silicon Valley, is also “in good shape” in terms of its existing capacity to recycle and process plenty of organic waste, according to Michele Young, a senior management analyst for the county. But she is much less hopeful that it can meet the law’s edible-food recovery targets. “We are fully expecting that our [ongoing] food-recovery study will show that the county doesn’t have enough infrastructure.”

In general, smaller cities and counties appear to be worse off than larger ones because they haven’t, historically, had robust organics-collection systems in place, and they are generally more cash strapped.

In response to these challenges, California state legislators, with the support of many cities, introduced a bill (SB 619) in February that requests a one-year extension before SB 1383 penalties kick in, and would prohibit the state from penalizing cities “that make a reasonable effort to comply,” said Derek Dolfie, legislative representative for the League of California Cities, in an email. He noted that despite the fact that SB 1383 was passed in 2016, its regulations were only finalized and released to cities in November of 2020–smack in the grip of Covid-19–leaving local governments and their partners little time to build out the required programs.

The bill advanced from the state senate to the assembly this summer.

Despite all these kinks and challenges, cities throughout the state agree with the spirit and goal of SB 1383. And advocates for reducing emissions of heat-trapping gases argue that the law could have a significant climate impact well beyond California.

“One of the most cost-effective ways to reduce greenhouse gases is to get organics out of landfills,” said Nick Lapis, director of advocacy at the nonprofit Californians Against Waste, which led negotiations to pass SB 1383. “California is a huge economy—the sixth biggest in the world, on the scale of France,” he added. “I’m hoping that we can be a model for other states. Once we do it, I hope it’ll sweep across the country.”