Reducing Food Waste To Fight Climate Change: One Year Into SB 1383’s Implementation
On a cold and foggy morning over the holidays, I meet Robert Reed at Blossom Valley Organics. It’s an outdoor composting facility in Vernalis, about 60 miles east of Oakland. All around us there’s constant action, with semis delivering loads of food scraps and yard trimmings from places like San Francisco and Berkeley. There are bulldozers around pushing piles of compost several stories tall.
Reed works for Recology, a waste management company based in San Francisco. They contract with local governments up and down the West Coast to collect and process the things we throw away. In partnership with SF, they actually launched the nation’s first municipal composting program, back in 1996.
Reed says, “Since we started the program in San Francisco, we've kept 2.5 million tons of compostable material out of the landfill.”
I’m here so that Reed can show me the composting process up close. He told me to wear hiking boots and clothes that I’m not afraid to get dirty. And I’m glad I did – plenty of our tour is spent squishing through slimy black muck.
“In front of us,” says Reed, “you can see the material that's arrived and gone through the presort system. You can see some leaves in there and some orange peels and some egg shells. It’s a combination.”
As we move through the site, the nature of the compost piles changes. We arrive at one, and Reed points out that it is something called an aerated static pile. There’s a seam in the concrete under the pile. Air is bubbling up through the bit of liquid pooled there. It turns out there’s a network of pipes beneath the concrete pumping air into the compost piles.
“Over here,” says Reed, “the material is smaller, it's darker, and it's a little bit more dense. You can see it's composting. You can also see some steam coming off of that – quite a bit of steam. Why is that happening?”
What’s happening is that there are microbes in the compost pile. They’re digesting our leftover food and yard waste. And while they do that they’re creating heat.
“What we're doing,” says Reed, “is we're creating the conditions for the microorganisms to do their job. They're breaking it down; they're eating it; they're breaking it into smaller and smaller pieces. This is a natural process.”
But when organic material is put into landfills, and covered by other trash, it’s cut off from oxygen. When that happens, the bacteria breaking down that organic matter forms methane as a byproduct. It’s one of the most potent planet-warming gasses.
These days, compost producers like Recology are in the midst of a major expansion of their industry. That’s because last year, legislation called SB 1383 was implemented. It takes aim at something called Short-Lived Climate Pollutants – things like methane. The legislation is largely modeled on San Francisco’s composting program.
To reduce methane emissions, 1383 sets a goal of cutting the organic waste that California sends to its landfills 75% by 2025. That’s everything from yard trimmings to kitchen scraps (including meat and bones) to used paper to-go containers.
“When organic waste breaks down in landfills, it turns into methane, which is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide,” says Rachel Machi Wagoner. She’s the head of CalRecycle, the state entity charged with overseeing SB 1383. “Our goal here is to start removing methane from the environment and really change the way we interact with the environment through our waste.”
Now, methane only makes up about ten percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions – we pump out a lot more carbon dioxide, which makes up about 80 percent. But because methane’s so good at trapping heat in the atmosphere, tackling it can have a major impact on global temperatures.
Wagoner says that achieving 1383’s goals will be a big win for the environment: “When we reach our 75% goal of organic waste reduction here in California, it is the equivalent of taking 3 million cars off of the road.”
So how is this law going to affect you at home?
The fact of the matter is, in the Bay Area, nothing much is actually changing. Most places here have been offering organic recycling for years.
But now all the state’s waste management jurisdictions – those are the cities and counties that contract with companies like Recology – are on the hook to reach that 75% reduction goal. They’ve got a financial incentive – in the form of penalties from the state – to make sure that you’re separating your trash. So if you’ve got a green bin, but you’re throwing food away in one of the other bins, you might get a note from your trash hauler asking you to clean up your act.
But another big part of SB 1383 has to do with food that’s still fit to eat: the state wants to salvage 20 percent of the edible food that currently makes it into landfills and redirect that food to hungry people.
Wagoner says, “On average, a family of four is throwing away about $1,500 worth of food every year. That's almost a month's worth of food that each family is throwing away. So if we make small changes to the way we purchase food, and what we do with food, in terms of donations and food recovery, we can have a major impact on our own household and on the environment and our communities.”
With SB 1383’s mandate to salvage edible food, the folks at Second Harvest of Silicon Valley are also in line for a boost in activity. They’re a food bank with more than 900 distribution sites across San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.
I meet Second Harvest’s Vice President of Strategy and Advocacy, Tracy Weatherby, at one of the organization’s San Jose warehouses. The morning shift of volunteers is done. When the afternoon shift gets in they’ll start assembling food boxes to hand out at all those distribution sites.
“A lot of people don't understand how food banks work today,” Weatherby says. “They still think of people being given peanut butter and canned goods and people's leftover unhealthy food. But here at Second Harvest of Silicon Valley, 50% of what we give out is fresh produce.”
Weatherby says that Second Harvest is able to give out so much fresh produce because of their relationships with farms across the state.
“Most of what we have here is coming directly from farms. And this may be produce that might not have been taken out of the fields for a variety of reasons. Often it's maybe a little smaller than normal or a little larger than normal. It might be a situation where there's just an overage of a certain kind of produce and the market doesn't warrant the farmers taking it out of the field. Their profit motivation is not high enough.”
Weatherby says the law’s been helpful for her organization. That’s because it mandates that California grocers and wholesalers have a plan for their leftover edible food. “And so now we do have a lot more grocery stores donating to us or to our partners. So that's been really, really helpful.”
But, says Weatherby, “It is a ton of work. And we have to find volunteers or staff to be picking up, transporting this food, turning it very, very quickly. So one of the things that's very interesting about the law and that we're talking about at the state level, is for the state to try and find some funding mechanisms for those nonprofit food rescue organizations, like ourselves, who are doing this work. Because, while we're grateful for the food, there are real costs involved in keeping that food out of landfills and getting it to food insecure people.”
And while Second Harvest is focused on the food needs of people, Weatherby recognizes that the work they do is tending to the needs of the planet as well. “For us, ensuring that the food we're getting to people is good quality and nutritious is always gonna come first. But because of the work we're doing, we are really helping with the environment and reducing greenhouse gasses.”
The pandemic has complicated SB 1383’s rollout. And it remains to be seen whether the state can meet its goals by 2025. But this is a first-of-its-kind law in the country. If it can work here, it will be a model that can be replicated elsewhere and have an even bigger impact on climate change.