This US state has ambitious food waste recycling plans. But can it fulfil its promises?

Two years after California launched an effort to keep organic waste out of landfills, the state is to far behind on getting food recycling programs up and running.
Two years after California launched an effort to keep organic waste out of landfills, the state is to far behind on getting food recycling programs up and running. Copyright Damian Dovarganes/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
By Rebecca Ann Hughes with APTN
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In southern California, America's largest facility to convert food waste into biogas has filed for bankruptcy because it’s not getting enough organic material.

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Two years after California launched an effort to keep organic waste out of landfills, the US state is struggling to get food recycling programmes up and running. 

The measures are so far behind that it's widely accepted next year's ambitious waste-reduction targets won't be met.

Over time, food scraps and other organic materials like green waste emit methane, a gas more potent and damaging in the short term than carbon emissions from fossil fuels. 

California's goal is to keep that waste from piling up in landfills, instead turning it into compost or biogas.

California food recycling plant files for bankruptcy

Everything from banana peels and used coffee grounds to soiled paper products like pizza boxes counts as organic waste. In California, households and businesses are now supposed to sort that material into a different bin.

But it has been hard to change people's behaviour in such a short period of time and cities were delayed setting up contracts to haul organic waste due to the pandemic. 

In southern California, America's largest facility to convert food waste into biogas has filed for bankruptcy because it’s not getting enough organic material.

“We’re way behind on implementation,” says Coby Skye, the recently retired deputy director for environmental services at Los Angeles County Public Works. 

“In America, for better or worse, we want convenience, and it’s very difficult to spend a lot of time and effort educating people about separation.”

The massive facility was built three years ago in the city of Rialto and might have to shut down completely if it doesn't receive enough feedstock this year. 

California struggles to meet food waste recycling goals

Meanwhile, some communities that ramped up collection now have more compost than they know what to do with, a sign that more challenges are yet to come as the nation's most populous state ploughs ahead with its recycling plans.

Only a handful of states mandate organics recycling, and none are running a program as large as California’s, which seeks to slash by 75 per cent the amount of organic waste it sends to landfills by 2025 from 2014 levels.

Reaching that goal within a year would be a stretch, experts say.

About three-quarters of communities are currently collecting organic waste from homes, says Rachel Machi Wagoner, CalRecycle’s director. While some places are lagging, her aim isn't to punish them but to help them get started, adding that every bit helps the state move towards its goal of reducing emissions.

“My goal is about figuring out where the challenges are and getting us as quickly as possible to success," she says.

“I don't know when we will reach our 75 per cent goal, but we will reach it," she adds.

CalRecycle hasn't tallied data yet on how much organic waste was diverted from landfills in 2023. Jurisdictions reported diverting 11.2 million tonnes (10.1 million metric tonnes) of organics at the end of 2022, up from 9.9 million tonnes (8.9 million metric tonnes) the prior year, Wagoner says.

Some challenges include getting residents on board with sorting their rubbish into a third bin and knowing what goes where. Others concern what to do with the nutrient-rich compost once it's been created from collected grass clippings, tree branches and food scraps.

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At Otay Landfill near the Mexican border, workers pick through heaps of branches and leaves to pull out plastic bits before the material is placed under tarps. The site processes 200 tonnes (181 metric tonnes) of organic waste daily and hopes to double that amount as more cities ramp up collection, says Gabe Gonzales, the landfill's operations manager.

Once the compost is made, California's law requires cities to use much of it. But many say they don't have enough space to lay it all out.

Chula Vista, a San Diego County city of 275,000 people, is supposed to use 14,000 tonnes (12,700 metric tonnes) of compost a year but uses a few thousand at best, says Manuel Medrano, the city's environmental services manager. 

Some is doled out in free compost giveaways for residents, while heaps of the material are stored in a fenced area of a local park.

“To transport it is really expensive, to spread it is really expensive,” Medrano says. “We're nowhere near meeting that requirement."

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The Tinder of compost

Heidi Sanborn, founding director of the environmental National Stewardship Action Council, says some of California's challenges stem from the fact the state is trying to build a system on a scale the country hasn't seen.

“We're trying to fix incredibly tough problems. We're not going to find the perfect solution out of the gate," she says. But, Sanborn adds, “we're on our way.”

In the meantime, there are private companies proposing their own solutions. 

Cody Cain, head of marketing and sales for compost maker Agromin, says his company has developed a plan to link cities struggling to meet these requirements with farmers who need the material for their soil.

"We basically are matchmakers. Call us the ‘Tinder' of compost, and we'll bring the farmer together with the city," Cain says.

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