On an early February morning, the sun rises as a huge trailer filled with food scraps, soiled paper and yard trimmings is hoisted to a near vertical position at Recology's Blossom Valley Organics composting facility in Vernalis in San Joaquin County. Immediately, 25 tons of organic waste tumbles out. It'll soon get sorted by machinery and workers to remove any inorganic materials from the mix. Then starts the two-month-long decomposition process before it becomes compost. About 1,500 tons of organic waste are delivered to the facility every day, including what's generated by Mountain View's commercial businesses.
California has a problem with organic waste in landfills, which is responsible for about one-fifth of the state's methane emissions. The state's solution: SB 1383, a law that went into effect in January that requires organic waste stops going to landfills and is processed in other ways. Recology's Vernalis facility is one example.
The law, which was signed in 2016 by Gov. Jerry Brown, sets targets for diverting organic waste from landfills. These targets are based on the 2014 benchmark of 23 million tons of disposed organic waste.
By 2020, California was supposed to divert 50% of its organic waste, or 11.5 million tons. According to CalRecycle, the state agency in charge of keeping the law on track, California did not meet that goal. It estimates the amount of organics going to landfills actually increased slightly over that 2014 baseline. By 2025, the state is supposed to divert 75% from 2014 levels.
Beyond diverting all the organic waste, the other issue is where to process it all. There are a total of 199 facilities, CalRecycle representatives said in an email earlier this year.
But that's not enough to deal with the estimated 18 million tons that California wants diverted from landfills by 2025.
"CalRecycle estimates the state will have about 10 million tons of new organics processing capacity by 2025," the agency said in an email.
But that still leaves 8 million tons with nowhere to go.
This August, counties and cities across the state will need to figure out how much organic waste they're generating and where it's going to be processed. Capacity reports are due to CalRecycle by Aug. 1.
Many Bay Area cities and counties already had composting ordinances prior to the law. So are people supposed to do anything differently? We've got answers to common questions about how this law impacts you now.
Are my trash rates going to go up because of this new law?
It depends where you live.
In Mountain View, "there are costs associated with SB 1383 that impact the city's trash rates," like the need for more infrastructure to expand compost collection routes, said Jennifer Cutter, the city's solid waste program manager, in an email. Paula Borges, Palo Alto's solid waste manager, said the city is not expecting rate increases due to SB 1383. Menlo Park's public engagement manager Clay Curtin, said rates are not expected to go up by a lot.
I don't have a countertop compost bin, do I need one?
You can use anything to hold your food scraps. A countertop compost bin is not required, but can be useful because it takes a few days to fill it up. An uncovered bowl on your kitchen counter may need to be emptied every day to avoid attracting bugs.
Can I use one of those green compostable bags in my countertop bin? What about other compostable plastics?
It depends on where you live and what company services your waste.
GreenWaste of Palo Alto accepts all compostable bags and plastics in the organics bin as long as they are made from corn, potato and other starch and are labeled "compostable," according to the service's guide.
For customers in Portola Valley, Woodside and Atherton, mixed compostable plastics should go into the gray cart with food scraps. Everything gets sorted at GreenWaste's Materials Recovery Facility.
Customers serviced by Recology should note that BPI-certified compostable bags are accepted, "but we prefer paper," said Jocelyn Baird, Recology's waste zero manager for Mountain View.
Other types of compostable plastics are not welcome in the green bin. Why? They take longer to break down than food scraps, yard trimmings and soiled paper.
To avoid using compostable bags, lining your bins with paper napkins is a good way to soak up some of the liquid food scraps can create.
Can I compost meat and animal products? Is there anything I shouldn't be composting?
Yes. Both Recology and GreenWaste accept meat and animal products. Products made of glass and traditional plastic should never be placed in green bins. See more detailed lists for Recology at recology.com and for GreenWaste of Palo Alto at greenwasteofpaloalto.com.
If I compost, will it really help the climate crisis?
Landfills are responsible for one-fifth of the state's methane emissions. Even with Californians following SB 1383, there's not going to be a sudden dip in those emissions in the near future. That's because there's still a lot of organic waste already in landfills that is going to decompose and create methane.
The state expects that if Californians are consistent about diverting food and soiled papers and yard trimmings from landfills, methane emissions will decrease over time.
What happens if I don't start composting? Will I get fined?
It's mostly up to cities and counties to get us to change our behaviors around trash sorting. But the state is going to start fining cities and other jurisdictions that are not complying with the law, up to $10,000 per violation per day. By 2024, jurisdictions need to start imposing penalties on residential and commercial customers who don't follow the law.