Waste Legislation : US: California falls short of organic waste management targets

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Cities across California are struggling with sweeping changing to organic waste management introduced by new legislation.

SB1383 mandated a 50% reduction in organic waste by 2020 going from 2014 levels as well as a 75% reduction in organic waste by 2025. The law seeks to enforce the recovery of enough food to generate 1,8 billion meals for donation. Upon implementation, SB1383 is supposed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 4,4 million each year by 2030.

This law is to come into effect in 2022, as of January 1.

SB1383 requires urban areas to convert said waste either into compost or biogas.

Yet several cities have already begun falling short of these standards.

Timothy Hall, a senior environmental scientist at CalRecycle, explained why communities failed to reach the 2020 waste reduction target.

“We’re still developing infrastructure to take the additional material,” he said. “It takes a while to get these facilities permitted and built.”

Many cities are also unable to build waste infrastructure as they still have existing contracts with providers. The city of Oceanside in Southern California, for example, is under contractual obligation to Waste Management till 2023 and can’t, therefore, in the meantime, extend its existing capacity.

Lack in funding represents another hurdle. While the state has provided local governments with $140 million in funds, the building of purpose-built waste management infrastructure such as this could take anywhere between $20 to $40 billion, assuming that 100 new facilities are built over the next decade.

Some local communities have been struggling due to pandemic occasioned labour and budget shortfalls. A survey conducted by the League of California Cities, which advocates for cities on legal and political fronts, found that 92% of 194 participating cities needed to raise solid waste and recycling rates to meet SB1383 targets. The non-profit has urged the state legislature to allocate $225 million to relevant cities to enable them to develop programs that meet the new requirements.

From a local perspective, the successful implementation of the new legislation seems largely dependent on individual circumstances.

As such, Colleen Foster, environmental officer of Oceanside, is confident that her city will be able to meet the 2022 deadline as the community has been accustomed to recycling and processing food and yard waste for several years. She concedes, however, that the step can be a ‘huge lift’ to cities without the necessary financial and logistic set-up to enable further recycling.

Other jurisdictions, such as Santa Clara County, set in the heart of Silicon Valley, are optimistic when it comes to meeting the new legislative requirements. Michele Young, a senior county management official of the area, is less sure, however, when it comes to meeting 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.”

So far, it seems apparent that larger cities and counties are better equipped to handle larger organic waste volumes as they’ve historically been less strapped for cash and have had better organic collection systems in place from the get-go.

In response to these struggles, California lawmakers-with support from relevant cities- introduced a separate bill (SB 619), asking for a deadline extension of 1 year before SB 1383 penalties, going as high as $10,000 dollars a year, kick in.

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

Despite the evinced challenges, Californian cities are still supportive of the intentionality of the new legislation.

Nicolas Lapis, director of Advocacy at non-profit Californians Against Waste, said: “One of the most cost-effective ways to reduce greenhouse gases is to get organics out of landfills. California is a huge economy—the sixth biggest in the world, on the scale of France. I’m hoping that we can be a model for other states. Once we do it, I hope it’ll sweep across the country.”

Methane makes up 20% of greenhouse gases worldwide. Over a 20-year frame, methane traps heat in the atmosphere 84% more efficiently than carbon dioxide, thereby significantly contributing to global climate change.