New food waste bins in Watsonville
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
City Life

Composting questions answered: What you need to know about the new statewide mandate

Lookout reached out to leaders at the city of Santa Cruz, Watsonville and GreenWaste Recovery, which services the rest of Santa Cruz County, with logistical questions about the local rollout, and the answers vary widely based on location and service provider.

A new statewide mandate requires Californians to start composting — but what does that mean?

After we published a look at the rollout of the composting law in Santa Cruz County, Lookout readers had logistical questions about how things will work on the ground level. Will everyone receive a kitchen pail? Can biodegradable bags be composted? Should residents be concerned about odors and animals?

Lookout reached out to leaders at the city of Santa Cruz, Watsonville and GreenWaste Recovery, which services the rest of Santa Cruz County, to find out, and the answers vary widely based on location and service provider.

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What to know in Santa Cruz


How will the composting mandate affect those who are already composting at home?

If you already compost in your backyard, you can continue to do so. In fact, Leslie O’Malley, Santa Cruz’s waste reduction manager, encourages backyard composting. She points out that there are certain types of organic waste that aren’t suitable for backyard compost that can be diverted into the curbside collection program. While backyard composters shouldn’t add cooked or uncooked proteins, citrus, eggs, cheese and dairy products to their compost, all of these can be collected by the city.

However, the city of Santa Cruz accepts only food waste. It cannot accept compostable non-food products such as untreated paper, coffee filters, tea bags or paper towels, so add these to your backyard compost heap.

What about oils and liquids?

Oils can be collected in the curbside program as long as they are solid and in small amounts. O’Malley suggests mixing small amounts of leftover oil in with your food scraps, within reason: “If somebody fried a turkey, we can’t manage that.”

Liquids can also be added, again, within reason. If some leftover soup goes bad, O’Malley recommends straining the soup first if possible and discarding the majority of the liquid in the sink before adding the solids to the pail: “It already gets messy enough.”

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Will people who live in multifamily residences receive pails?

It’s unclear. So far, the city has received approval to purchase 17,000 pails for single-family residential customers, and it might offer a smaller countertop pail for apartment dwellers. The city is working to identify and communicate with property managers and landlords to work out the details of how the composting mandate will work for shared residences. Residents can expect to see more information later in the year.

In the meantime, if you live in multifamily units and are eager to start sustainably discarding your food waste, O’Malley recommends enrolling in the food scrap drop-off program.

Will there be penalties for noncompliance?

There currently aren’t penalties for throwing food scraps in the garbage. The city recognizes that there will be a learning curve. However, penalties have been in place and will remain for contaminating recycling or yard waste bins with food scraps.

More information at cityofsantcruz.com/foodwaste.

What to know about GreenWaste

Will GreenWaste customers receive a kitchen pail for their food scraps?

GreenWaste Recovery will issue small countertop kitchen pails to customers who request them.
GreenWaste Recovery will issue small countertop kitchen pails to customers who request them.

Kitchen pails with lids are available to all GreenWaste customers who want them for no extra charge, but you must request it through customer service. However, Emily Hanson, chief strategy officer at GreenWaste Recovery, said the company is experiencing supply chain issues and is putting customers on a waitlist. Customers who request a pail will be given one once they arrive.

What can’t go in the yard waste bin?

Only once-edible food scraps and yard waste can go in the bin. That means no uncooked meat, paper plates or disposable plates, cups, cutlery or bags that claim to be compostable or biodegradable. Anything that isn’t food interferes with the composting process.

Hanson clarifies that incidentals are OK. For example, a coffee filter is fine, but a pizza box is not. Bags certified as compostable by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) are technically accepted, but are discouraged, as they are a contaminant that needs to be removed by hand.

“They are only considered ‘accepted’ or ‘acceptable’ because we want to increase participation,” Hanson said, “and we don’t want customers discouraged from participating due to a ‘compostable’ bag prohibition.”

More information about what is and isn’t acceptable can be found at whatgoeswhere.info.

What about oils and liquids?

No oils or liquids will be accepted.

What if I’m already composting my food waste in my backyard? Will I be penalized for noncompliance?

GreenWaste Recovery advocates composting at home and will not obligate its customers to participate in the organic waste recovery program. The organics program the company is offering converts its existing yard trimmings container to allow for food scraps to be in the same container, says Hanson. “We’re not the food waste police,” she said. “We’re not going to require that people put their food scraps into the green container, so there’s no need for an exemption.”

However, every GreenWaste customer is required have a yard waste bin. GreenWaste will identify customers who do not already have a bin and give them one, the cost of which is already included in their service.

How will this apply to multifamily residences?

It will pretty much be the same. If residents already receive individual cart service but have opted out of a green cart, they will be provided with one they can use for food waste. If a property manager or landlord provides collective service for the residents, whoever manages the complex will need to subscribe for yard waste service. GreenWaste will reach out over the next year for education and technical assistance.

How will you prevent animal disturbances and odors in the yard waste bin if it doesn’t have a lock?

There shouldn’t be a higher level of concern over odors and “vector attractants” than there is already. Hanson points out that you have always been able to put orchard apples and pumpkins in the yard waste bin, with few issues. If under certain circumstances this proves to be an issue, residents could consider using a compostable bag, but Hanson reiterated that the bags are not compostable and GreenWaste must remove them by hand.

More information at greenwaste.com.

Putting food scraps into a bin
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

What to know in Watsonville

Are there different recommendations for animal issues and odor in Watsonville?

The new 35-gallon carts for yard waste and food scraps are the same size as the smallest garbage carts that also don’t have locks, and the city hasn’t had issues with animal disturbances, says Cristy Cassel, Watsonville’s environmental projects manager. Based on the results of its organics pilot program, the city doesn’t anticipate it being an issue.

To discourage odors, always leave out liquids and raw meat. Cassel also recommends placing a layer of yard trimmings such as dry leaves, pine needles and wood shavings at the bottom of the cart and layering them in with food scraps. Containers should be rinsed regularly, and sprinkling baking soda can help neutralize odors.

Why did the city choose a 35-gallon container?

The decision was based on the fact that residents can combine food scraps and yard waste, which Cassel sees as a benefit. Watsonville families waste 20 pounds of food waste each week, based on the waste characterization from the pilot program. “We chose the smallest but sufficient cart size that could accommodate this volume,” Cassel said, “while also allowing the benefit of some extra capacity for yard waste, when needed.” This size cart will also enable automated truck collection rather than manual disposal.

How will the program work for multifamily residences?

Depending on the infrastructure, customers will either have their own green organics carts or share dumpsters for recycling, garbage and organics. All carts and dumpsters will be serviced weekly.

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Will Watsonville residents receive kitchen pails?

Residents in multifamily residences may receive a free kitchen pail depending on availability. Single-family residences will not receive pails. These residents are encouraged to use any bowl, bucket or container, preferably with a lid, that can be placed on or under the countertop to collect food scraps in their kitchen.

Will there be penalties for noncompliance?

No. Penalties aren’t mandated by the state until 2024. For now, two auditors will conduct weekly inspections to avoid contamination and issue “oops tags” when they find wrong items in the cart.

More information at cityofwatsonville.org/foodscrapcollection.