Ask Lookout: It seems like everyone is already composting kitchen waste, but I still don’t have my bin. Where is it?

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

The state of California mandated home composting on Jan. 1, but some Santa Cruz County residents have been scratching their heads about what’s up. Lookout found that your ability to follow the law varies with where you live in the county — but that the impact of the new law will be massive, 50 to 60 tons of food waste weekly just from Santa Cruz city residents. What’s your question? Ask Lookout at news@lookoutlocal.com, and put “Ask LO” in the subject line.

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It sounds like you live in Santa Cruz. I feel your pain — as a Westsider, I’ve been waiting for my can as well. The county’s largest city is lagging behind the rest of Santa Cruz County in implementing organic waste service per the statewide composting mandate that went into effect Jan. 1. That has forced any Santa Cruz residents not already composting in their backyard or using a local service like Hard Core Compost to add leftover food scraps to their garbage like it’s 2021.

But that’s all about to change — finally! New six-gallon food waste bins will roll out across the city starting Aug. 1, Leslie O’Malley, Santa Cruz’s waste reduction manager, told Lookout.

The bins will be distributed by route and collection date, so residents with Monday trash collection will receive theirs first, followed by residents with Tuesday service and so on. The city hopes to distribute all of the bins in one week, although O’Malley says it could take an extra day or two.

“It’s going to be an all-hands-on-deck to do it, when you think of the logistics of hand delivering the cans,” O’Malley said. “Thankfully, we have staff that have done rollouts in the past. One old-timer remembers when we rolled out yard waste bins almost 20 years ago.”

The City of Santa Cruz will begin distributing six-gallon compost containers to residents Aug. 1.
(Via Facebook)

The plan was to distribute the new compost bins by the end of May, but — you guessed it — supply chain issues caused a delay. The city only recently received the bins — more than six weeks after officials thought they would arrive.

The compost bin is part of bundled service, and residents currently cannot opt out. O’Malley encourages everyone to at least give it a try even if they already compost. She points out that the city collects all food scraps — unlike Watsonville and GreenWaste Recovery — even items that aren’t appropriate for backyard compost like raw meat, dairy, citrus and small amounts of oil.

However, O’Malley emphasizes that only food waste should be discarded in the bins. “No bags. Nothing but food,” she said. “What really gets us into trouble is containers. Some restaurants just chuck the whole five-gallon bucket of pasta sauce, which wreaks havoc on the processing system.”

The city expects a huge influx of organic waste — as much as 50 to 60 tons per week, O’Malley estimates — which will be processed into animal feed or used as fuel for its water treatment plant. But ideally there shouldn’t be any waste at all. “The truth is that there’s so much overpurchasing in the commercial and private sectors and mislabeling of dates, so food gets thrown out too early,” O’Malley said. “The conversation currently focuses on the end of life when we should be discussing why food gets wasted in the first place.”

Outside of Santa Cruz, the rest of the county has already been composting for several months. Watsonville rolled out new combination yard waste and food waste bins to all commercial spaces and single-family residences in April, and the new system has reportedly been embraced. Residents are filling their bins and doing it correctly — no small hurdle and one that the city is proud of, says Tami Stolzenthaler, Watsonville’s senior environmental project analyst. More than 150 multifamily complexes will see service added in the next few months, and each household will receive a one-gallon kitchen pail for free.

GreenWaste serves customers in Scotts Valley, Capitola and the county’s unincorporated areas. It told its customers that they could begin adding food scraps to their existing yard scraps bin at the beginning of the year. Here’s a tip: If you want a one-gallon countertop pail to collect scraps in your kitchen, GreenWaste will give you one for free — but you have to ask.

But wait — what exactly can you put in your bin? It depends on your provider; I created a handy FAQ organized by service area if you need a refresher, and food waste guides for Santa Cruz, GreenWaste Recovery and Watsonville are below.

The city of Santa Cruz food waste guide.
The City of Santa Cruz food waste guide.
(Via City of Santa Cruz)
greenwaste food chart
GreenWaste Recovery’s food waste guide.
(Via GreenWaste Recovery)
Watsonville's food waste guide
Watsonville’s food waste guide.
(Via City of Watsonville)