Dumping food waste into a bin
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Food & Drink

Statewide composting mandate: What to know as rollout begins in Santa Cruz County

Where does food waste go now? What counts as food waste, anyway? And will I get fined for putting it in the wrong bin? Lookout spoke to officials around the county to get answers to those questions and more.

Change is coming to your trash bin.

A statewide composting effort went to effect Jan. 1, requiring all Californians to toss uneaten food and other organic material into a special bin rather than the garbage.

How the mandate affects Santa Cruz County residents will be determined by where they live and their service provider. Residents who receive service from the city of Santa Cruz will discard all food waste in a new 6-gallon compost container. GreenWaste Recovery customers in Santa Cruz County and Watsonville residents can discard most food scraps, with some exclusions, in their yard waste bin.

Senate Bill 1383 requires organic waste service be provided to all California residents and businesses. The bill took effect on Jan. 1, and local communities are focused on educating residents on what can and can’t be placed in the bin. Penalties may follow for repeat offenses. It has set lofty goals to reduce statewide food waste disposal by 75% compared to 2014 levels, and to rescue at least 20% of edible food for human consumption by 2025. California is the first state in the nation to pass such regulations on this scale.

Edible food recovery from businesses is still in the planning stages, but food-scrap recycling will begin immediately.

“This is the most aggressive recycling law in 30 years,” said Christina Horvat of the Santa Cruz County Department of Public Works. “We’re all in this together in California.”

Those banana peels, pizza boxes and coffee grounds you throw away? Starting Jan. 1, local government will need to start...

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 30 to 40% of the total food supply is wasted at the retail and consumer levels. The average household throws away at least 25% of the food it purchases — about $370 per person annually, or $1,500 for a family of four. Organic waste and food scraps is a leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions generated from landfills. As they decompose, these materials produce methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gasses. The city of Santa Cruz’s Resource Recovery Facility on Dimeo Lane contains about 25% food waste; the county’s Buena Vista Landfill contains more than 45%.

“That number means that if you buy three bags of groceries, one of them is going in the landfill,” said Horvat. “But not anymore.”

What to expect in Santa Cruz

This spring, the city of Santa Cruz will begin its Curbside Food Waste Collection Program for single and multifamily residences. Single-family residences will receive a 6-gallon pail to collect scraps in their kitchen, with a locking lid to prevent animals from getting in.

The city of Santa Cruz will be distributing new pails for food waste to its residents.
The city of Santa Cruz will be distributing new pails for food waste to its residents.
(Via City of Santa Cruz)

All food scraps, including cooked and raw meat, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, seafood and solid fats may be put into the pails. Only once-edible food scraps should be placed in the pails, while other potentially compostable items like paper should continue to be placed in the recycling bin. Food scraps should not be mixed with yard waste, which is processed into mulch.

While most people hear “compost” and envision a soil product, the city of Santa Cruz has chosen a different path, says Leslie O’Malley, the city’s waste reduction manager.

Collected food scraps are pre-processed using newly installed equipment at the Resource Recovery Facility on Dimeo Lane. The resulting food mash is then sent either to the Wastewater Treatment Plant at Neary Lagoon to be transformed into biogas and used for fuel, or to a facility in Santa Clara where it is turned into animal feed.

Approximately 30 businesses and more than 300 Santa Cruz residents have participated in a pilot composting program over the past three years. Based on the success of this program, which was created with a citywide expansion in mind, O’Malley is optimistic about the forthcoming wider rollout.

“Most people are excited and ready to jump in,” she said. “We have a high number of backyard composters here among our residents. They are excited they will be able to keep their meat, bones and other proteins out of the landfill because it will be accepted in our program.”

The goal is to reduce food waste overall and divert edible food waste from the landfill entirely.

“Keeping it out of the landfill through donation, recycling, anaerobic digestion or composting is very important, but the latter options should be viewed as a last resort,” O’Malley said.

O’Malley thinks Santa Cruz city residents are ready.

“Organics diversion may be a state mandated policy, but many people are already conservation-minded. They are always looking for ways to live more sustainably,” she said. “We hope this new program will encourage even more people to be part of the solution.”

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

What to expect in the San Lorenzo Valley, Scotts Valley, Live Oak, Capitola, Soquel & Aptos

Customers in the GreenWaste service area, which includes the cities of Scotts Valley and Capitola and unincorporated areas of the county, don’t have to wait to start composting — they can begin adding their food scraps into their GreenWaste yard trimmings bin. Only cooked meats, vegetable matter and lawn trimmings may be added; no uncooked meat, oil, cardboard or disposable biodegradable bags.

For two years, penalties will not be issued for noncompliance while GreenWaste focuses on educating customers about how to dispose of their food scraps. Starting in 2024, customers may receive warnings or penalties if they continue to throw away compostable food scraps in the garbage.

If you can eat it or if it grows in your garden or yard, it goes in your yard trimmings bin.

— Michael Brautovich, Keith Day Co.

“It’s a state mandate, and we are all required to comply,” a GreenWaste representative said.

These food scraps, along with yard waste, are processed into soil compost that is then distributed to agriculture, horticulture and landscaping companies throughout the Monterey Bay region.

“Our message is food only! If you can eat it or if it grows in your garden or yard, it goes in your yard trimmings bin,” said Michael Brautovich, who works for Keith Day Co., the subcontractor that processes the organic waste for GreenWaste.

A sign on a garbage truck urges Watsonville residents to request a new compost bin
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

What to expect in Watsonville

Beginning in March, the city will deliver 35-gallon green carts for food scraps and instructions to single-family households that don’t already have yard waste service, as well as a small pail to collect kitchen scraps that can be easily dumped out and cleaned.

Those who already have a yard waste bin may put their food scraps in that bin once the city notifies them. The green organic waste bins will be picked up weekly. Cristy Cassel-Shimabukuro, Watsonville’s environmental projects manager, says the city hopes to finish implementing the program by July 1.

“Our hope is that residents understand the big picture and the huge contribution they are making to keep our air clean,” she said in a news release about the rollout.

As with GreenWaste customers, Watsonville residents may put non-liquid, edible food scraps in the bin, but not “compostable” or biodegradable disposables or paper. Residents not in compliance will receive an “oops tag” when wrong items are found in the cart. The food waste is transferred to the Monterey Regional Waste Management District in Marina, where it is made into compost.

Cassel-Shimabukuro said the city will also be responsible for recovering edible food from businesses and redistributing it to food pantries as part of the mandate, though how to do this is still in the planning stages.

The first phase is for the larger businesses that produce large amounts of edible food waste, such as grocery stores, to begin compliance this year, while smaller businesses like restaurants will phase in through 2024.

Municipalities like Watsonville will also be required to buy back any compost their city produces, Cassel-Shimabukuro said. While officials haven’t reached a conclusion about how that will happen, she sees the benefits.

“I’d love it because we’re closing the loop, but it’ll take us some time to figure out how we’re going to use this material or sell it or give it away,” she told Lookout. “We haven’t really even thought about that yet.”