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Watch what you waste: Composting is now the law

Watch what you waste: Composting is now the law

 

By Christian Kallen

Green bin or gray? Compost or trash? Can this be recycled? Those questions are part of the internal dialog of almost any householder in Sonoma County, but with the Jan. 1 implementation of SB 1383’s organic waste collection requirements, they should become top-of-mind. It’s the law.

Most homeowners are familiar with the three-bin system used by Recology and other “garbage collectors:” green for organic waste, blue for recyclables, and gray for everything headed to the landfill. What SB 1383 does is require that all residents and businesses compost, making properly separating your garbage all the more crucial.

SB 1383 was passed in 2016 to establish the state’s Short-Lived Climate Pollutant Reduction Strategy (meaning short-lived pollutants, not a short-lived strategy). It requires every jurisdiction, city or county, to provide organic waste collection services to all its residents and businesses, with possible penalties for noncompliance implemented in 2024.

Ultimately the goal is to take steps to reduce methane, one of the most hazardous greenhouse gasses. Reducing methane production is a key environmental goal, and SB 1383 codified a number of measures needed to reduce landfilled organic waste by 75% by 2025. That’s not all: As well as requiring reduction of organic materials going into landfills, the bill requires 20 percent of currently disposed edible food (as from restaurants) to be recovered for food support services by 2025.

The western states’ waste management company known locally as Recology Sonoma Marin is actively embracing implementation of SB 1383. The company has a robust education program in place, including a web-based “what-goes-where” tool. Recology also recently sent mailers to its customers, even as local “waste zero specialists” are making the rounds of public meetings, as Cristina Yarnal did on Feb. 7 at the Glen Ellen Forum.

Yarnal is the “waste zero specialist” whose area of focus is Kenwood, Glen Ellen, and the Boyes Hot Springs/ El Verano area. Recology is currently the largest local company, serving much of Marin and Sonoma County, though all regional garbage collection companies are focused on meeting the collection goal, including Sonoma Garbage Collectors for the city of Sonoma and surrounding communities, and Waste Management, which formerly served much of the area and still provides collection services elsewhere in the state.

Yarnal’s job is to communicate Recology’s mission and methods to the public, and she summarized the requirements of SB 1383 for everyone — residents and businesses, schools, and government offices — to separate their garbage, and why it’s important. Part of her job involves speaking to local groups like the Glen Ellen Forum, but part of it is also training business staff, workers, and residents; providing signage and resources; and making sure recycling containers are readily available. She can be reached at [email protected] or (800) 243-0291.

Why the color-coded bins?

Most homeowners are familiar with the three-bin system used by Recology and other companies, which must be hauled out to the curb once a week. But what’s so important about keeping items separate?

“The problem with organic waste going to the landfill is it’s going to produce methane,” said Yarnal. Methane is a colorless, odorless, and highly flammable gas, composed of one carbon and four hydrogen atoms (CH4). It is a “climate super pollutant,” over 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2), affecting climate change by contributing to increased warming, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Methane is a result of the bacterial decomposition of organic waste in tightly packed landfills, where the process is anaerobic, without oxygen. By diverting organic waste that might otherwise wind up in landfills, such as garden and food scraps, wood, paper, and cardboard, into compost-producing facilities, not only is methane production reduced, but using the compost as a soil amendment can sequester carbon from the atmosphere and help combat climate change through another method. Recology doesn’t make the compost, however: From the local landfill in Sonoma, they truck it to Novato’s Waste Management (WM) EarthCare facility, where the magic happens.

“Once Recology Sonoma Marin hauls the organic material to a local compost facility, it goes through a grinder, is put into long rows, is then watered and aerated, ultimately reaching high temperatures that break down material like bones and raw meat,” a process that takes about 60–90 days, explained Yarnal. While formerly home gardeners were able to pick up composted waste from the refuse station, that’s no longer the case, though Zero Waste Sonoma, the county’s joint powers authority overseeing waste management, is considering compost giveaway events in the future.

What’s compostable — and what’s not

But what goes in the green bin, anyway? It’s not just leafy green vegetables, coffee grounds, and eggshells, after all, but also soiled paper and cardboard — used napkins and pizza boxes come readily to mind — as well as spoiled food and leftovers including cooked meat, bones, and seafood. Even fats and oils in small quantities now go in the green waste, not household garbage.

The inclusion of meat waste might seem surprising, but that’s part of the impact of SB 1383. It’s estimated that about half the materials in landfills are methane producing organics, so efforts to keep them out will have a large impact on the production of methane. This means the “green bins” widely available in waste collection systems must be more fully utilized and properly handled by waste management companies.

Gardeners are encouraged to add smaller tree trimmings and other plant debris, including weeds and lawn cuttings. Pet owners can add fur and feathers, and home carpenters can add sawdust and small pieces of untreated, unpainted wood. Dog and cat droppings are a no-no, but you can collect pellets from vegetarian pets like bunnies and add them to your green bin.

Given that, it becomes more clear what does not go in the green bin and heads either for dedicated recycling facilities or landfills: metal including aluminum foil or trays, clothing, diapers, plastic bags, wrappers, and film wrap. Unfortunately wine corks go to landfill, not compost, and even plastic bags marked “compostable” do not make the cut — they’re garbage. Metal including aluminum foil trays can be put in the blue recycle bin.

A useful webpage is recology.com/RSMWhatBin/. This outlines what goes to compost, what goes to landfill, what can be recycled, and even those items for which no recycling, composting, or landfill options are practical, such as furniture, electronics, hazardous waste like chemicals and pesticides, and Styrofoam.

It’s the residents’ (or businesses’) responsibility to appropriately fill their bins and have them available for pickup weekly. It’s always the same day of the week, usually Monday through Friday. There is no pickup on federal holidays (New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas), and the pickup schedule is bumped by one day for the rest of the week.

What lies ahead

Did somebody say enforcement? Yarnal said randomized audits will begin this year (2022), with the intention of evaluating how residents and businesses are doing with the compost program, and this year and next will be focused on education. But after that?

“Enforcement with potential penalties will take place in 2024 by county staff in coordination with Zero Waste Sonoma,” said Yarnal. “However, penalties will be issued as a last resort.” Under the terms of SB 1383, it’s the “regulated entity” — the waste collection and management service, like Recology — that would be subject to penalties for noncompliance, which is why the company keeps reminding you to separate your garbage. Trash generators, residents and business may also be subject to penalties.

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