DAVIS (AP) – Banana peels, chicken bones and scraps of vegetables have no place in California trash cans as part of the nation’s largest mandatory food waste recycling program due to come into effect in January.
The goal of the effort is to keep landfills in the most populous US state free of food waste, which will damage the atmosphere as it decays. When food scraps and other organic materials break down, they release methane, a greenhouse gas that is stronger and more harmful in the short term than carbon emissions from fossil fuels.
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To avoid these emissions, California plans to begin converting residents’ food waste into compost or energy, making it the second US state to do so after Vermont launched a similar program last year.
Most people in California will be forced to throw excess food in the green waste bins instead of in the trash. The municipalities will then compost the food waste or use it to produce biogas, an energy source similar to natural gas.
“This is the biggest change in waste since recycling began in the 1980s,” said Rachel Wagoner, director of the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery.
She added that it is “the easiest and fastest thing any individual can do to influence climate change”.
The California push reflects the growing recognition of the role food waste plays in pollution in the United States, where up to 40% of food is wasted, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
A handful of states and nations, including France, have passed laws requiring grocery stores and other large businesses to recycle excess food or donate it to charities, but the California program targets households and businesses.
The state passed a law in 2016 aimed at reducing methane emissions by significantly reducing the amount of food thrown away. Organic materials like food and garden waste make up half of all California landfills and a fifth of the state’s methane emissions, according to CalRecycle.
As of January, all cities and counties that offer garbage services are said to have introduced food recycling programs and grocery stores will have to donate edible food that would otherwise be thrown on blackboards or similar organizations.
“There’s no need to put this material in a landfill, it’s just cheap and easy,” said Ned Spang, director of the Food Loss and Waste Collaborative at the University of California, Davis.
Vermont, home to 625,000 people compared to nearly 40 million in California, is the only other state that bans residents from throwing their food waste in the trash. According to a law that came into force in July 2020, residents can compost the garbage in their yards, choose to pick it up at the roadside or drop it off at garbage stations. Cities like Seattle and San Francisco have similar programs.
California law requires the state to reduce organic landfill waste by 75% compared to 2014, or from around 23 million tons to 5.7 million tons by 2025.
Most local governments allow homeowners and apartment residents to dispose of excess groceries in garden trash cans, with some placing containers on the countertop to hold the trash for a few days before taking it outside. Some areas may have exemptions for parts of the law, such as rural areas where bears rummage in trash cans.
The food waste is composted or converted into energy through anaerobic digestion, a process that creates biogas that, like natural gas, can be used for heating and electricity.
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But California composting facilities have a strict licensing process to dispose of food waste alongside traditional green waste like leaves, and only a fifth of the state’s facilities currently accept food waste.
The state has also set a goal of diverting 20% of the food that would otherwise end up in landfills by 2025 in order to feed people in need. Supermarkets must start donating their excess groceries in January, and hotels, restaurants, hospitals, schools and large venues will do so from 2024.
The donation portion of California’s law will contribute to a federal goal to cut food waste in half by 2030.
Davis is one of the California cities that already has a mandatory food recycling program. Joy Klineberg, a mother of three children, throws coffee grounds, fruit peels and cooking waste into a metal container with the label “Compost” on her worktop. When preparing dinner, she empties excess food from the cutting board into the rubbish bin.
Every few days she throws the contents into her green waste bin outside, which is picked up and sent to a facility in the district. Unpleasant smells on the countertop were not a problem, she said.
“All you change is where you throw things, it’s just another trash can,” she said. “It’s really easy and it’s amazing how much less rubbish you have.”
Implementing similar programs in larger cities is more difficult.
The two most populous in the state – Los Angeles and San Diego, which together make up about one in eight Californians – are among the cities whose programs won’t be available to all households next month.
That’s because it takes time to buy the necessary equipment, such as green waste bins for households that don’t already have one for garden waste, and facilities to dispose of the material. Garbage collection fees will rise in many places.
Like Davis, CalRecycle wants to focus more on education and less on punishment. Governments can avoid penalties by reporting to the state themselves by March if they haven’t set up programs and outlining plans to launch them. Cities that refuse to do so could be fined up to $ 10,000 per day.
Ken Prue, assistant director of San Diego’s environmental division, said the city invested nearly $ 9 million in this year’s budget to buy more trash cans, kitchen containers, and trucks to carry the extra trash.
Prue hopes that after the program starts next summer, San Diego residents will quickly realize the importance of recycling food waste.
“Hopefully before you know it it becomes second nature,” he said.
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