Mandatory Household Food Waste Recycling Program Starts in California in January

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

California will soon launch the largest household food waste recycling program in the United States, following the enactment of similar initiatives in the state of Vermont and the cities of Seattle and San Francisco.

Food waste is a big contributor to global warming and reducing the former would mitigate the latter. Waste Dive reports:

Between 73 and 152 million metric tons of food gets wasted each year in the U.S., or over over a third of the country’s food supply, according to a recent report from the U.S. [Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)]. The most commonly wasted foods are fruits and vegetables, followed by dairy and eggs. Over half of all waste occurs at households and restaurants. The food processing sector generates 34 million metric tons of waste per year, the agency said.

In 2015,  the EPA set a goal of halving U.S. food waste by 2030 (see United States 2030 Food Loss and Waste Reduction Goal). Like similar such promises during that pre-Trump period, there was little progress towards this goal beyond the virtue signalling phase, before Trump became president and repudiated even that inadequate lip service. Instead, during the last decade, food loss and waste have actually increased by 12% to 14%, according to EPA figures cited by Waste Dive.

Nonetheless, the  benefits that would follow getting serious about the goal of halving food waste are substantial, according to Waste Dive:

[Reducing food waste by half in the U.S.] would save 3.2 trillion gallons of blue water, 640 million pounds of fertilizer, 262 billion kilowatt hours of energy, 92 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent and over 75 million acres of agricultural land. Reducing waste of meats, cereals and fresh fruits and vegetables would have the biggest environmental impact, according to the agency.

California Plan

The Guardian reported on the details of California’s soon-to-be compulsory food waste recycling plan in California tackles food waste with largest recycling program in US:

Starting in January, all cities and counties that provide trash services are supposed to have food recycling programs in place and grocery stores must donate edible food that otherwise would be thrown away to food banks or similar organizations.

“There’s just no reason to stick this material in a landfill, it just happens to be cheap and easy to do so,” said Ned Spang, faculty lead for the Food Loss and Waste Collaborative at the University of California, Davis.

California’s cities and municipalities will collect the waste in special containers, and it will then be converted into compost or biogas. Exemptions will be made for heavily rural areas. Collection efforts will borrow from existing programs. Per the Guardian:

Davis, California, already has a mandatory food recycling program. Joy Klineberg puts coffee grounds, fruit rinds and cooking scraps into a metal bin labeled “compost” on her countertop. When preparing dinners, she empties excess food from the cutting board into the bin.

Every few days, she dumps the contents into her green waste bin outside, which is picked up and sent to a county facility. Unpleasant countertop bin smells haven’t been a problem, she said.

“All you’re changing is where you’re throwing things, it’s just another bin,” she said. “It’s really easy, and it’s amazing how much less trash you have.”

I’ve long lambasted those who rely more or less solely on the recycling fairy to solve the plastics crisis. Many don’t appreciate that by advocating concentrating on recycling solutions alone, they’re endorsing the industry agenda of shifting responsibility for cleaning up the plastics mess from plastics pushers who profit from selling plastics to ordinary people.  And that’s even before considering that very low recycling rates mean that the impact of recycling plastic on reducing what gets thrown into landfills is miniscule.

By contrast, food recycling could could mitigateclimate change, if conscientiously implemented. According to the Guardian:

“This is the biggest change to trash since recycling started in the 1980s,” said Rachel Wagoner, the director of the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery.


Recycling food waste “is the single easiest and fastest thing that every single person can do to affect climate change”, Wagoner said.

The Guardian notes that California’s program targets households and businesses, in contrast to that of France, which requires grocery stores and other large businesses to recycle food waste or donate food to charities. The pandemic has weakened food security for many in the U.S. was well as  spurred a huge increase in reliance on food banks. to meet the food needs of many.  California’s new plan also includes a goal of feeding the hungry:

The state also set a 2025 goal of diverting 20% of food that would otherwise go to landfills to feed people in need. Supermarkets must start donating their excess food in January and hotels, restaurants, hospitals, schools and large event venues will start doing so in 2024. The donation part of the law will contribute toward a federal goal of cutting food waste in half by 2030.

Corporate Efforts

The Waste Dive article discussed some ongoing corporate efforts to reduce food waste, one of which caught my eye as it would help alleviate the plastics crisis:

Produce accounts for between 34% and 40% of U.S. food waste, according to data from ReFED and the Food and Agriculture Organization cited in the EPA report.Produce giant Dole has announced its commitment to zero fruit loss by 2025. One way it is tackling the issue involves repurposing pineapple leaves to make a biodegradable mesh material called Piñatex, used in clothes by brands like Nike and H&M. It also launched a consumer campaign in New York City last September which involved displaying food waste facts on trash cans throughout the city.

During the course  of my textile research, I’ve attempted to track down producers who continue to make traditional textiles from natural fibers other than the familiar ones, e.g., cotton, silk, wool, and linen. Some of these efforts have proved to be wild goose chases, in particular one quest during a trip to Nagaland about a decade ago, when I searched in vain for people who made textiles out of nettles.  IRRC,  pineapple fiber was used in the Phillippines to create luxurious lace – although I’ve never seen any examples myself. This Dole effort looks interesting, as it would take waste generated before pineapple even gets to consumers and transform it into something useful. Thus the resources we devote to producing pineapples could yield additional outputs, with Piñatex fashioned from waste that was previously discarded.

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  1. Fred

    I already compost, so am I going to have to pay extra to WM for a service I won’t use? I would rather they collect my yard waste, instead of me burning it or hauling it to a compost site.

    1. rjs

      if they’re sending around diesel powered trucks to pick up the old banana peels they want you to store in state supplied plastic bins, they’ve completely lost the plot…

    2. Wukchumni

      Since Covid hit, yard waste in the green bin gets picked up along with regular trash in the brown bin and it all goes to the same place…

      Making politically correct rules means nothing, if there isn’t any follow through.

    3. Jasbo

      One of California’s biggest problems is that TPTB here truly believe they can simply mandate utopia. Unintended consequences be damned (or, more typically, ignored). Regulatory accretion gradually destroying the state, while also biasing all things economic toward Big and Centralized rather than Small and Local.

      I’ve composted for years, but I very much share the skepticism expressed in all three comments above.

  2. Mantid

    In our Pac NW city, we’ve had yard waste bins for quite a few years. It’s not mandatory, just an option. Like you Fred, we compost because of gardening, feeding the food scraps to chickens and goats, etc. One nice thing about the yard/food waste bins is that about once every 3 months, we half fill ours with noxious weeds, thistles etc. The large, city/county compost piles get hot enough to kill the seeds. Apartment dwellers have few options, but having some type of compost pile, in even a small yard, is gold for your plants – both edible and ornamental. Tip for the day: blueberry plants love coffee grounds.

    Also, “pay extra”? It should be free. Our city’s compost is …. well, composted and re sold as a finished garden amendment at $25.00 per cubic yard. It’s a money maker for the “trash” service. Pile it up for almost free, wait a month or two, then sell it back to gardeners and landscapers.

  3. Nikkikat

    I recently moved out of California. This is another smoke and mirrors action brought to you by the Sacramento Dems. Most people are not going to bother with this recycling of food remnants. The food waste instructions were to put this waste into a bag and place it on top of the trash receptacle. The average person buys their food already processed. Peelings are taken off of vegetables and fruit before people buy them. There is mostly plastic, plastic plastic in the trash. This is another bait and switch routine. No one is going to do it. Most people have plastic waste not food waste. There is composting of green waste in most cities there. Green waste from lawn mowing and blowing. We could purchase this compost for the lawn and garden, which we did twice a year. We were the only people in our nigh neighborhood that used it on our lawn and gardens. Most people had these lawn mowing services and they used pesticides and artificial fertilizers on their grass. All of this washed in to the sewers and out to the ocean. None of this horrific pollution along with the massive plastic haul is being addressed.There are not nor has there ever been real recycling. This won’t be either. I will also add that this mandate from Sacramento was also heavily lobbied by the states trash haulers. Our monthly trash service went up $40.00 dollars a month. No thought what so ever to how people on fixed incomes would manage these increases, along with water, Gas and electric increases which have been huge over the last 10 years.
    The real issue is plastic. And just like Obama care being an end run around national health care to prevent it. This is for the corporate plastic producers and the petroleum companies. Anyone in California can tell you they own the place. Lastly, nothing and I mean nothing these politicians do is for the greater good. It is money in their pocket for their crooked campaigns. Money in the pocket of a hand full of wealthy patrons. Always look a little deeper.

    1. Fluffy

      Identify the problem and fight it.

      We throw bones and meat scraps out into the yard. Gone the next morning. All compost goes into a countertop compost bin then to a pile of leaves, often taken from the neighbor’s green can–they don’t spray anything–our own leaves and a year later, it evolves into a nice pile of compost to spread around vegetables and fruit trees.

      Don’t have a countertop compost holder? Half gallon milk container, top pried open, can be closed and scrunched shut to avoid odors.

      Plastic: Boycott all products in plastics other than #1 or #2, the only types actively recycled with a recycling market. Let the grocer know. If California were serious, they’d phase in a law like this that would prohibit sales of non recyclable plastic packaging. Like the auto market, this would affect nationwide producers, unwilling to lose that market.

    2. Jeff

      Agreed. California is a basket case and this is just another example. Been here for 21 years and we’ve ALWAYS been able to throw food scraps in the green bin with yard clippings.

      Follow the money. Who stands to gain? Waste Management? They’re a big player in California trash.

  4. Andrew

    I live in an unincorporated part in a California suburb and get trash service from a private company. For years I have had a big “green can” for yard clippings and so forth. Starting in October we were told to begin putting food waste into the green can as well. But ah, you cannot put the food waste in a plastic bag and chuck it in the green can! No, you need to dump the loose food waste into the green can amongst the other yard clippings (which I am sure the local raccoon population will enjoy) or if you wish, you can “wrap” the waste in “non-wax” paper, which is a normal thing people like to do. They even explicitly say that you CANNOT use “biodegradable” plastic bags of the sort used for dog droppings.

    Suffice to say I can’t believe anyone is actually going to abide by these mishmash of rules and I don’t know what they are hoping to accomplish.

    1. Maritimer

      “…I don’t know what they are hoping to accomplish.”
      They are going to make lots and lots of money. See Giants Of Garbage 1993 for example:

      These guys are entrenched in my jurisdiction. They drive huge diesel $200,000 trucks around the backroads picking up lemon peels, coffee grounds, tea bags, etc. No cost/benefit analysis at all since it is all on the never-bottomedout taxpayer dime. Oh, and all the constant updating, this goes there, that in this, etc. Black bags, blue bags, green bins, endless kaching.

      Also see the British trying to go to 7 bins:

      And does anyone see the Vaccine model here? Taxpayer dime, endless updates, kachingaling. One mandate leads to another ad infinitum.

    2. Nikkikat

      Agree with you Andrew, as I said above no one is going to follow these ridiculous rules. Your raccoon comment was on target as well as the mess you end up with in your green receptacle. Food, coffee grounds smeared all over the can. Also note my trash company will not clean the cans or exchange them, ever. I still believe there was hefty pay back to some politicians. Trash companies making a fortune off of us. My trash company is also private.
      All of this so they can avoid banning plastic, which is the real problem.

  5. Susan the other

    This is great news. Long since time. I’m rethinking something I just said about the conflict between precision and industrialization – that the two are diametrically opposed in ecological terms. But this says, ‘wait a second.’ Precision is part of making industry ecological. So that’s cool. Really all precision is is a finer level of organization that fits into a greater system. No?

  6. bassmule

    Restaurants, schools, institutional food service, yes. Recycling of fruits, vegetables, meats, etc. from the home, that have been unpacked and partially used? First food poisoning suit, 10-9-8-7….

  7. ambrit

    We are fortunate to have a “back yard” in one corner of which is our compost pile. It has developed into a feeding site for raccoons, birds, insects, and snakes. (I have personally seen all these at the site, feeding.) Luckily, no feral hogs. Our dead leaf pile is a separate entity. Grass cuttings from neighbor’s lawns go into the compost pile. Neighbors will agree to do the ‘funniest’ things. One even brings the clippings over himself.
    Our half horse town has a City Waste Department that uses three bins. A green one for “regular” garbage, a brown one for yard waste, and a blue one for recyclables. There is some dispute over how the recyclables are handled. Since the Great China Refusal to take in American recyclable waste, rumours abound about the various deceptions that are supposed to be enacted to outright fake recycling at the municipal level. I would not be surprised to learn that ‘Deception’ is the unofficial policy at the private waste handling companies. Then, I am a cynic, so take me with more than a pinch of Pink Himalayan Ancestral Salt.
    Recycle safely!

  8. AlexS

    I am in LA.
    I think that this is targeting large corporations. In my office, it took years to even get blue bins for recyclables.
    We had green bins for compostable materials since at least 2003. Wife has been voluntering for Food Forward for years – they go around and collect unsellable (read mostly misshapen) food from stores and donate it to food banks.

  9. Leftist Mole

    I’m on the CA central coast and my relatives are in the Bay Area. This kind of recycling is already in place, so I don’t know why others are kvetching. We throw our food waste in the green waste bin, which is too big and heavy for the local wildlife, usually the night before pick up. Yes it can make the green waste bin kind of nasty. Yes the sanitation services will give you a new one or a different size if you ask. My relatives can even throw in paper towels and napkins.

  10. Rockyg

    OK. So I live in San Jose and had not heard of the program in the article. I went searching the SJ sites for garbage and recycling and found no reference to it. San Jose does not currently even let you put fallen fruit (or harvested, but bad fruit for that matter) into the green waste bins, much less food waste. And the SJ site has no reference to any changes.

    I’m not convinced the Guardian article has the specifics correct, or is leaving out some important implementation timeline details.

    I compost all vegetable waste. I found the easiest way was to get a little device that suction cups into a corner of my sink and has two plastic arms that hold a plastic bag. One arm swings out to open the bag and swings closed after compost is deposited in the bag. It doesn’t smell, it doesn’t require cleaning (as a compost can would) and once the bag (usually a produce bag repurposed from produce purchases) is emptied into the compost bin, it goes in the garbage.

    My garbage is comprised almost exclusively of plastic packaging and food soiled paper. Finding a solution to packaging would be the biggest win from my perspective. If I could compost what little meat/dairy product that goes bad, it would be nice, but it is minor in comparison to the packaging or the vegetable composting I am already doing.

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