Opinion: It’s Not Too Late to Slow Climate Change If We Recycle Organic Waste

Green waste recycling
Organic waste recycling in California. Image from country video

It’s easy to be discouraged by government reports that show how little time we have to reverse the effects of climate change. But in San Diego County, everyone can make a difference by reducing and recycling organic waste: food scraps and yard trim.

When organic matter decomposes in landfills, they create methane, a greenhouse gas that is 80 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. By reducing how much food we waste, donating edible food, and properly recycling the rest, we can make a huge difference in mitigating climate change.

Organic matter can be recycled through composting or anaerobic digestion into nutrient rich soil amendments or into renewable natural gas which both prevent emissions and are beneficial for the environment. Compost applied to 5% of California’s rangelands will absorb nearly 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over three years. And renewable natural gas can replace destructive fossil fuels.

This year, California is making it even easier to recycle your organic waste. Here’s what to expect, plus how you can prepare for these changes and be part of the solution for our climate.

What to Expect

Several San Diego-area cities have already started processing leftovers from homes and businesses. For those who haven’t, your garbage collector will send a notification with instructions when the service starts and provide a green organic trash can for you to use if you don’t already have one.

This is because of Senate Bill 1383, a new California state law that takes effect on January 1, 2022, which requires Californians to separate our food scraps from trash that is tied up in landfills the way we treat recyclables.

At the Solana Center for Environmental Innovation, we work with cities to offer solutions for residents and businesses to learn how to generate less waste and dispose of it properly to comply with SB 1383. This law has the potential to have a major impact on climate change across California, where an estimated 20% of all methane emissions come from landfilled organic matter. And in San Diego, 36% of the waste in our landfills is organic. As environmentalists, we love to see the impact when San Diegans step up and make this simple change.

Making Changes

Change is scary, but it’s easy to start with small changes and build more sustainable habits. Here’s how to get started.

  1. Learn what organic waste is. Organic waste is everything that has ever lived. Starting this summer, garbage collectors will collect leftovers from food preparation, plate scraps, food dirty paper, inedible rotten food, and grass clippings/yard cuttings in those green bins.
  1. See how much organic waste you generate. For one day, set aside all your leftovers—garnishes, skins, unwanted food, leftovers, bones, etc.—as part of the Solana Center Kitchen Caddy Challenge. No need for special containers, just use a large bowl or bucket. I promise you’ll be surprised at how much leftover food goes into your trash can.
  1. Shop and prepare food with care. Before heading to the store, check the fridge and pantry. Keep in mind that “best before” and “used before” dates are guidelines. Rely on your senses to tell you if something is broken or edible. Make a meal plan to use what you already have, and make a shopping list of only what’s missing.
  1. Place organic waste containers in your home. Now is the time to get into the habit of separating your organic waste from the rest of your trash, as you would with any other recyclable item. To keep it simple, we recommend using a kitchen caddy to collect your leftovers.
  1. No green trash can? No problem. If organic recycling isn’t readily available in your area, you may have a nearby community composting program such as the Solana Center’s Food Cycle. Every 25-pound bucket of food waste you take to our Encinitas headquarters keeps 17 gallons of carbon dioxide equivalent in greenhouse gas emissions from damaging our atmosphere and helps us make nutrient-rich compost for healthy soil.

After Earth Day, I challenge you to embrace climate optimism. Systemic change emerges from individual actions, which build a huge impact. Learn about how your community complies with SB 1383, how to reduce the amount of food from your family and workplace waste, and how to properly dispose of organic waste.

You can also learn to compost your organic waste and make nutrient-rich compost for your garden (I guarantee it’s fun and rewarding!). Throughout the year, the Solana Center offers free workshops on composting, waste reduction and green living.

By managing our organic waste properly, together we can reduce the emission of damaging greenhouse gases. Our planet depends on each of us to care.

Jessica Toth is the Executive Director Solana Center for Environmental Innovation, a San Diego environmental nonprofit focused on soil, water, and waste. The Solana Center supported jurisdictions in San Diego County as they launched their organic waste reduction, diversion, collection, and recycling plans under SB 1383.

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