January was a trashy month in San Diego.  

A new state law went into effect, requiring everyone recycle their food waste meaning meat, bones, veggie scraps and citrus peels go in a green waste bin at your apartment or behind your restaurant. Cities have to grapple with the cost of that new, mostly unfunded state mandate which usually means passing it on to you, the ratepayer.  

And sanitation workers at Republic Services staged a month-long strike that, as Jesse Marx laid out in his column, the company broke with the help of a contract provision that would have taken health care from the workers if they didn’t resume trash collecting. If San Diegans didn’t think about what they threw away before, they certainly had to face it then as trash generated over a major holiday swelled outside local dumpsters.  

Zero waste advocates, meanwhile, contend that San Diego is particularly good at generating trash. One measure of that is how long we let our landfills grow before closing them.  

One of the region’s major landfills, Otay Landfill owned by Republic Services, is scheduled to close on Feb. 25, 2030, according to the County of San Diego’s Department of Environmental Health. That’s the agency empowered by the state to regulate landfills.  

“When people say, ‘when is the landfill going to close?’ I always ask them, ‘how much are you going to throw away?’” Neil Mohr, general manager of San Diego collection for Republic Services, told me during a tour in early December. 

The county has to review all landfill permits once every five years, which generates a new assessment of how much room the landfill has to grow before it hits its permitted capacity limit. According to that, the region has enough space to landfill trash until 2059. The state’s new food waste recycling law is expected to help extend the life of the region’s landfills. The county estimated 39 percent of the trash we throw away as a region is organic food waste and therefore recyclable.  

San Diego region's landfill capacity
Life expectancy of San Diego’s landfills according to a 2017 survey by the County of San Diego.

But landfills can grow past their permit limit. The county report shows Miramar landfill, run by the city of San Diego, will also max-out capacity by 2030. But in 2019 the city announced extended the life of that landfill by allowing waste to pile another 25 feet higher into the air. 

That irks zero waste advocates like Jessica Toth at the Solana Center for Environmental Innovation.  

“I don’t want to see us siting additional capacity (at landfills) because that allows us to keep dumping there,” Toth said. 

The county expects another major landfill, Sycamore Landfill which is also owned by Republic Services, to apply for two more life extensions based on how much waste it received on average. Its estimated closure date is 2054. 

We’ll have a more up-to-date outlook on the region’s waste generation this summer, when the county’s next five-year waste management report is due to the state. 

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