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At the start of this year, a state deadline for cities to collect food waste from homes and apartments came and went. It’s now August and the city of San Diego hasn’t yet equipped residents to start this new recycling stream, which is projected to significantly help California eliminate harmful greenhouse gases.

When the state ordered local governments to provide programs that cut down on food waste in landfills, it left a massive unfunded mandate for local governments to pick up. The California League of Cities, a local government advocacy group, called on the state in May to designate $180 million in the state budget to support cities struggling to unfurl food waste recycling programs and minimize the impact on ratepayers.

Locally, cities raised waste collection rates up to 25 percent to pay for all the equipment, additional workers and staff to manage all the requirements of the organics recycling law called SB 1383.

Yet local governments have known about the deadline for a while. SB 1383, a bill aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions of short-lived climate pollutants, passed in 2016, calling for reducing 75 percent of organic waste in land fills come 2025. If cities aren’t collecting food waste, among a number of other mandates under this law, by 2024, the state will start dolling out penalties. 

City of San Diego is targeting a January 2023 roll-out food of its waste recycling services, albeit a full year after the state’s deadline.

First, a science lesson behind California’s food waste recycling mandate: Organic matter – grass clippings or food waste – make up about 39 percent of what is thrown away and eventually ends up in a landfill. But rotting food waste creates a lot of methane gas, which is leaking from San Diego’s landfills. Methane is known as a short-lived climate pollutant, meaning it hangs in the atmosphere (trapping the sun’s radiation closer to the planet aka global warming) for less time than the biggest climate change culprit: carbon dioxide. But scientists across the globe agree cutting down on methane emissions is absolutely key in the battle to avoid catastrophic climate change effects like extreme heat waves, floods and sea level rise.

Smaller but growing cities like Chula Vista have already rolled out green bins and kitchen caddies and initiated the new waste collection stream. But there’s a big difference between what Chula Vista and San Diego have to do to execute such a massive mandate. 

Chula Vista’s waste collection is covered by one private hauler: Republic Services. That company purchased the additional equipment needed to expand organic waste collection and built a new composting facility atop the Otay Landfill in the city of Chula Vista. 

“Obviously that didn’t come free,” said Manuel Medrano, Chula Vista’s environmental services manager. 

Chula Vista raised rates on homes by almost $3 per month on the smallest trash cart (32 gallons) and an extra dollar on the two other larger cart options.

In San Diego, the city is the waste hauler for most single-family homes and a few apartment properties that get free refuse collection under a 1919 law called the People’s Ordinance. Residences and businesses not covered by the People’s Ordinance contract with private hauling companies, like EDCO.

City Councilman Sean Elo-Rivera is leading an effort to ask voters to repeal the People’s Ordinance with a ballot measure in November. 

But while the People’s Ordinance remains in effect, free trash pickup costs the city anywhere between $43 million and $72 million per year, according to an analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Analyst Office. If that law remains in place, then the city will also have to absorb the costs of the new food waste recycling requirements under SB 1383. And those aren’t trivial. 

San Diego will have to ensure all residents have an organics waste bin as well as food waste kitchen pails and expand weekly yard waste and organics collection services to eligible households.

In order to handle all that new waste, San Diego plans to build a new, $50 million organics recycling facility at the Miramar landfill, to add capacity beyond the smaller composting facility it’s had on site for years.

The city also signed a $51 million contract for 43 waste collection trucks back in August of 2021. And it plans to order another 55 trucks in the future under that same contract. Those were scheduled for delivery to San Diego this summer but should start arriving mid to late winter, according to an email from the city. 

Velocity Truck Centers, the agency representing truck manufacturers on that contract, didn’t respond to questions about the delay.

The city told Voice of San Diego back in February it also needed to hire 43 more sanitation workers to drive those trucks and collect organic waste. The San Diego City Council OK’d a sign-on bonus to attract those drivers into the public sector, the city said in an emailed statement.

“All 43 new drivers will be hired and trained ahead of the January rollout,” the city’s public affairs department wrote in an email. 

There’s a nationwide shortage of truck drivers across both the public and private sector, said Tim Douglass, president of AFSCME Local 127 which represents 1,850 workers in the city of San Diego and Coronado. Cities’ need to comply with the new state organics recycling law gave the union a window to negotiate a 24 percent wage increase for sanitation workers, Douglass said. 

“It does come down to salaries … but Local 127 has never worked so closely with Environmental Services management to get where we need to,” Douglass said. 

The city also said it’s signed a contract for thousands of new green kitchen pails for residents’ countertops and additional organics waste carts for the curb that should arrive in concert with the new trucks. 

City staff said there will be more specific updates to the council Environment Committee in October. 

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  1. How will this work in high rise buildings? Some residents where I live barely manage separating out recycling. If they can’t throw it all down the chute together it may not get done, and no one will know who’s compliant or not. Also, our trash rooms are already very crowded with the big skips.

  2. Yet another virtue signaling train wreck.
    Nothing says Todd Gloria like hiring people not to work — at least they will be fully trained to work for the City.

  3. Distributing green waste trash bins and hiring drivers are only part of the solution. The City of San Diego hasn’t yet built an organics bioreactor to handle the mixed organic waste, and that will likely take years to get operational. How will the landfill be handling the mixed organic waste in the interim?

  4. Virtue signaling is The Prime Directive. The fact that it’s horribly expensive and simply will not work doesn’t matter.

  5. Encinitas has been doing this since the mandate started, and the city even distributed free kitchen waste caddies for every household. It would be nice if our city was recognized when we are on the forefront, considering every time it seems Encinitas is mentioned in VOSD it’s for something bad about housing.

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