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Come January, San Diego is supposed to start collecting food waste from residents to make good on a state mandate it’s already blown past. But unlike all the other cities in the state, San Diego can’t charge everyone who lives here the cost of doing so.
That could change, though, if city voters in November approve Measure B, which would alter the century-old People’s Ordinance preventing San Diego from charging all single-family homeowners for any kind of waste pick up.
Passage of Measure B won’t mean the city automatically starts charging for waste collection to all the homes who’ve been exempt from such fees, but it would give the City Council power to do so in the future. The city would also first have to study how much to charge for waste collection, which could take a few years.
Council President Sean Elo-Rivera, who led the charge to put Measure B on the ballot, said the looming cost of waste removal – required by the passage of SB 1383 in 2016 – is part of the decision to take on the century-old law.
“For me, SB 1383 is an added reason to do it now,” Elo-Rivera told Voice of San Diego. “The People’s Ordinance, as written, ties the city’s hands in a really unique way compared to any other city. It doesn’t put us in a better position to reach (climate) goals, provide equitable service and be agile and adaptable to whatever changes might come in the future.”
Right now, landfills in California are 28 percent food and other organic waste, according to 2021 data from CalRecycle, the state agency tasked with enforcing the mandate. By 2025, the state should be diverting 75 percent of that organic matter from going into the landfill. The city could start facing penalties from the state now if it’s not rolling out food waste recycling programs. San Diego’s first compliance report is due Oct. 3. Doing so is going to cost the city’s Environmental Services Department a lot of money.
Since San Diego right now can’t simply charge its resident higher rates for the new service, it has to dip its hand further into its main pot of tax dollars, called the general fund, to cover waste pick-up for the city households that don’t have to pay for it. Environmental Services has increased its claim on the general fund by 65 percent since last year, when the city really started ramping-up compliance with the food waste recycling mandate.
The city spent around $173 million from the general fund between 2017 and 2021 to provide waste collection at no cost to the homes that fall under the People’s Ordinance, according to the city’s independent budget analysts. Over the course of those years, the cost to provide that waste collection service shot up 14 percent.
“We’re the only city in the state of California that does not recover our costs for trash collection and the consequences of that to citizens are reduced services in other areas,” said Michael Zucchet, general manager of the Municipal Employees Association which represents thousands of city workers.
This fiscal year, the city’s Environmental Services Department plans to spend $17.4 million to cover the ever-mounting costs of the state’s food waste recycling mandate. The city has to hire 100 more people for the department including 40 more sanitation workers, buy hundreds of thousands of new green rolling containers for People’s Ordinance households, and hire technicians and staffers to ensure everyone is complying with the new food waste codes.
On top of that, the City Council issued new debt in August of 2021 to cover a projected $35 million in food waste recycling costs including around 50 new collection trucks and green waste containers. The city has another $85 million task ahead – the construction of a huge food waste recycling facility at the city’s Miramar Landfill to process all of this new waste. To begin that work, the city tapped $6.2 million from the Recycling Fund, a fund that collects an additional fee non-People’s Ordinance households have to pay on all solid waste disposed of by private haulers at the landfill.
And, the city is planning to spend over $15 million upgrading its landfill gas collection system beginning in 2023, part of complying with the new food waste recycling law. Methane, a planet-warming gas created by rotting organics, has been leaking from San Diego landfills racking up thousands of dollars in fines. Under Mayor Todd Gloria’s update to the city’s Climate Action Plan, San Diego aims to capture 85 percent of its landfill gas by 2035. About 74 percent is captured now, according to a 2020 report on the city’s climate progress.
If the city could charge those People’s Ordinance households a collection fee, it’d free-up over $74.5 million from the general fund, recycling and refuse and disposal funds, the city’s budget analysts estimate. That’s more than the city plans to spend on all of its libraries and librarians in 2023.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct that by 2025, the state should be diverting a certain percentage of organic matter in landfills. The city could still face penalties from the state now, if it’s not rolling out food waste recycling programs.