January 11 was an atypical trash day on L Street.
City workers unloaded green bins from a flatbed truck rolling slowly down through Grant Hill. Neighbors were surprised, a bit confused though generally pleased to receive something from the city, especially on a street where rogue disposal and outright trash bin thievery is, anecdotally, common.
But Renato Gabriel was downright gleeful, profusely thanking two city of San Diego specialists hired to educate residents on the city’s new food waste recycling program.
“Thank you from a grateful person in your community. (It’s) good for the neighborhood,” Gabriel said.
A state law requires food and other organic waste be kept out of landfills. Most cities and counties hope to comply with that law by encouraging residents, businesses and industries to separate food waste from their regular trash and recycling so it can be composted.
“Recycling organic waste is the single, easiest and fastest thing a resident can do to fight climate change,” said Renee Robertson, the city of San Diego’s director of environmental services.
This is all part of the state’s effort to reduce California’s contribution to the changing climate. Rotting organics in the oxygen-limited environment of a landfill generates a gas called methane, one of the most alarming greenhouse gasses around because it can pack a major punch to the balance of our atmosphere. Methane leaking from landfills is the third largest source of that greenhouse gas in the state, and San Diego’s landfills are very leaky.
The city of San Diego is the responsible party to actually equip and educate over 267,000 households to redirect their food waste into a separate bin, and to ensure private haulers provide it to the rest of the city’s 1.3 million population.
Gabriel was familiar with the concept of putting tree trimmings in a green bin. But when he learned he should put leftover food inside – without a plastic bag as that contaminates the waste stream – he grimaced.
“It’s too smelly,” Gabriel laughed. “Bones are fine. But the meat might be a problem.”
The green bin rollout along L Street demonstrates how massive an undertaking it is for cities like San Diego to unveil the newest waste collection stream since the introduction of recycling in 1988. Grant Hill was one of the first neighborhoods to receive the service because the city decided to roll out food waste recycling to neighborhoods that scored lowest on a tool called the Climate Equity Index. That tool identifies areas of the city that are historically underserved, most exposed to pollution and vulnerable to climate change.
City workers used GPS coordinates to place bins at each address, typically leaving one large, 95-gallon green bin for a single-family home, and smaller 65- or 35-gallon bins for multi-unit homes and apartments. If a resident wants a smaller size, they have 14 days to call the city and request a bin swap free of charge.
Matthew Cleary, assistant director of the city Environmental Services Department, whistled at the city workers to remove a pair of green bins from an abandoned house along L Street. It took the team about 45 minutes to cover two blocks.
Gabriel’s neighbor, Ferah Atilgan, couldn’t immediately find her smaller bin as she walked her dog observing the trash day milieu. She called out to city workers who helped her find the right bin marked with her apartment number.
Atilgan also didn’t immediately know these green bins were for anything beyond yard waste. She admired the small kitchen pails the city attached to each larger trash can, meant to make food scrap gathering easy in the kitchen.
“You just put it on the counter and put the food in there and dump it. It’s cool, I like it,” Atilgan said. “As long as it’s not smelling, I don’t mind.”
On collection day a week later, however, many residents either didn’t use or forgot to roll out their green bin for collection. Food waste recycling is weekly instead of biweekly, like regular blue bin recycling. That’s because food rots, stinks and can become a hazard if it’s not collected regularly.
Gabriel rolled out his black trash can, but said since it had rained so much, he hadn’t done any yard work therefore had no clippings to add to the bin.
The green bin of his neighbor, Sergio Garduño, still sat in the yard, kitchen food waste bucket still attached. He didn’t know about the new food waste collection system until I told him.
“I think it’s a good idea. It helps avoid contamination,” Garduño said. “But I think we’re just still accustomed to throwing our food in the trash.”
Julio Gomez waited patiently, seated in a walker, for the new food waste collection truck to pass by the four-plex he owns. He watched a city garbage truck worker step from his vehicle and unclip two small buckets hanging from Gomez’ bins, placing them on the ground.
“I wanted to see what they were for,” Gomez said, when I told him it was supposed to go in the kitchen for food scraps and bones, until he could dump it into the green bins.
Gomez filled his new bins with grass clippings, which he used to put in the trash can. But the small buckets attached to each bin by a zip tie appeared strange to him as their purpose wasn’t immediately clear.
“Now that I have them, I might as well use them,” said Gomez.
The Environmental Services Department collected 9.12 tons of waste from green bins distributed on Jan. 11. A week later, the department collected 20.9 tons, meaning residents more than doubled their participation. That represents the waste of about 18,000 homes in the 92102 and 92113 ZIP codes. It takes about 12 weeks to turn waste into compost upon delivery to the Miramar Landfill Greenery.
That’s a total of about 15 tons of avoided greenhouse gas emissions leaking from the landfill, according to a calculator from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or about as much as the emissions generated by three typical passenger cars in one year.