City of San Diego green bins meant for food waste are filled with garbage at an apartment complex. Some bins were tagged for violating organics recycling rules and left unemptied. / Jakob McWhinney
City of San Diego green bins meant for food waste are filled with garbage at an apartment complex. Some bins were tagged for violating organics recycling rules and left unemptied. / Jakob McWhinney

I recently discovered that if San Diegans put garbage in their green bins meant for food waste, the city of San Diego will collect them anyway.  

Here’s what happened: A colleague found a tag attached to the green bin at his apartment complex. The city garbage collector left his trash-filled green bin unemptied and noted in the tag that the contents should be organics only. The bin was overflowing with takeout containers and plastic bags filled with trash.  

Turns out, the behavior-correcting garbage man was in the wrong.  

When I asked the city of San Diego’s Environmental Services Department about this incident, they said that bin should not have been tagged and skipped. It’s not city policy to leave green bins that violate organics waste recycling rules uncollected. That means the city will collect whatever you put in your green bin and deal with the contamination at the landfill instead. 

“We are mindful of the fact that organic waste recycling is a big shift in behavior and that it will take time for San Diegans to form new habits,” said Renee Robertson, director of that department in an emailed statement. 

The Environmental Services Department is in education mode, hoping residents will learn how to use their green bin through webinars, workshops, social media campaigns ads and news stories. And there’s no scheduled date to begin enforcement of bad bin behavior, she said.  

The city is still in the process of rolling out new green bins to neighborhoods it serves, a process that started earlier this year. The new food waste recycling program is how San Diego plans to comply with a state mandate that Californians cut 75 percent of the food waste currently heading to landfills by 2025. (About 40 percent of the waste in landfills is organic, meaning it could be composted instead.) It’s a climate change goal because rotting organic waste generates methane, a potent planet-warming gas that’s leaking from San Diego’s landfills

A Miramar Landfill employee drives a compost turner over a compost pile to oxygenate the waste on Feb. 22, 2022.
A Miramar Landfill employee drives a compost turner over a compost pile to oxygenate the waste on Feb. 22, 2022. / Photo by Joe Orellana

But as CalMatters reports, the state is already falling short on its goals and one watchdog group recommended California push pause on the mandate. Even Mayor Todd Gloria’s Climate Action Plan says the city must divert 90 percent of waste from the landfill by 2035. 

Kelly Terry, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Services Department, told me the city doesn’t track trash contamination in green bins. There’s a “moderate amount” of contamination coming from residents but overall, everyone is “doing a good job,” she said.  

Terry said the most common green bin contaminant is plastic – plastic bags, containers or other packaging. Workers have to hand-pick that contamination from the green bin waste at the Miramar Landfill. Another machine uses a suction fan to pull light plastics off the waste as a secondary measure. Finally, the cleaned organic waste is spread in huge, long rows that are capped, dried and turned into compost.  

Since the organic waste recycling program launched in February, San Diegans faced a big learning curve. At the most basic level, residents must separate meat, bones, veggie scraps, fruit cores – anything organic – from trash and place it in the provided green bin.  

But organic matter does what organic matter does: it rots, stinks and attracts vermin. So properly maintaining the waste until the weekly collection date takes commitment and management.  

It’s clear over the many months of the program’s development that some San Diegans use green bins as an extra trash can. And there’s still a lot of confusion about how to properly keep food waste in the kitchen and subsequently transfer it to the bin. The temptation to bag organic waste in plastics to reduce the so-called “ick” factor is palpable. 

But bagging organic waste in plastic is still straight up banned – even if it’s not enforced.  

No “biodegradable bags” either: Bags that claim to be “compostable” or “biodegradable” are also prohibited from your city green bin. While it may be a tempting solution, and though bioplastics are made from organic materials instead of fossil fuels, San Diego’s Miramar Greenery composting facility can’t break down those products. Bioplastics need high temperature industrial composting facilities, which very few cities have, to break them down.  

Around Your Environment

  • Scott Lewis detailed reasons behind San Diego’s water agencies vying for a divorce from the San Diego County Water Authority in his latest column. (Voice of San Diego) 
  • San Diego’s Congressional representatives called on the U.S. Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, to visit the broken treatment plant at the U.S.-Mexico border and investigate its decades of disrepair. The budget for that plant falls under Blinken’s department. (Voice of San Diego) 
  • San Diego lost the Union-Tribune’s environment reporter, Joshua Emerson Smith, to the recent buy-out of the paper by Alden Capitol. It’s always bad to lose any journalist in a community but especially within the environment and climate beat which so desperately needs watchdogs. I wish him well on his next step, but his reporting will be greatly missed. 
  • The Port of San Diego installed all-electric cranes to replace ones powered by diesel, a fossil fuel, at the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal. They’re the first to be installed at any port in North America. (Union-Tribune) 
  • The fallout of a settlement between 18 states and the Biden administration over the construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall could create a 1,300 acre wildlands preserve. (KPBS) 
  • Sammy Roth of the Los Angeles Times weighed sprawling solar developments in the backcountry and the landscapes they threaten in his latest piece. A similar debate is unfolding in San Diego.  

Join the Conversation


  1. I should be able to empty my garbage directly into the street and not get a violation. The homeless spread garbage all over the city with zero consequences, why should I be targeted?

  2. Very informative. My compost is not contaminated yet the compost trucks have not been taking my compost for the last few weeks. They just drive by :/

  3. An equally valid question is why the City is picking up trash and recycling from an apartment building at all. Apartment buildings and condos are required to have a private contractor remove their trash and recycling. This apartment owner is receiving a taxpayer funded service to which they are not entitled. Just remove the City supplied containers, and this problem is resolved.

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