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Op-Ed: Why California's New Law Reducing Organic Waste Is Crucial to Combatting Climate Change

By Pedro Nava

January 1 wasn’t just the beginning of a new year. It was also the start of California’s ambitious new effort to combat climate change by reducing or recycling organic waste.

A new state law now requires that residents and businesses separate food scraps and yard waste – otherwise known as organic materials – from the rest of their garbage.

Some cities, like San Francisco and my hometown of Santa Barbara, have been doing this for years. Santa Barbara businesses have been sorting food scraps from their trash since 2009, and a recently opened recycling facility is already transforming organic waste from cities throughout Santa Barbara County into energy that powers up to 3,000 homes per year.

Other cities are scrambling to get on board.

In addition to collecting this organic waste from each household and business, the new law requires cities to strengthen their efforts to recover edible food, conduct community outreach about organics recycling, and procure the products made from this recycled material, whether it be electricity, mulch, or compost for soil.

Bananas and methane. Throwing a banana peel in a different trash bin may not seem like much, but such a change is absolutely crucial to help mitigate the devastating effects of climate change.

For decades, organic waste has been dumped in landfills, where it releases harmful methane gas as it decomposes. A climate super pollutant, this gas is far more potent than carbon dioxide – 84 times more, in fact. It traps heat into the atmosphere and contributes to the hotter summers, drier droughts, and extreme fire seasons that have alarmingly become the new normal in California.

According to CalRecycle, reducing organic waste in landfills will have the fastest impact on this climate crisis.

That’s why state leaders have set aggressive targets to accomplish this goal. By 2025, the state aims to reduce organic waste by 75% and rescue at least 20% of edible food that is thrown out.

As California’s independent government watchdog, the Little Hoover Commission knows that issues of climate change and adaptation are critical. Back in 2014, we examined the impacts of a changing climate in our report Governing California Through Climate Change.

From rising sea levels to more frequent heat waves, wildfires, and droughts, we found that California faces a governing challenge like never before, and it’s going to take unprecedented action to respond to these threats.

California’s new organics recycling law is certainly a step in the right direction. Of course, such an ambitious change doesn’t come without a few problems – namely, building the infrastructure to actually recycle this waste.

In October 2020, CalRecycle reported that the state does not have the organics processing infrastructure necessary to fully support compliance with the new law. Los Angeles County projects it may need a dozen new facilities to process the millions of tons of organic waste it will now be receiving.

Measuring results. How California will rise to meet this challenge remains to be seen.

Over the coming year, we plan to take a closer look at this issue. With rigorous, fact-based research that is the hallmark of Commission reports, we will assess how these new rules are implemented and examine what impact they have on the state’s environmental goals.

We hope to issue a report outlining our findings and make recommendations for any changes. Follow along with this work by signing up to receive periodic emails from us about our study.

California is no stranger to ambitious efforts to combat the effects of climate change. Recycling organics may be its most ambitious one yet – and the Little Hoover Commission is ready to help make this law as efficient and effective as possible.

Pedro Nava is the Chair of he Little Hoover Commission,

Lead Image: Organic waste is separated at Santa Barbara County's Tajiguas Landfill Materials Recovery Facility (Giana Magnoli, Noozhawk).

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