ENCINITAS — With a historic green waste recycling mandate set to take effect in six months, Encinitas recently became one of the county’s first cities to take a public step towards preparing for it.
Assembly Bill 1826, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed in September 2014 and goes into effect April 1, 2016, requires businesses to recycle their organic waste — lawn clippings, food waste and other similar waste — rather than sending it to landfills.
On Jan. 1, 2016, though, the new law requires cities to have a program in place for recycling organic waste, starting with the largest producers of such waste and ultimately phased in for smaller businesses and residences.
Acting on an agenda item proposed by Deputy Mayor Catherine Blakespear and Councilwoman Lisa Shaffer, the council voted at its May 27 meeting to empower the city manager to create a task force with major stakeholders in the recycling field to work with staff on developing a plan of action on how to comply with the new mandate.
The task force has been charged with four goals: identifying local locations for compost facilities, finding out the best practices regionally and statewide, connecting with other cities in the region to explore regional solutions and providing outreach and education to local businesses impacted by the new law.
“When I saw that this was becoming law, I started to ask around to see what the city was planning to do,” Blakespear said. “I decided to bring it forward because I felt we needed a more concerted and more public approach.”
Recycling industry leaders said that AB 1826 is one of the most significant changes to how Californians will deal with waste since the landmark Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989, which ushered in residential and commercial recycling as we know it today.
That law required cities to divert at least half of its waste stream from landfills or face stiff fines.
Recent studies have shown that as much as 40 percent of the waste headed to landfills in San Diego is organic recyclables, including food scrap and landscape waste, which can be used for a number of activities, including composting and bio-gas.
“Organic recycling is the next frontier in waste-stream diversion,” said Jessica Toth, the managing director for the Solana Center for Environmental Innovation, a local nonprofit that has spearheaded the region’s recycling efforts since the 1980s. “It is the largest category of anything going into our landfills and it is completely divertible. I’m excited to see this go into effect, it is like recycling was in the mid-90s. We are just starting to understand that food scrap has value. Once it is put in a landfill it has no value.”
While cities across the state are scrambling to put their plans in place to satisfy the forthcoming mandate, many of the businesses affected by the new law — those that produce more than eight cubic yards of organic waste per week — aren’t aware of the law.
“The cities know about it, they just are not ready for it,” Toth said. “The ones that aren’t aware are the businesses that are going to be impacted, because the onus is primarily on the jurisdictions to get the information out there. That hasn’t happened yet.”
One of the reasons that cities haven’t begun outreach efforts is because they are still trying to identify which businesses fall under the first phase of the law, Toth, Blakespear and others said. Most businesses discard organic waste along with inorganic waste, so they don’t have an idea of how much green waste is being discarded.
EDCO, which contracts with a number of the county’s cities for waste hauling and recycling services, has identified 68 businesses that produce that amount of total waste per week, but it is unclear how many of those businesses produce the mandated amount of green waste.
Blakespear said one of the goals of the task force will be to identify these businesses, and then begin to work on educating them about the mandate as well as ways the businesses can lower the amount of waste they would have to divert.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the hierarchy of waste diversion is reusing the waste, recycling, composting, on-site burial and, ultimately, disposing at a landfill.
Reusing, Toth said, is the way that businesses can lower the amount of waste that would ultimately be diverted.
Many businesses already do this and don’t realize it, she said, when they donate uneaten food rather than throwing it away. Additionally, knowledge of the law might encourage some restaurants to produce less waste by ordering closer to the amount it needs, a type of self-auditing.
Landscaping companies can reuse some of their scraps by donating it to petting zoos and animal farms as feed.
Ultimately, though, cities will still need to divert the remaining waste, which will mean some form of local commercial composting. Currently, the closest commercial composting site for North County cities is Victorville, Toth said.
Blakespear said that she feels this is where the task force can also have an impact — by getting all of the local recycling minds such as EDCO, the Solana Center, the local wastewater authorities and other regional stakeholders in one room to come up with locations that could be suitable for small-scale composting.
An example of how this is being done regionally, she said, is the El Corazon site in Oceanside, where Agriservice provides composting for Oceanside residents.
“If we could find a site like that here locally, that would be an option,” she said. “Which is why we also need to approach this regionally, and talk to other cities so that we can identify ways to regionalize our efforts.”
Toth applauded Encinitas for taking the very public step of tackling this issue.
“A number of other cities have started working on it internally, but according to EDCO, Encinitas is the first one to contact them to try to figure this out,” Toth said. “It says a lot about the city that it is trying to stay at the forefront on this issue.”
Blakespear echoed Toth’s sentiment.
“The state law aims to make every city more sustainable in how it deals with the production of a resource that actually isn’t trash,” Blakespear said. “It’s more important that we use this change in state law as an impetus to be a more sustainable city. We need to figure out a solution that’s not just the minimum required for compliance.”