Council passes mandatory organics recycling program

by Steven Felschundneff |

The city is gearing up for the rollout of the mandatory organic waste recycling program which begins by statute on January 1, 2022. On that date residential customers must begin diverting food waste from the trash — black curbside container — into the green waste container.

“Really, the only difference is that food waste will be placed in a different container for collection,” Community Services Manager Kristin Mikula said during a presentation to the Claremont City Council on Tuesday.

The new law, SB-1383, requires all cities to adopt a composting program, and failure to act could result in fines up to $10,000 per day beginning in 2024. Mikula said the regulatory package is the largest to hit the solid waste disposal industry in more than 30 years.

The city council voted to update the municipal code “garbage and solid waste and associated policy” to incorporate the state-mandated organic material recycling requirements, and to make it enforceable. They also approved the associated procurement program.

“The ordinance and procurement policy before the council this evening will set the city up to achieve compliance as part of our efforts to meet the new state mandates,” Mikula said.

City staff decided to go with comingled green and food waste to eliminate the need for a fourth curbside collection bin and to avoid creating a fourth refuse pick up route, which would include hiring drivers and purchasing trucks.

Approximately 1,420 households — 17 percent of residential customers — participated in a pilot program which began on February 1. In October the city surveyed pilot program participants and received 60 responses, the majority of which were positive, with residents saying they were happy to be recycling food waste and that the process proved to be convenient. Some did ask for clarification about sorting and use of clear plastic bags which city staff has incorporated into its new marketing material.

“The new requirements are part of a statewide effort to reduce harmful methane emissions. Placing food scraps in your green waste container is a small change with big environmental benefits. Composting food scraps and green waste reduces the amount of waste that is taken to landfills, a major source of methane emissions,” Community Services Director Jeremy Swan said in a letter sent to Claremont residents.

If the food compost program were taken nationwide the impact to the environment would be equal to removing 7.8 million cars from the roadway, according to Swan.

The city has already started a program for commercial customers under which businesses were automatically enrolled and communal food waste recycling containers have been distributed. The city will expand this program to include large multi-family apartment complexes by the January 1 deadline.

Green waste produced by businesses and large apartment complexes, which tend to use commercial landscapers, will now have to be recycled. The city has told these customers they can continue to use their current landscaping company but will have to produce verification that green waste has been diverted from landfills.

In a related program, Claremont’s grocery stores will have to make arrangements to recover a maximum amount of edible food by working with a food recovery organization which would collect the products. All of the grocery stores in Claremont reported to the city back in 2017 that they either already had a food recovery program in place or had one in development.

Beginning in 2024, some smaller organizations such as larger restaurants, hotels with food facilities and education districts would have to adopt similar food recovery programs.

The city will take a “customer-focused enforcement approach” which will emphasize education over penalties for customers who are not recycling food waste. The educational outreach will include the workshops mentioned above, print materials such as the letter and pamphlet customers received this week, as well as the updated webpage.

If contamination is observed in a resident’s container, the drivers have been instructed to place an informational tag on the bin. The city will issue at least three tags “before the situation escalates.” Those escalations would include a letter and offers to help the customer understand the importance of proper sorting. Citations would be reserved for severe pervasive situations.

Items that will go in the green bin include edible items such as fruit, vegetables, meat scraps, plate scrapings, leaves, weeds, flowers, plant prunings and small branches. Messy food scraps can be placed in clear plastic bags. Items that must go in the trash include palm fronds, cacti, succulents, large branches and animal waste. Also, biodegradable or compostable dinnerware must be disposed of in the black trash container. The city offers countertop food scrap collection bins for $5.

“It’s going to be a bit of a change for everyone, but just as we implemented recycling decades ago, it’s something we can accomplish with good education,” Mikula said.

Under the procurement policy the city would be required to purchase products made from organic waste such as mulch, compost, renewable natural gas or organic-derived electricity. Neither the renewable natural gas or organic-derived electricity is currently available here, so the city will be focused on mulch and compost. However, the state requires the city to purchase far more than it needs for landscaping, so the plan is to hold mulch and compost give-away events.

Councilmember Corey Calaycay asked if any new waste facilities in L.A. County had received the approval to accept the compostable material. Mikula said no, however, the city has secured space at a facility in San Bernardino County for the next five years. She went on to say there was not enough capacity at compositing facilities in Southern California to handle all of the organic waste that will be collected across the region come January 1.

“I find myself somewhat conflicted tonight because there is a part of me that would protest and vote no on this in light of this being but one of many examples of how the state puts the cart before the horse and comes up with laws that may be well intended but at the end of the day can have unintended consequences. If there aren’t enough facilities to process all of these materials, as has been alluded to, much of that material I strongly suspect will end up being diverted to a landfill,” Councilmember Calaycay said.

He does support the idea of organic waste recycling and currently practices it at his residence. Also he lamented that mandates coming down from the state, which may be unpopular, frequently result in local elected officials being blamed for something they cannot control. Because of this, he requested that a line be added to the sanitation bill clearly stating that the increase in rates associated with organic recycling be marked as a rule coming from Sacramento.

“Assuming that there will not be enough facilities and it will go back into a landfill is one way to look at the future, I would like to propose an alternate. And that is maybe there will be funding to help create more organic composting facilities. I am not trying to refute what you are saying I am just offering another viewpoint,” Mayor Jennifer Stark said in response to Councilmember Calaycay.

As the deadline approaches the city will host three workshops to provide more information and answer questions about the program. Zoom workshops for residential customers will take place on Tuesday, December 7 at 2 p.m. and on Thursday, December 9 at 6 p.m. For commercial customers, a workshop will take place December 9 at 9 a.m. The city has also created a page on its website dedicated to the organics waste program.


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