What San Diegans need to know about the coming mandatory food recycling program

Oceanside resident Chelsee Brown deposited food scraps in the appropriate trash bin
In 2017, Oceanside resident Chelsee Brown deposited food scraps in the appropriate trash bin in front of her house while participating in the city’s residential food scrap composting program.
(Bill Wechter / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Ken Prue, the city’s environmental services deputy director, explains why you may be getting new waste bins


Along with the familiar black and blue rolling bins they have for trash and traditional recycling, San Diego residents by next year will get new green bins for everything from tree trimmings to chicken bones to food-soaked paper products, thanks to new state rules being administered by CalRecycle.

Some people already have service for yard waste. Businesses such as hotels and restaurants also currently separate food scraps and other organic material for collection. However, food-waste or “organics” recycling will be required for all California residents, including those living in apartments and condominiums, by January 2022.

The new requirements could be confusing for some, especially those living the city of San Diego where the 1919 voter-approved People’s Ordinance has created something of a byzantine and underfunded waste collection system. The ordinance guarantees free trash pickup for those in single-family homes, but many in multifamily housing have had to pay a franchise hauler, such as EDCO or Waste Management, to pick up and dispose of refuse.

To find out how the new program will work, The San Diego Union-Tribune talked with Ken Prue, environmental services deputy director at the city of San Diego.

Q: Where will the recycled food go after it is collected?

A: The new state law will require the collection of mixed organic material, yard trimming, non-hazardous wood waste, food scraps, food-soiled paper.

For the material collected by the city of San Diego, we’re planning to compost that at our Miramar Greenery composing facility. For the franchise haulers that service a lot of the multifamily complexes, businesses and other residential facilities, they may take that to a composting facility or for anaerobic digestion (a process that uses bacteria to break down organic material).

The compost we produce, city residents can (currently) go and self-load up to 2 cubic yards of material at no costs. We can load it into pickup trucks and open top trailers for a nominal fee. Many residents already use the material for gardening and other activities.

Right now, we receive about 105,000 tons a year of yard trimmings of wood material and food scraps combined.

Q: How often will this be picked up?

A: Weekly.

Q: Say I live in an apartment. Do I have to do this, and how would it work?

A: Yes, with most apartment buildings those are serviced by the franchise haulers, say EDCO or Waste Management. Under the new state law, all generators will have to do this recycling. If you live in an apartment complex, whoever is responsible for setting up the trash service, the owner, property manager or HOA, they will have to include this collection as part of the suite of services that they subscribe to from the hauler.

Q: I usually put food waste down my sink disposal. Can’t I keep doing that?

A: We’re planning to roll out a little kitchen pail, where ideally, you’d be putting the food scraps for the organics waste collection. If you have some small items, say you’re rinsing off the plate, that would go down your sink still.

But say you’re cutting a head of lettuce and you have some of the outer layers you’re not going to use, a lot of times, people are throwing that in the trash can. Now you’re going to want and need to set that aside for the organics collection — your fruit and vegetable trimmings, your coffee grounds, your breads.

These large commercial facilities, they can take things like meats and fats and bones. Where if you were composting in your backyard, you wouldn’t want to put that in there.

Q: This sounds like a lot of extra cleaning of waste bins. Do you just toss your bucket of scraps in the green bin or put them in any type of bag?

A: We don’t anticipate accepting any plastic bags. They become a big contaminate of the material. I would envision, you might line your kitchen pail with newspaper or a paper bag. Then you’re putting that out in your container.

The other thing you could do if you have room in your freezer is freezing the material. Then on collection day you can just drop it in frozen. Generally speaking, it won’t make as much of a mess in your container.

That greasy pizza box, if the top is good and clean, tear it off and throw it in the blue bin. That greasy bottom part is something you could put in your organics bin. Some people might even set it in the bottom of the bin as a way to keep it cleaner.

Q: Will there be fines for noncompliance?

A: State law requires fines. Ideally, the focus is to educate and gain compliance, but the state law does have mandatory fines. Ultimately, San Diego will have to have our code enforcement officers flipping the lids and looking at contents. If there are unacceptable materials in the organics bin or organics in the trash, it might be an “oops” tag or if it’s more severe, a notice. It could escalate to a fine situation.

If CalRecycle feels the city of San Diego didn’t enforce where we should have, they can fine a property (owner) and then fine the city.

Q: Will residents see higher fees associated with the recycling program?

For the city of San Diego serviced residents, they won’t, due to the people’s ordinance. But for those privately serviced customers serviced by the franchise haulers, whether residents or businesses, there will be increased costs. They’re additional services, so it will work its way into the rate structure.

Q: Is the Miramar Landfill still projected to reach capacity by 2025 and how would the organics recycling program impact that?

A: That’s the number that’s been published recently. They’re working on a height increase to push that date out further. Every bit that’s diverted from the landfill helps to preserve that capacity.

Q: We’re currently diverting about 66 percent of waste to recycling streams. How will this program boost that?

A: We don’t have exact calculations, but I’m confident that we should surpass our 75 percent diversion goal. We have a goal in our climate action plan for 75 percent diversion by 2020, but we’re still pursuing that goal.