Kitchen scraps go in your green bin this year

Victor Quinonez loads boxes of unused food onto a truck at Vons in South Bay on January 7, 2022.
(Ariana Drehsler/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Under state law, homes and businesses will start recycling food waste, while grocery stores must donate unused food


Along with cardboard, cans and bottles, San Diegans will be recycling fish bones, vegetable peels and eggshells under a state law taking effect this year.

Large grocery stores and other businesses will begin donating their unused edibles to food banks. And residents will be putting kitchen scraps into recycling bins for delivery to composting sites instead of landfills.

The new protocols are all part of Senate Bill 1383, a state law passed in 2016 to cut down on such short-lived climate pollutants as methane, refrigerant chemicals and soot by reducing California’s organic waste.

The law requires cities and counties to cut organic waste by 75 percent by 2025, and it sets a target of recovering 20 percent of edible food that is now discarded by then. CalRecycle, the state’s recycling agency, will begin enforcing the new rules this year.

“It’s the biggest piece of recycling-related legislation in more than 30 years,” said Ken Prue, deputy director of the City of San Diego’s Environmental Services Department. “It’s creating huge changes throughout the state.”

Local government’s role

The City of San Diego is buying new trucks and equipment and providing information on food recycling to residents and businesses, Prue said.

The city’s 1919 People’s Ordinance guarantees free trash pickup to single family homes in San Diego but not to apartment or condominium buildings, so the city will pay for food waste pickup from individual homes, while people in multifamily complexes will pay for it as part of their waste management rate structure, Prue said.

As of now, 45,000 city homes already receive automated yard waste pickup biweekly and others receive manual yard waste pickup biweekly, while others get no green waste collection, due to budget constraints.

Under the new law, the city will expand its services to pick up food and yard waste from all 285,000 of its residential accounts, officials said. The city purchased 43 new collection trucks, which it will receive in batches starting this summer. It will roll out collection routes as the trucks come in.

The city also plans to provide all customers with green bins and kitchen caddies, which are pails designed to collect food scraps for disposal. People can collect scraps in the caddies and dump them in bins for pickup.

In unincorporated areas, San Diego County is working with commercial waste haulers to expand their regular collection of food and green waste from homes and businesses.

Hear more on the San Diego News Fix podcast:

“We already required that tree trimmings and landscape debris had to be collected,” said Michael Wonsidler, program manager for the county Department of Public Works. “We expanded to include food scraps, wood, lumber and, since green materials were required for residences, that was required for all generators.”

Some places have a head start. The City of Oceanside has been recycling food waste from businesses and multifamily housing since January 2020. The residents use separate brown bins to collect food scraps, leaving green bins for yard and tree trimmings.

Certain waste haulers also have begun food recycling. Edco began collecting food scraps in green bins in 2021 and runs an anaerobic digestion facility in Escondido that turns waste into fertilizer and then pipes the resulting methane into its natural gas-fueled trucks.

Recycling in California

These changes are part of a decadeslong evolution in how we manage trash.

Since 1989, when the state passed the Integrated Waste Management Act, AB 939, Californians have separated out aluminum, glass, paper and eventually plastics into blue bins for recycling. That spared landfill space and kept valuable materials out of the garbage.

But organic matter discarded in landfills has its own problems.

Decomposing yard and food trimmings release methane, a climate pollutant that’s far more potent than carbon, though it remains in the atmosphere for less time. Reducing that waste can cut climate emissions quickly, buying us time for longer-term efforts to switch off of fossil fuels.

Separating out usable food instead of discarding it has the added benefit of addressing hunger, experts say.

“We identified early on that people are hungry, but a lot of food goes to waste in the United States,” said Carissa Casares, communications manager for Feeding San Diego. So why not solve two problems at one time? There’s really two crises here: food insecurity and climate change.”

About 30 to 40 percent of food in the U.S. is wasted, and Californians throw away 6 million tons of food annually, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

That’s not just spoiled or leftover food. Supermarkets, food distributors and restaurants often discard food that’s still edible to make way for newer inventory.

Organizations such as Feeding San Diego and the San Diego Food Bank work with hundreds of local food pantries to collect usable food and distribute it to families who need it.

Director of Life Acts Elizabeth Reyes Samala Prado and other volunteersload boxes of food onto a truck at Vons in South Bay
Director of Life Acts Elizabeth Reyes Samala Prado (second to right), her father Edilberto “Papa Ed” Samala (right), Rudy Corona (center), and Victor Quinonez (left), load boxes of food onto a truck at Vons in South Bay on January 7, 2022. Life Acts is a community outreach ministry of Life Christian Center International Ministries of San Diego.
(Ariana Drehsler/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Food Rescue

“We have a program called fresh rescue,” said Vanessa Ruiz, vice president of operations for the San Diego Food Bank. “We’ve been operating it for quite some time now. We work with supermarkets and retail stores throughout San Diego County to help recover any product that is fit for human consumption.”

The organization connects Vons markets and other stores with food pantries which pick up surplus food totaling 4.5 million pounds per year. The groceries are still fresh but typically approaching their expiration date, and include staples such as milk, eggs, meat and produce.

Demand for these supplies has risen since the pandemic began, she said; the Food Bank’s clients rose from 350,000 to 550,000 per month.

Feeding San Diego, with a similar system, coordinates 776 food pickups per week and recovers 1 million pounds of food per month, Casares said.

Under SB 1383 supermarkets, food distributors and wholesale food retailers must begin donating surplus food by 2022, Wonsidler said. By 2024, other businesses including restaurants with more than 250 seats, hotels with food service and other large venues must comply. That opens new opportunities for food banks, officials said.

“It’s a huge win for us,” Ruiz said. “We do anticipate the numbers growing. We are working to ramp up our resources to handle other food producer calls, from other supermarkets who weren’t participating.”

The state regulations require local governments to report their efforts at food recovery and require businesses to keep records of the organizations they work with and how much they donate. The law says regulations may require local governments to impose penalties on food generators that don’t comply, beginning in 2024.

“We’re helping existing food donors get their written agreement in place, because that is a big part of the law that they have to have a written agreement in place with a hunger organization,” Casares said. “We had already been tracking the pounds of food rescued, but our partners will have to track that as well.”

Food recycling at home

Director of Life Acts Elizabeth Reyes Samala Prado and volunteers boxes of food onto a truck at Vons in South Bay
Director of Life Acts Elizabeth Reyes Samala Prado and her father Edilberto “Papa Ed” Samala load boxes of food onto a truck at Vons in South Bay on January 7, 2022. Life Acts is a community outreach ministry of Life Christian Center International Ministries of San Diego.
(Ariana Drehsler/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Along with yard waste, residents will start recycling food scraps including fruit, vegetables, meat, bones, eggshells, and food-soiled paper such as napkins, tea bags and coffee filters.

Residents can collect food scraps in kitchen caddies, plastic bins that hook onto cabinet doors, and then dump them into the green bin when they’re full. Some waste haulers are providing the caddies free to customers.

Prue also recommended layering food waste with yard trimmings to avoid odor and pests, or storing smellier scraps in the freezer temporarily.

“If you have meat trimmings or bones, put them in freezer and put them out on collection day,” he said. “That reduces the potential for vectors or odors.”

One of the best ways to manage food waste is to avoid it in the first place.

Restaurateurs Jessica and Davin Waite, owners of the Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub and the Plot restaurant, both in Oceanside, have made it their mission to use or recycle almost everything that comes through their kitchens.

How to waste less

From the beginning, Jessica Waite sought ways to recycle kitchen scraps, first through in-house composting and then as a pilot participant in Oceanside’s food waste recycling program.

“I’m an eco-nerd,” she said. “I was trying to compost the minute we opened our restaurant, and it was really challenging. So having the city implementation was a dream come true.”

For Chef Davin Waite, food waste became a philosophical challenge: how to avoid serving food that won’t be eaten and how to get people to eat things they would otherwise avoid.

He works with dishwashers to see what comes back on plates and adjusts portions and flavors accordingly, he said. People can do that at home by taking note of what they throw out and shopping with a menu and recipes in mind instead of buying in bulk, he said.

“Who doesn’t like going to Costco and buying more food than they need?” he asked. “The first thing for people at home is to back off, especially now that the pandemic Armageddon food stockpiling is over. Shop healthier and fresher and buy only what you need for a few days.”

Waite’s culinary signature is making delicacies of things most people discard: barbecued fish ribs, Kentucky fried fish heads and banana peel tacos.

That might be a stretch for most home cooks, but there are simple steps to start with. Waite recommended saving citrus peels for salad dressing, using leafy green stems for soups or sauces, and making marinara from over-ripe tomatoes.

Throwing kitchen scraps in a green bin - or saving them for the soup pot - may be an adjustment, but officials said they’re confident it will soon be no different than sorting bottles and cans.

“I think it will be commonplace for all of us,” Wonsidler said. “In a couple of years we’ll all look back and see it becomes second nature.”