Mandatory Composting Is A Climate Win, But Who Will Pay For It?
This year, California rolled out a law that requires cities to keep food and other organic waste out of landfills. That means everyone in cities like L.A. will soon be required to keep their food scraps out of trash cans to be sent, instead, for composting at large-scale facilities.
The idea is to save space in landfills and lower methane, a greenhouse gas that’s worsening the climate crisis. Landfills are California’s third-largest source of methane largely because of decomposing food and organic matter. But composting that organic waste instead lowers methane emissions and creates nutrient-rich soil that can be used in city parks or sold to farmers.
From educating residents about how to properly separate food scraps, to building out large-scale composting infrastructure, to negotiating new contracts with trash companies, cities have a lot to figure out — and pay for.
Trash Bills On The Rise
The state didn’t include any funding with its mandate — that’s why your trash bill will likely go up a few dollars.
For many, that cost can become a burden, said Adriana Figueroa, public works director for the city of Paramount, a mostly working class community just east of Compton. Their monthly rates will go up about $3, she said.
“For a person who's living paycheck by paycheck and barely making ends meet, to see a $10 increase per quarter can be huge,” said Figueroa.
The city plans to subsidize the rate increase for the first year, Figueroa said. But not all cities will do that.
Furthermore, Figueroa said that, given a tiny staff, she’s worried that Paramount may simply not have time to comply with the law by 2024. That's when CalRecycle, the state agency overseeing the program, will start penalizing cities and businesses for not meeting requirements.
“The issue is limited capacity and limited resources for a city that really wants to do the right thing,” Figueroa said.
Figueroa is all for the law's goals — to lower greenhouse gas emissions and create nutrient-rich compost that can help farmers grow healthier food — but she said the state should have attached some money to finance the requirements.
A Hit To Landlords' And Tenants’ Pockets
Landlords share some of those same concerns.
Amanda Freeman is a landlord in northeast L.A. She has to buy new organic containers for all her properties. As of now, she’s looking at an additional $150-per-month cost for a new container, on top of the $200 to $300 she spends on trash pickup, she said. That cost will likely be pushed onto her tenants.
“There's a rent freeze, so I can't raise the rent at all and all of a sudden I'm supposed to be spending $150 extra,” Freeman said. “Some of our buildings have shared utilities, in which case the tenants are going to have to bear the burden of the increases. Regardless, it's not fair to anyone.”
She said she also worries about organics collection in areas with wildlife, since animal-proof trash cans can be hard to find.
Rethinking Rates In Cities
The city of Los Angeles is also grappling with how to comply with the law.
City Councilmembers Mitch O’Farrell and Paul Krekorian recently introduced a resolution in support of Senate Bill 45. The bill was introduced by State Sen. Anthony Portantino, whose district encompasses parts of the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys, and it would provide support to local governments for their organic waste diversion programs.
“So many times, initiatives sound really good on paper — and they are — but then they meet real life head on,” O’Farrell told us. “We might end up shooting ourselves in the foot if we start incurring penalties that just set us further and further behind from reaching our mutual goals. So we need partnership with the state and we need them not to take a punitive approach to what we're already doing.”
We might end up shooting ourselves in the foot if we start incurring penalties that just set us further and further behind from reaching our mutual goals.
Rethinking rate structures is one way cities can lower the burden, said Alexa Kielty, the residential coordinator for San Francisco’s curbside food scrap collection program. The city has been sending organic waste to be composted for 25 years —the program’s success is what pushed state leaders to make municipal composting required by law.
“Fundamentally, we need to think differently around how we structure our refuse rates — and it's not a composting program competing with landfilling,” Kielty said.
She said focusing on generating revenue from selling he compost is “the wrong approach."
" You really need to look at refuse as a system: compost is one piece of the pie, recycling is another piece and landfilling is another," Kielty said. "It’s not an either/or conversation anymore.”
San Francisco has managed to keep rates about 20% lower than the neighboring cities of Oakland and San Jose through creative rate structures and cost incentives early in the program’s rollout. For example, Kielty said:
- At the start of San Francisco’s program, composting was free for residents and apartment buildings.
- Commercial businesses got deep discounts for getting a food scrap program going.
- And the city has been able to pay for most of its transfer stations and infrastructure through restructured refuse rates.
Ultimately, some costs are unavoidable when it comes to changing habits, reducing waste and making cities a resource for climate solutions, Kielty said.
“Before we could just say, ‘this is a good thing to do for the planet,’” Kielty said. “But now it’s the law — this is the way California is gonna operate. And throwing things in a hole is always going to be cheaper than composting.”