Claudia Pingatore, Energy Analyst
Until 2016, commercial organic recycling was limited to the dedicated few. Now, thanks to California’s AB 1826, there is a centralized system that businesses, cities, and haulers can – and in some cases, must – partake in. Let’s talk about what that means for you.
What do I need to do?
If you produce 4 cubic yards* (the size of a standard commercial bin, not the smaller ‘cart’) or more of organic waste per week, you must separate and recycle that waste. This is usually done by purchasing the service from your hauler (existing or otherwise), and is what we will focus on here. This will involve learning what is accepted in your area, setting up the proper on-site infrastructure, and training your staff.
Here is a brief overview of the terms used by the various stakeholders in the world of organic waste recycling, which often cause confusion:
Organic matter comes from a living organism; food waste is one type of organic matter. When people differentiate between these two terms, they could be talking about other non-food organic waste streams like landscaping waste and cow manure.
Recycling is a general term referring to the breaking down of materials in order to produce something else with them. Composting can be considered a form of recycling. It refers specifically to the breakdown of biodegradable waste (e.g. all organic matter) for soil amendments. In the case of food waste, many refer to it as “recycling” because the product could also be used for energy instead of soil amendments.
Items that are biodegradable break down into their components via natural processes. A compostable item is a certain type of biodegradable item that breaks down relatively quickly into humus, a substance that enriches soil.
An extensive list of composting terms and their definitions can be found here.
What will this cost me?
Costs vary by region and hauler, but should be comparable to your recycling service fee. In some cases, such as here in San Ramon, a limited volume of organic recycling is included in your existing recycling rate, so that you don’t pay anything extra! In addition, added costs could potentially be offset by reduced landfill collection – if you have enough organic waste to fill a whole trash bin, you won’t need to pay for that bin anymore.
What goes in the organics recycling bin?
Food scraps and other eligible compostable waste go in the green bin – this is in addition to traditional ‘green waste’ from landscaping. Collectively, this is organic waste, and all organic waste goes in the same bin. Food scraps are easy – anything from coffee grounds to meat (including bones) to bread can be recycled. The tricky part is paper and products labelled “compostable”.
What about my other products, such as compostable serving ware?
- Any food- or oil-soiled paper product (e.g. napkins, plates, and pizza boxes) is accepted in the organics bin.
- Any unsoiled paper products should go in the regular recycling bin.
- Lined paper products, such as coated paper plates, are complicated since some coatings are plastic and others, like wax, are compostable. Since it can be difficult (if not impossible) to tell what material the lining is, the current rule of thumb is to put clean/unused products in the regular recycling bin with other paper and plastic.
- Other natural fibers such as bamboo are fine for composting, as long as they aren’t treated or combined with other materials.
- Bioplastics that are labelled compostable may or may not be accepted: products that are third-party certified as compostable (look for the below labels) certainly should be, however, any without a certification are questionable.
- The important thing to note here is that each hauler will have slight variations on what they can and cannot recycle, depending on the process they use. So start by going to your hauler. All major haulers have information online, often times downloadable signage as well, on what they will and won’t accept.
Potential confusion over the compostability of certain products is one reason reusable serving ware is always ideal. While many products are likely a non-issue, green-washing can cover up myriad chemicals that we don’t want getting mixed up in potential crop soil amendments. The other reason, of course, is the significantly lower lifetime environmental impact. But if reusables won’t work for your operation, be sure to buy disposable products that you know are indeed compostable. Look for the following labels when making these purchases:
How do I get my staff and co-workers on board?
Setting up a proper infrastructure on-site is the foundation of a successful organics recycling program. This includes:
- Bin Placement: Put appropriately-sized green bins (or countertop pails) in all areas where food waste is frequently generated. Also, be sure to put green bins beside any other trash and recycling receptacles. Using uncoated paper bags or cardboard boxes is an alternative that requires less maintenance, since they can be thrown directly into the compost bin.
- Bags: If buying bags, make sure they are compostable (contaminating organics with a plastic bag would be unfortunate after all that separating!). Go for heavy-duty versions as compostable bags are notoriously problematic with heavy loads. Alternatively, skip the bag altogether by dumping directly from the pails/bins.
- Signage: Signage is essential for behavioral reinforcement. Put signs on all pails and bins, clearly noting it is for organic waste. The most effective signs rely on pictures rather than text – and the more customized to your particular waste stream, the better. You can request signage from your hauler or CalRecycle.
- Manage the Waste: Dump bins frequently to avoid odor and pest issues. Delegate duties fairly and if necessary get your custodial staff on board.
Aside from infrastructure, your approach to staff matters. Typically, explaining the importance – the “why” behind the system, rather than just the “what” – can spark a baseline level of cooperation.
What can I get out of this?
Sustainability in foodservice has been an upward trend for years with many operators already implementing measures that reflect the values of their customers. Tapping into that PR value with a little public boasting can help attract and retain customers. A well-designed dining room display, for example, can show how your kitchen team works together to reduce waste, making your customers feel like their patronage is also contributing to that sense of community. You can take this PR-approach to the next level by composting your own food waste, applying it to your garden, and incorporating the food into your menu, creating a true closed loop of sustainability. That kind of effort tends to get its own recognition, such as the Zero Waste platinum certification awarded to Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.!
Are there other options to getting a green bin?
You are not required to get a green bin from your hauler, you are only required to recycle organic waste. That is, if you have 4 cubic yards or more that would otherwise be thrown away. Therefore, other options include:
- Compost on-site, as discussed above. This can be done in traditional ways such as an outdoor pile you tend to manually, or even low-maintenance vermiculture.
- Other pricier options for on-site composting include equipment such as composters and digesters. See this helpful FES article for more information.
- Haul your own green waste to an organics recycling facility.
- Prevent food waste entirely to the point where you fall below the threshold. Prevention (or “source reduction”) is in fact the ideal diversion as outlined by the food waste hierarchy to the left. This doesn’t mean, however, that the amount you do generate should go in the trash!
- Divert food waste from the trash in other ways. For example, donating edible foods to people or even livestock, both of which are the next best solutions in the food recovery hierarchy. The below organizations are just some of the options available for those in the East Bay Area:
What can I expect in the future?
Aside from more clarity on acceptable materials and generally more streamlined processes, slight regulatory changes can be expected in the near future. In 2019, the organics recycling requirement will extend to people who generate 4 or more cubic yards of overall solid waste, not just organic waste. In addition, the threshold for compliance might drop in 2020 to 2 cubic yards if a certain percent diversion from landfills is not met by then.
What if I still need help?
This mandate is enforced by the state agency CalRecycle, however, jurisdictions are charged with administering it at the local level since they hold the contracts with the haulers. As such, you have several resources for help:
- Your hauler. Questions on hauling logistics, billing, and acceptable waste can be directed to your hauler. If unsure who that is, look on your waste collection bin or bill.
- Your local jurisdiction and/or CalRecycle. Broader questions that can’t be answered by your hauler can be directed to either of these entities. If unsure of your local jurisdiction or where to find a regional CalRecycle liaison, refer to this search form.
Whether you are new to food waste recycling or a seasoned pro, instituting an organics waste recycling program in a cooperative commercial setting will have its hurdles. But the ultimate benefits are tremendous:
CO2 vs. Methane
The breakdown of organic waste releases CO2, the poster-molecule for greenhouse gases. However, methane is a 28-36 times more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Methane is released in oxygen-deprived environments such as landfills.
- Millions of tons of energy-rich material will be delivered back to the biosphere or converted to useful power instead of going to the landfill.
- Methane emissions (a significant
contributor to climate change) will be
- Green sector jobs will be created.
*If you are wondering how to quantify your organic waste, you cannot accurately know without separating and measuring the volume. But simpler, albeit less accurate, options include (1) using the EPA’s estimated threshold for participation based on number of employees (for restaurants, its 51, including part time workers), or (2) eyeballing it, keeping in mind that 1 cubic yard = a cube with 3-foot sides.