A new law in California requires food waste to be composted The goal is to reduce food waste in landfills by 75%. But the measure is proving to be a challenge for both households and businesses.

A new law in California requires food waste to be composted

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In California, food scraps, such as the banana peel from your morning smoothie, now have to be composted. It's part of ambitious new food recycling standards. Raquel Maria Dillon from member station KQED reports.

RAQUEL MARIA DILLON, BYLINE: Shana Bull recently started composting kitchen scraps at her home in a San Francisco suburb.

SHANA BULL: We were at home more, cooking way more often than we used to pre-pandemic.

DILLON: She bought a receptacle online...

BULL: A little compost bin - it's adorable - that we got on Amazon.

DILLON: ...And stashed it under the kitchen sink. Everything was going great until...

BULL: We went on vacation. We went down to LA. And we came back a week later, and the entire house just stunk.

DILLON: Once the swarm of fruit flies cleared, she got the hang of it. Now the family's leftovers go in the green bin that gets picked up weekly. Bull says every scoop of coffee grounds or veggie trimmings she can keep out of a landfill makes a difference.

BULL: I do really hope that people make an effort and maybe even know why. I think people do better when they know why it's important.

DILLON: It's important because composting fights climate change. Under the state's organics recycling mandate, California municipalities have to separate food and yard waste and haul it to a composting facility.

RACHEL MACHI WAGONER: I really, truly believe that this is the biggest change to our trash since we started recycling in the 1980s.

DILLON: That's the director of CalRecycle, Rachel Machi Wagoner. She says these new composting rules will reduce greenhouse gases.

WAGONER: Diverting our organic waste is the single fastest and easiest thing that every single Californian and every American can do to fight climate change.

DILLON: Organic waste that breaks down in landfills gets trapped without air and gives off methane, a potent greenhouse gas which contributes to climate change. As these new rules roll out, businesses will also be required to compost and donate edible food to food banks and charities. First, large grocery stores and food wholesalers; later, restaurants and cafeterias will have to comply or face fines.

So in the next few years, all California food businesses will have to operate like Veritable Vegetable, a wholesale organic produce distributor in San Francisco. Inside a high-tech warehouse, huge cooler doors slide open and close, like something on the Star Trek Enterprise. Forklifts zoom into coolers stacked with produce boxes. Here's Chief Administrator Shira Tannor.

SHIRA TANNOR: We'll get a pallet of cucumbers that come in completely melted. No one's going to eat them. They have to pretty much go to compost.

DILLON: Produce that's blemished or just past ripe or not pretty enough for market shelves or restaurants gets sold to processors or donated to the local food bank.

TANNOR: What we're normally donating is stuff that is edible but not sellable. Maybe it just doesn't look as good as we thought it was going to look when it came in.

DILLON: The company has been composting since 1983, so cutting down on waste is nothing new.

TANNOR: Veritable Vegetable grew out of a political movement. So its core values, from where it started, were really all about promoting a healthier and more sustainable world.

DILLON: Now, decades later, restaurants, grocery stores and people who eat will have to get on board. California's goal is to compost 75% of organics by 2025. The state estimates that will reduce greenhouse gases as much as taking a million cars off the road each year.

For NPR News, I'm Raquel Maria Dillon in San Francisco, Calif.


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