Enter the compost bin

New state mandate requires some businesses divert more waste from the landfill

Employees at Tres Hombres now must discard organic waste separately from the regular trash.

Employees at Tres Hombres now must discard organic waste separately from the regular trash.

Photo by evan tuchinsky

AB 1826 takes effect as follows:
April 1—Businesses and multifamily buildings with 8 cubic yards of compostable waste per week.
Jan. 1, 2017—Businesses with 4 cubic yards of compostable waste per week.
Jan. 1, 2019—Businesses and multifamily buildings with 4 cubic yards of trash per week.

At Tres Hombres, a restaurant so close to Chico State that it’s as much a fixture of the campus as downtown, Todd Pedretti hears a lot about eco-friendly business practices.

“I’m approached almost every semester by students who are doing sustainability studies, and they give suggestions to us,” said Pedretti, manager for 16 of the restaurant’s 28 years.

Certain tips tend to recur: energy-efficient light bulbs, for instance, and timers. Once in a while, fresh ideas surface.

“We use some of them,” he said. “We’re happy to be a part of that.”

Some things, however, are beyond their control. A new state mandate on composting means the restaurant will now have another waste bin out back.

Under the terms of Assembly Bill 1826, starting April 1, any business that generates at least 8 cubic yards per week of organic waste must separate that waste stream for collection and processing that diverts it from landfills. Such items include food scraps, coffee filters, tea bags, food-soiled paper and biodegradable packaging, yard trimmings and tree wood.

The law also applies to any multifamily residential building of at least five units with 8 cubic yards per week of organic waste, though the collection requirement just extends to yard trimmings.

That threshold, which increases in future years (see box), is sizable. According to Sal Coniglio, general manager of Recology Butte Colusa Counties, it takes a large kitchen—such as a school or hospital’s—to yield this much compost-qualifying trash. (For reference, 8 cubic yards of material would fill three full-size truck beds.)

“Not too many restaurants are doing 8 cubic yards of food waste [a week],” he said by phone. “They may be doing 8 cubic yards of garbage with other nonrecycleable items, which is pretty typical … but restaurants, when they waste food, it costs them money; the food that they’re disposing of is what’s left on the plate. They’re pretty efficient in their kitchens.”

Tres Hombres is efficient, too, Pedretti said, but along with doing a brisk business—i.e., many plates to scrape—has unavoidable food items to discard. For example, Mexican food requires a lot of lettuce, but each head of lettuce the kitchen staff chops up leaves a hard end that gets placed in a waste bin, not a taco or tostada.

Recology provided new bins to Tres Hombres, and the handful of other local commercial customers who now need to collect organic waste, free of charge. Pick-up service is scheduled three times weekly. Coniglio said Recology is developing a fee structure, but it’s possible the additional service could be offset by reduction in the cost of hauling landfill garbage.

Waste Management, the other company serving Chico, also will charge for the service. However, Sarah Polito, communications specialist for Chico, said by email that the hauler “will be working closely with our customers to right-size their trash, recycling and food-waste containers to help ensure they can be compliant with the new law in a cost-effective way.”

Mandatory commercial organics recycling under AB 1826 fits hand-in-glove with AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act, by contributing to state goals for recycling and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

As Waste Management explains in a fact sheet, these compostable materials account for 10 million tons—almost a third—of waste that goes into California landfills annually. Diverting that waste will reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted from landfills; processing this waste into compost and mulch products will help enrich soil and plants, conserve water and sequester carbon.

Waste Management will add an additional route with a different truck to handle organics, though Polito said the company “do[es] not foresee the need to open a new facility” for processing.

Recology already has a route established, as well as a facility in place.

“In ’09, we were watching this happening in the Bay Area and other communities, some pilot programs, so we started a food waste program here way in advance,” Coniglio said. “A lot of the cities and counties are having a tough time developing that infrastructure.

“It’s a great program,” he added. “It could be a hardship for some businesses, maybe, but a lot of these businesses are used to recycling now with all their activities.”

Grocers and vendors large enough to be impacted likely have established food-waste processes, Coniglio noted, such as directly transporting old meat to a rendering plant.

At Tres Hombres, Pedretti said the change will be as simple as getting staff accustomed to using one more garbage can. His main concern is insects buzzing around the bin, because the organic waste cannot be wrapped in plastic, and storing garbage inside is not a healthy alternative.

“There’s already a fly issue with dumpsters; having just food products sitting in receptacles, I can see that being a problem,” he said. “But, big picture, this is a good thing.”