Get ready to recycle your kitchen scraps this year under new state law

Victor Quinonez loads boxes of unused food onto a truck at a Vons supermarket.
(Ariana Drehsler)

Homes and businesses will need to recycle food waste, while large 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 need to 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 part of Senate Bill 1383, which was passed in 2016 in an effort to cut down on what the state calls short-lived climate pollutants such 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 sets a target of recovering 20 percent of edible food that is now discarded. 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 San Diego 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.

green recycling bins
The city of San Diego plans to provide all its trash customers with green bins for food and yard waste.

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.

Recycling in California

The changes are part of a decades-long 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 much more potent than carbon, though it remains in the atmosphere for less time. Reducing that waste can cut those emissions quickly.

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?”

About 30 percent to 40 percent of food in the United States 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.

Saving food

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.

Under SB 1383, supermarkets, food distributors and wholesale food retailers that aren’t already doing so must begin donating surplus food this year, said Michael Wonsidler, program manager for the San Diego County Department of Public Works. 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,” said Vanessa Ruiz, vice president of operations for the San Diego Food Bank. “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.”

Representatives of Life Acts load boxes of food onto a truck at a Vons.
Representatives of Life Acts, a community outreach ministry of Life Christian Center International Ministries of San Diego, load boxes of food onto a truck at a Vons.
(Ariana Drehsler)

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,” said Casares of Feeding San Diego. “We had already been tracking the pounds of food rescued, but our partners will have to track that as well.”

Food recycling at home

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.

Prue recommended layering food waste with yard trimmings to avoid odors and pests, or storing smellier scraps such as meat and bones in the freezer until collection day.

All of this 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.” ◆