California’s organic waste law isn’t perfect, but pressing pause is the wrong move

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CHRIS THOMAS | CALMATTERS

Progress has never been achieved by pressing pause. In June, the Little Hoover Commission suggested that California’s short-lived pollutant reduction law, Senate Bill 1383, a first-of-its-kind legislation aimed at reducing organic waste in landfills, should be paused. However, the commission’s recommendation is shortsighted.

Despite some of the bill’s limitations, it is one of the largest of 33 bills across 12 states that aims to reduce wasted food and ban unsold products from entering landfills. It is also one of the country’s best. Still, no bill is above improvement. SB 1383 has gaps that make it challenging for businesses and governments to comply. But there are also solutions. Making amendments to modernize the bill and create an equitable, sustainable solution is the necessary path forward. Giving up is not. Beyond deterring efforts to tackle wasted food and feed hungry people, a pause on this legislation sends a message that this isn’t a priority for California.

The commission is essentially saying it’s okay to scrap the bill because it’s not perfect. This would be a mistake for a state that throws away 6 million tons of food annually. Those who have already made investments would also be disproportionately affected by a pause. The Little Hoover Commission reported that half of the 540 participating local jurisdictions were in compliance as of January 2022.

Yet, CalRecycle Director Rachel Machi Wagoner recently noted that many more have made significant progress with 70% of jurisdictions now having residential collection programs in place. If the law was paused, what message would it send to Californians and jurisdictions that have invested significant resources, funding and time into meeting the requirements? What message would it send to innovative companies that have invested untold amounts of money to help these jurisdictions, businesses and residents comply? Well, perhaps that their investments were not warranted and they would have been better off remaining noncompliant with state law.

Diverting organic material from landfills is one of the fastest way to address climate change given that organics-driven methane is up to 80 times more potent in warming the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Casting doubt on whether this is achievable ignores the fact that doing nothing with a pause harms us all. This is not to say SB 1383 is perfect. Currently, businesses with broader environmental, social and governance goals are often limited to utilizing landfill diversion resources prescribed by their jurisdictions. Even if businesses want to choose a more environmentally preferable option, the law prevents them from accessing new pathways that emerged in California since the law was enacted.

The state should more clearly affirm the right of all businesses to choose services that suit their own cost structure, waste prevention and carbon-reduction strategy – currently unavailable to most small businesses. Many small businesses are unintentionally disadvantaged because they cannot participate in the decarbonization movement to the same extent a larger company can with its own self-hauling and logistics network. SB 1383 is also over-reliant on composting, which is an acceptable organic waste solution in residential areas, but not suited for greater quantities of commercial food waste. Instead, waste generators – and especially the commercial waste generators SB 1383 focuses on – should be able to choose from a suite of landfill diversion, waste prevention, resource recovery and renewable energy creation tools. Many commercial businesses want to ensure that contaminants and microplastics aren’t reintroduced into the food supply chain through composting.

Other commercial businesses want to do more than simply capture methane through composting – they want to replace fossil fuels by transforming nutrients that remain in wasted food into carbon negative renewable energy. These organizations are often told they don’t have authority to pay for alternatives to the composting program their local jurisdiction sets up for them. Whenever this country has advanced reform, it has done so through legislation and incentives, but it has also been most successful in allowing for flexibility to spur innovation. In the wake of the largest existential crisis of our time, climate change, California cannot press pause.

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