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Compost County

Another way to avert new law's restrictions: eat your veggies, clean your plate

“People are interested in small, decentralized composting operations.”
  • “People are interested in small, decentralized composting operations.”

It’s not easy to be a composter in San Diego. There are state, county, and in some cases, even city rules about odors, size and more. Now, however, soil tenders have hope.

CalRecycle, the state agency in charge of everything from biosolids to tire piles, is updating its rules on composting. But what has emerged, critics say, is an unhelpful draft plan that will hinder the local food system, send more organic wastes to the landfill, and increase air emissions. If it’s approved, community gardens, farms, and would-be soil entrepreneurs won’t find relief.

A new law, Assembly Bill 1826, adds a twist. By January 2016, large generators of food and yard waste will no longer be able to send materials to the landfill.

“We’re scrambling,” says Jessica Toth, executive director of Encinitas-based Solana Center for Environmental Innovation. The nonprofit is steering others through the rule-making maze. Local jurisdictions need a plan, and waste haulers are also in a bind, she says.

In comments to CalRecycle, several San Diego groups suggested a solution: expand local composting. It can be done by removing barriers and creating incentives for composting, as happened with plastics recycling decades ago. What’s missing, Toth says, are medium-size facilities, somewhere between residential (up to about a 60-gallon bin) and industrial scale. That is, operations that still require a solid-waste permit.

According to a letter Solana Center and other local groups sent to CalRecycle, about 40 percent of landfill materials in the area are compostable organics. The county’s only permitted composting facility that accepts food — Miramar Greenery — doesn't have the capacity to meet the needs of the entire region, and the next-closest commercial site for food waste is over 100 miles away in Victorville.

The problem with the Miramar Greenery has less to do with them being near capacity and more that they only accept from businesses based in the City of San Diego and their affiliates. They are not necessarily near capacity though they do not have the capacity to meet the needs of the entire region.

What concerns Toth most about the draft plan is not being able to bring food scraps to compost sites.

“People are interested in small, decentralized composting operations,” Toth says. But getting there will take help from the state. “CalRecycle will guide local regulations.”

The groups requested that the agency relax the size limits for small sites that don’t need permits; allow food waste to be brought to farms and community gardens; and create guidelines for small- to medium-size composters.

In many ways, smaller facilities have the best chance of expanding local composting, Toth says. Large operations face even tougher requirements in terms of capital, permitting, and objections from neighbors. One example: a Valley Center project in the mid-1990s, a joint effort of Solana Center and EDCO, was “shuttered by local public sentiment.”

While most backyard compost piles and school gardens are exempt from the rules, somewhat larger sites face permit costs and processes that don’t match their size, according to San Diego Food Policy, an advocacy group that helped shape the city’s community garden and urban-farming policies. And schools are uncertain which rules might apply to them.

Janet Whited, the recycling specialist for San Diego Unified School District, says their main challenge is size limits. Composting less than one cubic yard of food material is exempt from the rules if it is food that was made and used on-site. CalRecycle assured her that school composting is meant to be excluded, but since compost pile size varies over time, what if they exceed it?

“We have some schools capturing salad bar and other food waste for on-site composting in gardens, and there was confusion if they happened to have more than one cubic yard of food waste in a compost pile at any given time would they have to get a permit,” Whited says.

CalRecycle made changes to address the issue.

“The new language would pretty much cover our needs for school gardens, but it won’t help everyone,” Whited says.

There’s also a square-footage limit. Composting of food and green material is exempt if the total amount of feedstock and compost present at any one time doesn’t exceed 100 cubic yards and 500 square feet.

“The 500 square feet is pretty restrictive for community gardens and other small-scale composting programs,” Whited says. So, some suggested CalRecycle increase both the amount of material to more than 100 cubic yards and the allowable space.

How does a school keep track?

“On the cubic yardage amount, for us, it’s really just a visual estimation,” Whited says. “Some schools make compost bins with old pallets. If a pallet bin is full, it’s about one cubic yard.”

CalRecycle defends the messy regulations as necessary to ensure safe handling of compost and odors; a potential problem in San Diego where homes may abut farms and urban agriculture is growing. The local enforcement agency is charged with making sure the rules are followed. To protect food, groundwater, and soil, compost should be as free as possible of harmful pathogens, heavy metals, and other contaminants.

One reason the bar is high for composters is that the rules also cover large facilities that spread biosolids (aka sewage sludge, wastes often used as fertilizer that contain heavy metals and other contaminants).

“For home composters, there isn’t much safety concern,” Toth says. “You want to avoid adding meats, dairy, and breads” which can raise the risk of pathogens and rodents. For others, Toth supports safety through monitoring and inspections. “You don’t want everyone throwing things on a pile.”

(revised 4/2, 9:40 p.m.)

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