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Wasted food in landfills is a separate problem

"Unless there is a financial incentive, most won't do it."

A Save the Food billboard in Pacific Beach
  • A Save the Food billboard in Pacific Beach
  • photo by Barbara Hamilton

A new campaign aimed at eliminating food waste, Save the Food San Diego, kicked off on Tuesday (September 26). But some of the tools needed to achieve that goal, despite being mandated by changes to state law last summer, still aren't in place.

"According to the latest research from the San Diego Hunger Coalition, at least one in six San Diegans and one in five children are food insecure," shared Barbara Hamilton of the San Diego Food System Alliance, speaking at the group's annual summit on food waste. And yet we waste so much food — according to CalRecycle, we generate six million tons of food waste per year in California, making up 18 percent of what we throw away in our landfills."

While a Save the Food campaign has existed for more than a year on a national scale, it's had a minimal impact locally due to a lack of funding. An anonymous donor sourced through the San Diego Foundation, however, is funding the placement of consumer outreach materials throughout the county.

"You may see Save the Food messaging on your water bill or your trash bill, you may see it at street fairs, in cafeterias, and at public buildings, on video monitors at hospitals and universities, on menus at schools and senior centers," Hamilton elaborates, ticking off a host of different means of advertising. Billboards have been installed in several locations around town since August.

The national campaign focuses on convincing consumers to waste less food. The worst offenders, though, are commercial and industrial entities — schools, hospitals, restaurants, resorts, and other large venues. The alliance has been trying to bring these parties onboard for a while and has three dozen partners, ranging from local city governments to venues such as the Del Mar Fairgrounds and Petco Park.

"Recent California legislation AB 1826 and SB 1383 require less food waste to enter landfills from businesses and residents. Although planning efforts are underway, in San Diego County we don't yet have the robust systems that we need to compost or digest food waste," Hamilton continued. "This leaves us in a unique position, though, where we can work on waste reduction and donations as first steps before the needed infrastructure is finalized. That would be the preferred strategy, anyway."

Preventing waste in the first place and diverting food that's likely to end up wasted to local food banks are at the top of an inverted pyramid prioritizing these measures above using waste as livestock feed or composting material.

Assembly Bill 1826, known as Mandatory Commercial Organics Recycling, is the more specific of the two measures aimed at the latter objectives, noting the significant methane-gas emissions attributed to wasted food breaking down inside landfills. Beginning January 1, 2016, cities and counties across the state were directed to implement organics recycling programs. By April 1, businesses generating more than eight cubic yards per week of organic waste were to have recycling services in place; on January 1 this year, the law applied to businesses generating four cubic yards per week.

Jim Ambroso is president of San Diego–based Resource Management Group, a firm that's provided commercial recycling services for the past 23 years. Last year, the company began a pilot food-waste recycling program. To date, about 30 customers have signed up for the service.

"Most food waste is going to compost sites where it is mixed with green waste to create soil amendments," Ambroso says. "Composting of food waste can work well if the material delivered is kept very clean, contamination is a killer. Sadly, most generators don't do a very good job of keeping food cleanly separated."

Resource Management tries to solve this problem by providing containers small enough to sit inside commercial kitchens at the edge of prep tables, which once filled with plant waste are swapped out at a pallet-sized pod the company regularly empties; buy-in from businesses that should be following state law, however, has been slow.

"Today, there are very few facilities to take food waste for processing," Ambroso continues. The composting facility at the Miramar landfill is running at full capacity, and while some waste is diverted to farms for their own compost or to feed animals, options locally on where to dump food people do want to recycle are limited. Farm recycling, Ambroso says, is "by far the least expensive option and our hope is that local and state regulators and planners will encourage farmers to participate in these programs.

"Currently, food-waste recycling costs more than traditional trash service. Hence, commercial generators are hesitant to add that cost unless they're forced to comply with the law," Ambroso admits. "Local governments are beginning to put more pressure on their commercial businesses and waste haulers, but more needs to be done. Unless there is a financial incentive, most won't do it."

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