California residents are now required to separate food scraps from the rest of their household waste. Although the mandate was part of a broader law passed in 2016, the household waste portion did not go into effect until this year.
Senate Bill 1383 requires residents to separate food waste from the rest of their trash and deposit it in green waste bins. Rather than end up in landfills or incinerated, the food matter will be composted. While this works for low-lying areas, up here in bear country, it’s a different story. High elevation municipalities above 4,500 feet can obtain an exemption due to the environment’s unique challenges.
“While lower elevation communities may accept food scraps into green bins, food scraps should never be placed into Truckee green waste carts,” stressed Melanie Conti of Keep Truckee Green.
The bulk of green waste collected in the area is pine needles, which decompose very slowly. Since pine needles are typically not accepted by composters, they are sent to biomass facilities or used for erosion control. Food scraps, however, are sent to compost facilities where they break down quickly into nutrient-rich soils.
“The wildlife in our mountain setting also makes a food waste collection program extremely challenging,” Conti noted. “Food must always be secure from wildlife. Currently, reliable bear-proof collection containers do not exist on the market to implement a food waste only collection program.”
This is why the state has availed an exemption for high elevation areas.
“Although we have an exemption for food waste, the town is still motivated to do our part to reduce food waste sent to landfill and reduce methane emissions,” Conti said. “Residents are encouraged to utilize the drop-off dumpsters offered.”
Support for composting had already been gaining steam for years.
Truckee started a food waste drop-off pilot program at Town Hall in 2019. With the pilot well-received, the town began exploring other convenient locations around town to expand the program. Keep Truckee Green now has public collection bins at Truckee Town Hall, the Glenshire General Store, and the Mountain Hardware and Sports Donner Pass Road location. The Glenshire General Store will be selling kitchen compost pails for collecting food scraps at home. Pails are $5 each; profits benefit Sierra Community House.
Slow Food has also been offering the possibility of dropping off food scraps in a collection bin at its Truckee Community Garden at Truckee River Regional Park.
“I think the new law is a very positive and progressive move for California. Reducing what ends up in landfills is paramount for combating climate change,” said Trish Geary, president of Slow Food Lake Tahoe. “The biggest challenge is going to be ensuring everyone understands the correct message as to what can go in their compost bin, just the same as recycling plastics and cardboard.”
Dropping off food scraps is free at the Keep Truckee Green and Slow Food bins. Just be sure to know what type of waste is accepted at the different drop-off sites, as they vary.
Keep Truckee Green accepts fruits and vegetables, flowers, eggshells, meat bones, avocado pits, and coffee grounds. Items that are not accepted include: bags, paper products, “compostable” plastic, cardboard, pet feces/kitty litter, tea bags, coffee filters, tissues, paper towels, shredded newspaper, and “compostable” cutlery, bags, or containers.
“It’s very important to only place food scraps in our compost drop-off dumpsters,” Conti added. “Food waste is sent to Full Circle Compost in Carson City, Nevada, and they only accept food scraps … Even if packaging is labeled as ‘compostable’ it should not be placed in these dumpsters. ‘Compostable’ packaging is not accepted by most commercial composters because it requires a lot of time and high temperatures to break down and can possibly leach chemicals into the finished soil product. A good rule of thumb is that if you can eat it, you can compost it.”
Slow Food Lake Tahoe has similar guidelines, but they are a bit more restrictive.
“This is because the food waste that goes into the Slow Food Lake Tahoe Food Bank Garden [is] composted on-site and the end-product goes directly back into the garden beds during the growing season,” Geary explained. “… Our compost bins do not heat up to a high enough temperature to break down larger, denser items, and if mixed in, [it] would allow for bad bacteria to proliferate and contaminate the soil in the garden beds.”
Accepted waste materials at the Slow Food site include fruits, vegetables, flowers, eggshells, coffee grounds, leaves, and sawdust from untreated wood. Not accepted are anything sprayed with pesticides or herbicides, bread, bones, dairy, fats, leftovers, meat, seafood, cardboard, pet feces/kitty litter, tea bags, coffee filters, tissues, paper towels, shredded newspaper, weeds, and plastic or compostable cutlery, bags, or containers.
“All the compost goes directly back into the garden to grow organic produce that is then donated to our partners at Sierra Community House and distributed to those who are food insecure,” Geary said.