Opinion

Lawmakers: Don’t trash food recycling efforts

A landfill gas collection site in Sunnyvale. (Photo: Michael Vi, via Shutterstock)

Reducing the amount of organic waste that is buried in California landfills is an environmental imperative. As state policy mandates, something has to be done to choke back the production of methane, the gas that is generated when table scraps, yard clippings and other organic materials decompose underground.

Methane, classified as a super-pollutant, is 84 times more harmful than carbon dioxide as a global warming gas.

If someone were to present to state policymakers a plan that would remove a major source of organic material from the waste stream in a way that is environmentally superior to other options, lower costs for California businesses and farms, and reduce the expenditures local governments must make to comply with state organic-waste mandates, you can be sure they would jump at the chance.

For some dairies and livestock ranches in California, food byproduct makes up half or more of the food available for their cattle.

But there is a far different proposal now before the Legislature – one that would do the opposite of all those good things.

In the name of broadly reducing organic waste going to landfills, it would eliminate the existing approach to removing a source of organic material in a way that is less costly and better for the environment.

That idea is as foolish as it sounds.

For decades – beginning long before the state imposed a mandate to deal with organic waste through such processes as composting and anaerobic digestion – livestock farmers have been beneficially recycling leftover food from groceries, restaurants, convenience stores, cafeterias and other food retailers. They convert it to animal feed.

Food byproducts such as fruit and vegetable peels, nut hulls and bakery waste are an excellent source of nutrients for livestock, and the availability of this food source reduces the need to grow more feed or import it from out of state. For some dairies and livestock ranches in California, food byproduct makes up half or more of the food available for their cattle.

It is an established practice, employed around the world, and it is recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a superior means of recovering food products that cannot be used to feed hungry people than composting or other industrial processes.

But now the ability to recycle food originally produced for humans into food for animals is being imperiled. Assembly Bill 2959 would allow local governments to designate excess food materials from restaurants and food retailers as organic waste that can be taken away only by franchised waste haulers.

There are more than 1.8 million organic-generating businesses that would be affected by the law, mostly restaurants.

That would eliminate the ability of farmers to acquire this source of animal feed. It would increase the cost of livestock feed and also harm restaurants and food retailers. In addition, it would add significant volume to the waste stream, at a time when local governments are already facing an estimated $22 billion cost to build the infrastructure necessary for processing organic waste.

During these difficult times created by the COVID-19 pandemic, most restaurants are already struggling financially. To force them to dispose of surplus food products exclusively through franchised waste haulers will lead to higher costs and create an extra burden.

That would have no small impact on the California economy: There are more than 1.8 million organic-generating businesses that would be affected by the law, mostly restaurants.

Established state law clearly allows individual businesses to sell or donate recyclable material which, because of its value, cannot be defined as “waste.” Food products generated by agricultural operations (such as grape pomace from wineries or nut hulls from almond orchards) are specifically kept out of the reach of franchise agreements. Currently, that food-recycling exemption applies also to restaurants, grocers, and other food retailers.

Assembly Bill 2959 would not provide one molecule of benefit in addressing climate change. But it would disrupt an existing system of food recycling that works for the environment and provides broad benefits to farmers and businesses.

Lawmakers should reject any attempt to fix a system that works so well.

Editor’s Note: Oscar Gutierrez is the owner of Plaza Garibaldi Restaurant and Garibaldi Meat Market in Coachella. 


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