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Santa Cruz is rolling out its food scrap collection program

Santa Cruz's new food scrap collection bin.
Frances Horwitz
Santa Cruz's new food scrap collection bin.

Confused about what — and what not — to put in your bins? Follow the links below for more information:

Many Santa Cruz city residents will have a new bin rolling up to the curb on next week’s trash day — part of a statewide effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from landfills.

The city’s new curbside food scrap collection program is meant to keep biodegradable leftovers like banana peels, coffee grounds, and bread crusts out of the landfill, where they break down and release potent greenhouse gasses.

Every single-family household within city limits will receive a six-gallon locking pail to fill with food scraps and place curbside on trash day each week.

“Whenever it gets here, I’m going to be very excited,” said Ryan Meckel, 23, a Santa Cruz city resident who works in IT for UC Santa Cruz. Meckel signed up for the city’s temporary food scrap drop-off program over a year ago. Participants can bring their food leftovers to city hall and dump them in a special padlocked dumpster.

Soon, city residents won't need to make the trip.

“It’s been really great that the city has been able to do this,” he said. “Everyone is going to have their bin and they don’t have to go through the extra steps of taking it over to city hall.”

While single-family residences will receive the bins next week, the program will expand to include multi-family residences over the coming months. Many businesses are already participating.

Ryan Meckel delivering his food scrap bucket to City Hall
Jerimiah Oetting
Ryan Meckel delivering his food scrap bucket to City Hall

The food scrap collection programs were developed to comply with Senate Bill 1383, which sets goals to significantly reduce climate pollutants. The law went into effect this year, and requires every community in California to divert food scraps from landfills, where they break down and release methane.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas at least 25 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Landfills are responsible for 20 percent of California’s methane emissions, according to Calrecycle.

While the purpose of the law is commendable, reaching compliance has been a heavy lift, says Leslie O’Malley, the waste reduction manager for the city of Santa Cruz.

“It’s what you call an unfunded mandate," she said. “The six-gallon pails — 14,000 of those. Different trucks, extra crew, more fuel."

For most of the state, compliance means composting, and that involves a large composting facility where food scraps can break down into soil. But the program in Santa Cruz is different.

“We're not permitted to do a food-to-soil compost (in Santa Cruz),” O’Malley said. “To start an industrial composting facility is highly regulated — almost as much as citing a new landfill.”

Instead, special machinery grinds the food scraps into a mulch at the city’s landfill. Then, the mulch is trucked to a facility in Santa Clara, where it’s converted into animal feed.

Eventually, O’Malley said the city will keep the mulch in Santa Cruz as biofuel to power the wastewater treatment facility.

"We completed that pilot and now they just need to look at instituting the infrastructure to be able to take on an ongoing basis," she said.

Like much of the rest of the state, food scraps from elsewhere in Santa Cruz County and all of Monterey County are composted. They're primarily sent to an industrial composting facility in Marina. Zoë Shoats, director of communications for ReGen Monterey, said the finished compost is used for landscaping, horticulture and agriculture.

Not everything that seems compostable qualifies for the food scrap collection programs, however. Compostable cutlery, paper products and liquids are currently not accepted. Outside of the city of Santa Cruz, raw meat is also not allowed in the bins. Find the rules for what the facilities can and can't accept in your area at the links at the top of the story.

    Jerimiah Oetting is KAZU’s news director. Prior to his career in public media, he was a field biologist with the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service.