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California's pivotal food recycling program

Words by Smiley Team

California has launched the nation's largest mandatory residential food waste recycling program, which requires all residents to separate organic food waste from the rest to help mitigate climate change.

As food waste decomposes, it wreaks havoc on the atmosphere and pollutes the water supply in the most populous state in the United States. Methane, a more potent and damaging greenhouse gas than carbon emissions from fossil fuels, is released when food waste and other organic materials decompose.

After Vermont started its own food waste recycling program in 2021, California is now the second state in the United States to follow suit and begin converting residents' food waste into compost or energy.

The majority of Californians will be required to dispose of their food waste in green waste bins rather than in their garbage cans. The food waste will either be composted or used to generate biogas, a renewable energy source that is akin to natural gas, by municipalities.

[Also read: A trailblazing local circular food system]

California's director of resources recycling and recovery, Rachel Wagoner, called this "the biggest change to trash since recycling began in the 1980s" in a statement.

“This is the single simplest and fastest thing that every single person can do to influence climate change," she said.

A growing awareness of the environmental harm caused by food waste in the United States, where the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that up to 40% of food is thrown away, prompted the state of California to lead the charge.

Some countries, such as France, have laws requiring supermarkets and other large businesses to recycle or donate excess food to charities, but California's program focuses on individuals and small businesses.

Methane emissions were reduced significantly in 2016 when the state enacted a law to reduce the amount of food that is thrown away. A fifth of California's methane emissions come from organic material like food and yard waste, which makes up half of all waste in California landfills, according to CalRecycle.

Every municipality that provides trash service is required to have food recycling programs in place, and grocery stores must donate food that would otherwise be thrown away to food banks or similar organizations beginning in January.

Organic waste must be reduced by 75 percent by 2025, or from 23 million tons to 5.7 million tons, according to California's law.

If you have extra food that you don't need, most local governments will let you dispose of it in garbage cans or countertop containers for a few days before hauling it away. Some parts of the law, such as in rural areas where bears rummage through trash cans, can be exempted.

Composting facilities or anaerobic digestion facilities will receive the food waste and compost it or turn it into biogas that can be used for heating and electricity like natural gas.

Inspired to act?

STAY INFORMED: Follow CalRecycle to stay up to date with how this program is progressing.

DONATE: If you want to do more to support reducing food waste across the US, donate to Food Rescue US.

Photo by Jasmin Sessler on Unsplash

This article aligns with the following UN SDGs

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