City residents first rolled their shiny new green organic waste bins to their curbs in the first week of October. Four months later, officials said they still have a long way to go to educate people about what exactly goes in the bin and what doesn’t as they try to increase participation before next year.
Senate Bill 1383, passed in 2016, requires cities to divert 75% of their organic waste out of landfills by 2025. That separation became mandatory on Jan. 1 last year, but Palm Springs and other cities delayed their rollout to educate residents and set up composting facilities.
About two-thirds of the state’s waste stream is organic compostable material like yard and food waste. When stuck in a landfill, that waste produces methane, a greenhouse gas that has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years in the atmosphere.
“This is the biggest change to the waste management infrastructure in California in about 20 years,” said Lindsey-Paige McCloy, director of the city’s Office of Sustainability.
Before October, about 3,000 households in the city already had a green waste bin, mainly used for yard waste such as grass clippings, leaves, weeds, and small branches. After rolling out the mandatory green bins in the first week of October, a representative with Palm Springs Disposal Service (PSDS) said the company saw participation increase by 25% city-wide. Another spike soon followed.
“We’re a seasonal town, so once more people started to come back, we saw another 25% increase since October,” said Liz Hernandez, the environmental coordinator for PSDS.
However, that figure represents all organic waste, the majority of which is still yard waste. Hernandez doesn’t know how much food waste recycling has increased, but she estimates residential participation in food waste recycling has increased by about 25% since October. PSDS wants to increase participation by another 25% by the end of March.
“We are definitely seeing more participation in the middle of Palm Springs,” said McCloy. “The south and north ends are a little bit slower to catch on.”
Communication is key
One of the challenges, McCoy said, is getting the message out to renters about what they should be doing.
“I’m a renter,” She said. “The bins in my complex just showed up in the middle of the night, and if I didn’t already know what they are for, I wouldn’t have any idea what to do.”
Hernandez said PSDS and the Office of Sustainability have many ideas for increasing participation, especially in multi-family complexes.
“We’re working with management companies to assist with visuals and information,” said Hernandez. “Whatever we can do to get the word out directly to residents.”
McCloy and others will also be more visible at grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and community events.
“We’ve also seen great success with community environmental advocates,” McCloy noted. “They’ve been great ambassadors for the program on our behalf,” she said. The ambassadors do the work that flyers and social media campaigns can’t do. They explain the program in a more personal and human way directly to their neighbors.
As for enforcement, McCloy said this year is about education.
“I hate to lead with enforcement and fines,” she said. “I don’t want your money, I want your trash.”
For now, PSDS is required to do “lid flips” — flipping open lids of the organic waste bins to see what’s inside. Those who place items in bins that are not compostable could find a sticker on their bin explaining the rules. Fines will follow next year, however — $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second, and $500 for the third.
Even though you’re not going to face fine this year, McCloy and Hernandez hope that people will quickly start to think about separating food waste just like they think about recycling. “It will eventually become a habit the more you do it,” McCloy said.
Organic waste rules differ in every city. Yard waste is considered leaves, grass clippings, weeds, flowers, tree trippings, and small twigs and branches. Large logs, dirt, rocks, and pet waste should not go in the organic waste bin.
Items considered food waste include coffee grounds, tea bags, fruit, vegetables, cooked meat, bones, egg shells, food scraps, and food-soiled paper.
Other things that can go in the organic waste bin include pizza boxes, which can’t be recycled because of lingering grease and food scraps. “Paper products like paper plates and towels with food on them can be composted along with most coffee and tea filters,” said McCloy.
On trash pickup day, yard waste should be loose in the green bin, and food waste should be contained in a bag of some kind, preferably a paper bag or reused plastic bag. “We’re trying to avoid the use of those big black plastic bags,” McCloy explained.
Some common mistakes people new to separating food waste make are forgetting about the little plastic sticker on fruits or the metal staple on some tea bags. Most K-cups aren’t compostable, but you can empty out the coffee grounds. Hernandez said it’s great that more people are participating, but she is seeing a lot of contamination from households that are participating.
McCloy said to be wary of misleading marketing labels claiming something is compostable or even recyclable. “It’s still the Wild West right now when it comes to labeling,” she said. California and other states have made some strides to increase accuracy in labeling. When in doubt, she said, the closer to nature something is, the better.
One of the most common questions McCloy gets is how to deal with the smell. She advises residents to either freeze the food waste or layer some paper or large dry palm fronds at the bottom of the bin to soak up any moisture. She uses a small metal bin on her kitchen counter with ventilation and a carbon filter.
“Part of the state mandate requires that the city purchases back some of the mulch for use in the city,” Hernandez said. That means apple cores and egg shells will help grow flowers and trees at your favorite park. That mulch will also be available for residents to purchase.
“It may feel like an annoying new step,” said McCloy, “But we want to show people that this really simple action can have a huge impact on the environment.”