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By Kathleen Ronayne

The Associated Press

DAVIS, CALIF. » Banana peels, chicken bones and leftover veggies won’t have a place in California trash cans under the nation’s largest mandatory residential food waste recycling program that’s set to take effect in January.

The effort is designed to keep landfills in the most populous U.S. state clear of food waste that damages the atmosphere as it decays. When food scraps and other organic materials break down they emit methane, a greenhouse gas more potent and damaging in the short-term than carbon emissions from fossil fuels.

To avoid those emissions, California plans to start converting residents’ food waste into compost or energy, becoming the second state in the U.S. to do so after Vermont launched a similar program last year.

Most people in California will be required to toss excess food into green waste bins rather than the trash. Municipalities will then turn the food waste into compost or use it to create biogas, an energy source that is similar to natural gas.

“This is the biggest change to trash since recycling started in the 1980s,” said Rachel Wagoner, director of the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery.

She added that it “is the single easiest and fastest thing that every single person can do to affect climate change.”

The push by California reflects growing recognition about the role food waste plays in damaging the environment across the United States, where up to 40% of food is wasted, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A handful of states and nations, including France, have passed laws requiring grocery stores and other large businesses to recycle or donate excess food to charities, but California’s program targets households and businesses.

The state passed a law in 2016 aimed at reducing methane emissions by significantly cutting down on discarded food. Organic material such as food and yard waste makes up half of everything in California landfills and a fifth of the state’s methane emissions, according to CalRecycle.

Starting in January, all cities and counties that provide trash services are supposed to have food recycling programs in place, and grocery stores must donate edible food that would be thrown away to food banks or similar organizations.

“There’s just no reason to stick this material in a landfill. It just happens to be cheap and easy to do so,” said Ned Spang, faculty lead for the Food Loss and Waste Collaborative at the University of California-Davis.

Vermont, home to 625,000 people compared to California’s nearly 40 million, is the only other state that bans residents from throwing their food waste in the trash. Under a law that took effect in July 2020, residents can compost the waste in their yards, opt for curbside pick up or drop it at waste stations. Seattle and San Francisco have similar programs.

California’s law stipulates that by 2025 the state must cut organic waste in landfills by 75% from 2014 levels, or from about 23 million tons to 5.7 million tons.

Most local governments will allow homeowners and apartment dwellers to dump excess food into yard waste bins, with some providing countertop containers to hold the scraps for a few days before it can be taken outside. Some areas can get exemptions for parts of the law, like

 

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