How Sonoma County residents are adjusting to California’s new composting law

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Mary Callahan, Press Democrat | January 19, 2022

Melon rinds. Chicken bones. Snotty tissues. Coffee grounds.

The half-eaten, ketchup-smeared bun from your burger. The pizza box still on the counter from last night.

These are just a few of the items no longer regarded as trash in California. In fact, they hold value.

Hundreds of thousands of Californians already steer such materials away from their garbage cans, instead depositing them in yard waste bins or backyard compost heaps

Now, under a new state law, all households and businesses are legally required to keep organic waste from reaching the landfill, sorting them out from actual litter and recyclables, which each have their own disposal bins.

That means late adopters need to get up to speed to be in compliance with organics separation, though enforcement of the law is still two years off. Local haulers are working to bring everyone aboard as smoothly as possible, educating consumers and ensuring apartment dwellers and multifamily housing complexes are ready.

“Where we’re heading is composting is just as intuitive as recycling ― where it becomes a way of life,” said Xinci Tan, Organics Program Manager for Zero Waste Sonoma, the county’s integrated waste management agency.

Composting has multiple benefits, including returning nutrients to the planet and extending the life of public landfills, which are under constant pressure thanks to American consumerism. Processed organic wastes also are a renewable source of natural gas and electricity.

But the new mandate is driven by efforts to reduce production of methane, a potent greenhouse gas created when organic waste decomposes in the landfill.

Landfills are the third largest source of methane, one of the so-called “short-lived climate pollutants.” It doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide but heats the climate 28 times faster, on average, while it’s there, according to CalRecycle, the state’s waste management agency.

Landfills account for 20% of the methane emitted in the state, so getting organics out of the dump can help slow global warming.

“It’s not that hard to compost at home,” said Celia Furber, Waste Zero Manager for Recology, “and it’s one of the best things they can do to combat climate change. Because some people are like, ‘Oh, no. Another law.’ But it’s an easy thing they can do.”

Recology, the waste hauler that serves most of Sonoma County, as well as Windsor’s contractor, Sonoma County Resource Recovery, and Sonoma Garbage Collectors, which serves Sonoma, have been preparing customers ahead of Jan. 1, when the law took effect.

But Karina Konezny, 17, a member of the Sebastopol’s Orchard View School Green Team, has been giving presentations on the new law to community groups with some of her schoolmates and finding “a lot of people still don’t know about it.”

That’s surprising, she said, “because it’s so important, and there will be fines in the future for noncompliance.”

Alissa Johnson, business and compliance manager for Sonoma County Resource Recovery, said those just learning “have been pretty receptive,” however.

“It has a lot to do with what I learned during college,” said one Santa Rosa woman, Malvika Mishra, an experienced food waste diverter at 26. “It’s better for the environment.”

Another woman, interviewed outside a Santa Rosa Target store, like Mishra, said she had been composting food waste for the garden for years, though with a new baby, she may not be spending much time in the yard for a while.

“A lot of our friend group is composting,” said Jessica Farinha, 30, of Rohnert Park. “I guess they’re just more conscientious.”

Take Tara Williams, who launched Café Zazzle in downtown Petaluma more than 16 years ago. Last year, the Kentucky Street eatery added green waste tubs to the kitchen and dining room with help from a representative for Recology.

It was part of a campaign to ensure the city’s restaurants would be prepared for the new organics material disposal requirements.

“It’s been pretty seamless,” Williams, an early skeptic, said. “I don’t know why we made such a big deal about it. And it feels good to be knowing we’re doing something good.”

Aroma Roaster owner Dayna Irvine had a similar experience. She felt overwhelmed at first when the coffee shop in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square first brought in an organics dumpster in 2018 and started separating food scraps, coffee grounds, even coffee cup jackets and molded paper drink carriers.

“It was just a matter of putting a system in place that worked for everyone, because we’re so busy,” Irvine said. ‘’You can throw so much in the compost bin. It’s kind of shocking.”

For residents, even a bowl will do to collect scraps and leftovers from the kitchen, though fancy receptacles with filtered lids, foot pedals or counter mounting equipment are available.

One critical point: Though “compostable” plastic bags are super handy for lining indoor food waste bins and keeping everything neat and clean, those bags are a NO in all local communities except the city of Sonoma. (Compostable bags are accepted in large commercial green waste dumpsters.)

Instead, experts recommend using brown paper bags or newspaper to line kitchen buckets or even freezing food waste until it’s time to put it in the yard waste.

“Compostable” packaging and utensils also are not accepted because of synthetic binders and other issues, Zero Waste Sonoma Executive Director Leslie Lukacs said.

There are still some of Recology’s 129,000 Sonoma County clients who are yet unable to comply with the law, some because they are among a couple of thousand people in remote, “hard to serve” locations, Furber said. Organic waste service to those areas is still being developed, she said.

In addition, some apartment complexes, homeowner associations and businesses still have to be supplied organic dumpsters or bins due to space constraints or other considerations.

The organics waste mandate is one element of a multifaceted law that addresses a variety of climate pollution sources, including livestock and dairy operations.

Among its provisions are requirements that, by 2025, 20% of the edible food that might otherwise go to compost be recovered to help feed hungry people.

Tier 1 entities like supermarkets, wholesale vendors and other food distributors with gross annual sales of $2 million or more were required, beginning Jan. 1 to be donating as much usable food as possible to those in need, Lukacs said.

Restaurants, hotels, health facilities, event venues, cafeterias, schools and other entities of a certain size will be required to comply with the mandate by 2024, though Lukacs said the county had significant work to do to create the infrastructure to handle the donations.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that plastic “compostable” bags are accepted in large commercial green waste dumpsters, though they are now allowed in residential yard waste bins.