Costa Mesa Sanitary District – Residential Organics Recycling Program

By Todd Winslow posted 03-31-2021 08:03 AM


Costa Mesa Sanitary Facility

n 2015, the Costa Mesa Sanitary District (CMSD) became the first agency in Southern California to implement a curbside Organics Recycling Program that accepted both food scraps and yard waste. Although CMSD had been promoting zero waste practices long before the state legislature passed significant waste reduction legislation, the passing of Assembly Bill (AB) 1594 and Senate Bill (SB) 1383 made CMSD’s decision to pursue organics recycling imminent.

Signed into law in 2014, AB 1594 mandated that green waste used as Alternative Daily Cover (ADC) at landfills would no longer be credited as diversion beginning January 1, 2020. State law requires local agencies to divert 50% of solid waste away from landfills. Without receiving diversion credit for ADC, many agencies would no longer meet the 50% mandate and would need to find another means for disposing of green waste. In 2016, Governor Brown signed SB 1383, which establishes targets to achieve a 50% reduction in the level of the statewide disposal of organic waste from the 2014 level by 2020, and 75% reduction by 2025.

The next step was to gauge public opinion. CMSD surveyed 1,000 customers to determine whether they thought future rate increases would be acceptable to cover the costs of a residential Organics Recycling Program. Survey results overwhelmingly indicated that customers were excited about the positive environmental impacts of the program and were willing to pay more for the added benefits of the service. With the blessing of the community and anticipation of pending state legislation, CMSD’s Board of Directors approved the roll-out of a residential Organics Recycling Program. CMSD’s waste hauler, CR&R Environmental Services, carries out the program using their state-of-the-art Anaerobic Digestion Facility to convert food scraps and yard waste into renewable natural gas that fuels its collection trucks and nutrient-rich compost that is given out to residents at an annual community event.

Prior to this program, CMSD customers comingled landfill waste, recyclables, food waste, and yard waste in 90-gallon residential “Mixed Waste” trash carts. The Organics Recycling Program provided customers with up to two additional 64-gallon “Organics Recycling” carts strictly for food and yard waste. As CMSD transitioned from a one-cart system to a two-cart system, customers were advised that recyclables and trash in their original “Mixed Waste” carts would continue to be taken to CR&R’s Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) in Stanton, CA to be separated for recycling through a combination of manual and mechanical sorting. Meanwhile, organic waste would be transported to CR&R’s Anaerobic Digestion Facility (AD) in Perris, CA. These combined processes ensure that the maximum number of recyclables are recovered from the waste stream and that all organic waste is kept out of the landfill.

To aid the transition, CMSD purchased and distributed thousands of countertop kitchen pails to help customers easily collect food scraps at home. Kitchen pails can be lined with newspaper or compostable bags and should be emptied into the “Organics Recycling” cart weekly for collection. Kitchen pails are still available to customers at no charge and no solid waste rate increase was implemented for the Organics Recycling Program until 2019 – four years after the program’s roll-out.

Garbage Truck

In addition to the distribution of kitchen pails, CMSD engaged in a number of public outreach efforts to prepare the community for the program. These included town hall meetings and workshops, an updated webpage containing frequently asked questions, a 5-minute how-to video explaining how the cart should be used, newsletter articles, a clip-and-save guide to what does and does not belong in the “Organics Recycling” cart, and a map depicting where and when the new “Organics Recycling” carts would be delivered. Additionally, CMSD partnered with Sally Geislar, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and the Director of UCI’s Food Works Lab, to conduct a behavioral study. The study led by Geislar, entitled “Food Scraps for Fuel: Understanding and Increasing Household Participation in the Costa Mesa Curbside Organics Program,” engaged more than 1,000 residents. The study used a two-part experimental design to understand how residents were responding to the new curbside program and to test new tools for improving resident participation. In the pilot study, participants became more pro-environmental in their attitudes after beginning to separate food scraps in the home. Many participants reported that they began shopping for food with less packaging, as well as making changes like purchasing cage-free eggs. The large sample size in the study helped evaluate what kinds of waste prevention behaviors are typical and significant, which informed CMSD’s future outreach and education.

It has now been six years since the launch of the Organics Recycling Program and there have been many challenges and lessons learned. CMSD is currently averaging approximately 800 tons of organic waste collected and recycled monthly with a contamination rate of about 5%. Over the years, CMSD has learned that continuous and evolving public outreach and education are crucial to program participation. CMSD recently launched a successful awareness campaign to educate residents about what items should be placed in the “Organics Recycling” cart and how the waste is recycled. The campaign included the promotion and distribution of countertop kitchen pails, flyers, and educational magnets. CMSD continues to work on providing tips and tools to help residents overcome the “yuck” factor, since many still worry about food waste creating bad odors and attracting unwanted critters. With SB 1383’s 2022 deadline fast approaching, CMSD is excited to see many other jurisdictions rolling out similar programs and proud to have been a pioneer in this endeavor. As more jurisdictions implement these types of programs, it is our hope that organic waste separation becomes a norm that leads statewide efforts toward waste reduction and preservation of our state’s resources and environment.