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Our new recycling challenge: Organic waste

Debbie Gibbs
Special to The Union

If someone told you there was one action you could take to make a major improvement for the environment, reduce emissions and keep money in your pocketbook — would you commit? That action is simple— Don’t waste your food. It does require some planning, a little education, and a bit of time, but hey, consider this a “job” because you will save money instead of throwing your dollars in the garbage. It is one positive step you can take to contribute to decreasing the climate crisis and it is cost-free except for your time.

In the USA, 40% of food produced is wasted. Retail outlets account for 40% of loss (including around 25% from restaurants), at home is 42% and the farm is 16%. Food waste is problem that falls mainly in the hands of consumers.

The handwriting is on the wall in California. Food waste, via release of methane from rotting food in our landfills, is a major source of our state’s greenhouse gas emissions. A new law (SB1383) was passed that promises to significantly improve our food waste problem.

On the good news front, a provision of the new law (unique to California) is to rescue at least 20% of currently disposed surplus food for people to eat. Nevada County is already in the game. Our local food pantries, Interfaith Food Ministry and the Food Bank both work closely with local farms, grocers, food distributors and citizens with large gardens to acquire food for their hungry population. Also Sierra Harvest manages a food-gleaning program that harvests and donates produce from local farms and orchards to these food relief pantries. So on the farm and grocer side, our county appears to be stepping out with our best foot.

On the “eater side,” we have some work to do. The new law requires that by January 2022, 50% of food waste must be diverted from the landfill. So what will happen to the disposal of food that we must reluctantly part ways with? Details are in process at California CalRecycle, local jurisdictions, and Waste Management. Undoubtedly, we will all have some decisions to make.

For planning and education tools for making good use of the food you buy, check out the comprehensive information at the BriarPatch Food Coop website https://www.briarpatch.coop/food-too-good-to-waste/. The Food Too Good to Waste section of the website has ideas and tools on storing, composting, dining out, pantry prep, food donation and holding waste-free parties.

For disposal at home, it is tempting to just put the soft food down the garbage disposal (if you have one). The sewer system is designed to take some food waste, and some cities are actually planning to capture such material for further processing. But food down the drain could also cause some disruption in sewer and septic systems

So composting is a far better solution. This was what mankind did for thousands of years, and still does in less “developed” countries. If you don’t have a yard where you can produce compost, perhaps you know someone who is willing to take your food scraps? Or, check out the cool smaller footprint compost bins designed for the household.

If you opt to throw out food, it will become more difficult. For curbside food waste pickup, a separate compartment bin, and charge, is likely coming.

For self-haulers, (a large portion of our county), you will probably be able to take your separate bags of garbage, food waste, green waste to each designated locations at the McCourtney Road Transfer Station (MRTS) for drop off and pay by the pound. The advantage is that you only pay for what you dump instead of renting a big bin for curbside service.

From the MRTS, green waste is transported to a business out of the county for processing, so we lose this resource and produce more emissions via transport trucks. For food waste, similar processors are being sought to comply with the new law.

Ideally, Nevada County could redesign its approach to make use of its organic waste through new business ventures. As a “carrot,” the new law requires local jurisdictions to buy back some of the organic waste (food and green) that has been transformed into mulch, compost or fuel.

Did you know that we have only a couple of composting businesses that source locally and sell to the community? And the purchase of outside compost is a major cost for our local farmers even though we have the raw ingredients right here.

And then there is the lost revenue from produce that local farms never harvest as it is ugly or the cost of labor makes picking it a losing proposition (so food is plowed back into the soil). Finding local sourced, preserved foods on the shelves of our retailers is rare. So to enjoy local produce year round, we need to do our own preserving or provide support to local farms and businesses willing to take on this business opportunity.

To explore some ideas on how to make the best use of your organic waste, don’t miss the Master Gardeners lectures (there will be 2 lectures on composting and vermiculture).

The world of waste is an opportunity, not a problem, waiting for us to try new approaches to prevent food waste and recycle what the unused as a valuable product.

Debbie Gibbs is a member of the Nevada County Food Policy Council Steering Committee, Nevada County Climate Action Now and Waste Not

The world of waste is an opportunity, not a problem, waiting for us to try new approaches to prevent food waste and recycle what the unused as a valuable product.
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