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Of Compost and Crap

ACCORDING TO LIZ - What has LASAN been up to? 

The following admonition appeared in our mailboxes and on the website of the Los Angeles Department of Sanitation earlier this year: 

Effective immediately, residents serviced by LASAN are required to place food scraps and food-soiled paper, along with yard waste, in their green bin. The City of Los Angeles will pick up the green bin weekly and the collection day will remain the same. The green waste will be processed to create compost to be used by farmers. 

We were offered free kitchen compost pails to collect our food prep parings and whatever was left on our plates to dump with yard waste in our green bins to put out weekly. Say what? 

Did anyone undertake an overview of the many and varied lifestyles of Angelenos and how to work with that reality? We are not all Joe and Jane Q. Suburbanite, with Joe mowing the lawn on Saturday and Jane rolling the garbage pails out to the curb on Monday. 

There are numerous complications, from health and cleanliness issues to the fact that, for years, folks in sunny SoCal have been urged to transition to low-water landscaping and many have taken advantage of incentives, meaning a significant reduction in households with yard waste. And what about the owners and residents of condo and apartment complexes? 

As of January 1, 2024, state law requires everyone in California to separate organic material from their other garbage to cut back on methane gas emissions from organics overflowing our dumps. 

Methane is a major contributor to global warming and is considered up to 80 times more toxic than carbon dioxide. 

Angelenos are not alone. Americans throw out about 35% of their perishable purchases annually – up to 1,000 pounds of provisions per person per year, an appalling statistic considering over 50 million of them, many of whom were children, relied on food banks in 2021, and way too many go hungry in every state and every county every day. 

Unused food is also a major contributor to global warming on two fronts: the carbon costs of its production, and subsequent decomposition, contributes 4% to U.S. total greenhouse gas emissions annually. 

It’s 2023, not 2024. Yes. But LASAN has implemented its program a year early to help residents transition and to work the bugs out before fines kick in. Hard.

The initial fines for non-compliance would run $50 and $100 for the first and second offense but escalate to $500 a day, for both residents and businesses. Cities could be dinged $10,000 a day per violation. 

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So, what does happen to our garbage? 

Too much does go into landfills where decomposition discharges potential toxins down into our groundwater and bubbles methane, a potent global warming agent, up into our air. 

Exactly what are Angelenos facing? James Roska, a helpful environmental engineer from the Los Angeles Department of Sanitation had some answers. 

If you include garden waste, more than half of the City’s trash is organic material, and the goal pursuant to Senate Bill 1383 is to redirect three-quarters of that, almost 18 million tons (the weight of ten million cars), away from landfills by 2025. 

People who participated in the 2019-21 pilot Organics program, and those from other places where organic waste is kept separate from yard waste and goes to an anaerobic digester facility while garden greens and browns are composted elsewhere, will be surprised that Angelenos are now being asked to dump food waste in with our garden trimmings. 

Both yard trimmings and food waste will now be handled by commercial composting companies and go into industrial-sized compost heaps so dense that the internal heat build-up will destroy pesky bacteria and other icky stuff as well as pesticides and fertilizers from garden waste that might otherwise contaminate what ends up as clean, green compost suitable for organic agriculture. 

Not only shutting down the methane cycle but also feeding carbon naturally back into the soil. 

What’s welcome in the green bin also includes plain paper – napkins and paper towels and cardboard containers with food residue… 

What’s NOT, is anything with plastic including waxy-coated paper coffee cups and take-out boxes, so-called compostable bags, rubber bands and produce stickers (yup, you will need to peel those off your fruit and vegs) as well as glass, twist ties and pet poop. These are all designated as black bin candidates. 

Angelenos are still being encouraged to home compost but only with fruit and vegetable trimmings, coffee grounds, egg shells, tea bags, and yard trimmings. 

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Which still leaves the City to wrestle with a number of daunting challenges. 

The first and most obvious solution is reduction, reduction, reduction. But how to slam on the brakes and reverse course on the all-American culture of convenience, of single-use, waste, waste and buy more, spend more? 

A better approach must be devised for supermarkets and other food purveyors which are supposed to divert up to 25% of edible food that used to be thrown away to food banks. The devil digs a pretty playground in those little words – “up to”. 

Given the volume of not-so-fresh food left at the end of a shopping day, and given time is money and money spent on sorting and diverting not-so-edible food is money that won’t end up in the profit column, then further incentives must be devised to make diversion the economical and easy choice for all commercial food vendors. 

There are the education and research challenges: so-called compostable bags may make their manufacturers and marketers moolah but their “certification” is at temperatures much higher (and less green) than real-world facilities. Certainly they do not compost adequately for the vendors with which the City has contracted. 

LASAN customers as well as the department and all tiers of government must put pressure on manufacturers to both stop over-packaging and to ensure that the ensuing minimalist wrapping is fully planet-friendly. 

Most importantly, grassroots demands and a full-on marketing campaign MUST push policies to reverse the proliferation of produce stickers. These pose a major nuisance for commercial composting facilities as well as for home composters. 

The world managed to live without them until a few short years ago. Perhaps retail emporia should start treating their employees better to reduce retention issues. 

Eyes will roll with LASAN’s suggestion that odors can be controlled by refrigerating or freezing smelly foods to slow decomp. Given most people’s freezers max out at least once a week, will the City require Angelenos invest in a second polluting fridge to store their garbage or will they come up with more environmentally friendly ideas? 

Shooting down other recommendations: how do people line their bin with yard trimmings if they have no yard? 

Should Angelenos haul out a couple of smlly gallons of food trash in a 90-gallon pail every week just to keep the trash engineers in business and deny insects nutritious snacks? 

Paper towels will disintegrate but encapsulating the moist mess in plastic in the green bin would not be appreciated. So, who is responsible for cleaning up the mess and stench remaining? Ever tried reaching the bottom of one of those bins to scrape off gum let along stuck-on rotted yuck? 

Using gallons of water and toxic chemicals doesn’t seem very green. And will the City provide bulk discounts on the baking soda they recommend homeowners spread in the bottom of their bins each week? 

Changing direction, in the year prior to the pandemic Los Angeles suffered another epidemic, one overshadowed by the Covid crisis but still with us. Another side effect of the City’s dysfunction. 

Flea-borne typhus hit our homeless population, passed from animals to insects to humans courtesy of a burgeoning rat population. Rats come when discarded food calls and, if not controlled, could lead to the spread of more deadly diseases such as salmonella and the bubonic plague.

While averting fines from Sacramento, providing a rodent smorgasbord in our green bins may have more costly consequences for Angelenos. 

An initial call to LASAN’s customer care line about the fact that many Angelenos don’t put green bins out weekly and even the fruit and vegetable trimmings of a vegetarian were attracting fruit flies, elicited the suggestion to use bug spray, pretty shocking in a City representing itself as green. 

What about the maggots and flies omnivorous residents’ garbage would attract? Great for breeding bacteria and other nasties for rats to spread. 

Given the numbers that infected City Hall a few years back, out City Councilmembers better take precautions. 

As for pet waste – dog poop and cat crap – the City’s composters don’t want it. 

For now, LASAN is telling residents to place their pet-poop baggies and used kitty litter in with their black bin trash. With pets having proliferated during the pandemic and the current crises at the Los Angeles Animal Services, better responses to the disposal of dog doo-doo must be found. And fast. 

The City needs to reach out to all Angelenos, especially garbage collectors, commercial composters and recycling sorters, to solicit and implement creative solutions to the above concerns as well as the others that are sure to arise during this transition year. 

By necessity, this training needs to go both ways.

 

(Liz Amsden is a contributor to CityWatch and an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions. In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)