San Diego County moves to organic waste recycling, adds other environmental measures

Green recycling bins for landscaping and food waste.
Green recycling bin for landscaping and food waste.
(onephoto -

Residents and businesses in the unincorporated parts of San Diego County will begin recycling organic waste such as yard and food scraps by the end of the year, under a policy that the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved Tuesday, May 4.

The expansion of county recycling programs was one of several environmental items that the board passed unanimously Tuesday, May 4, along with directives to coordinate sustainability efforts among county departments while requiring each department to develop a sustainability plan, and a plan to encourage the use of native plants in landscaping.

“During the past few months, this board has indicated its shift toward prioritizing sustainability, climate action, conservation of open space and environmental justice,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Nathan Fletcher said. “Today’s action will bring our county government more in line with these new priorities.”

The organic waste recycling plan will require people to collect materials such as yard trimmings, food scraps, paper and cardboard, wood waste, and manure. Those items can be recycled into products such as paper, cardboard, compost and mulch, the board letter stated.

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And removing organic matter from landfills will cut emissions of methane, a potent short-term climate pollutant.

Removing those items from landfills will cover 9 percent of the greenhouse emissions reductions needed for the county’s climate action plan. The goal is for the unincorporated areas of the county to have “net zero” carbon emissions by or before 2045, the board letter stated.

The policy also is intended to meet targets set by California Senate Bill 1383, which calls for slashing methane emissions by reducing 75 percent of organic waste by 2025, compared to 2014 levels, and recovering 20 percent of discarded food.

The board’s decision updates agreements with waste haulers, requiring them to add residential and commercial food scrap collection and provide three separate bins for solid waste, recyclables and organic materials. They also must monitor the organics for contamination and educate customers about organic waste recycling.

These changes must take place before January 2022, the measure stated.

The board also unanimously approved a trio of environmental items, including a policy for native plant landscaping, requiring county departments to coordinate sustainability actions, and requiring each department to develop a sustainability plan.

Under the coordination plan, the county will hire a consultant to integrate sustainability programs among county departments, at an estimated cost of $150,000. The board directed staff to come back with recommendations in 270 days.

“These programs are currently spread out among many county departments, from Public Works, to Parks and Recreation and Planning and Development Services,” Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer said. “This dispersion of responsibility makes it hard to really focus on sustainability as a core objective in everything the county does and every way we operate. We must empower our county employees in this work and make sure that sustainability is incorporated into county operations from top to bottom.”

Supervisor Joel Anderson applauded the plan and its focus on environmental equity but said the plan should also streamline the environmental approval process to make it easier for permit applicants to comply with new rules.

“So that we’re not creating more layers but removing redundancy as we move forward,” he said. “That we look to consolidate policies so that it’s a one-stop shop, so that people don’t have to go to seven different stops to meet the climate action plan, to meet all our lofty goals, which are great.”

In a separate item titled “Home is where the habitat is,” the board directed staff to develop a native plant landscaping policy for private and public property. For private property owners it could have guidelines and incentives for native landscaping upgrades, training and resources, and there would also be planting requirements for county property.

“Our ecosystem here in San Diego County is one of the most biodiverse in the world; we have over 1,700 native plant species,” Lawson-Remer said. “If we don’t really think about how we revitalize and invest in our native plants and our native landscaping, we’re certainly in danger of losing quite a bit of that biodiversity.”

Increasing the use of native plants could also make landscaping more fire-resistant and drought tolerant, and improve conditions for pollinators, San Diego Sierra Club member Peter Andersen said in public comments.

The board also voted to require each county department to develop a plan to evaluate its sustainability practices, including existing policies, programs, and practices and “an assessment of environmental justice components.”

— Deborah Sullivan-Brennan is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune