Observe: the unfussy, simple and very lonely subject. It's the only compost bin in my 30-unit apartment complex.
Every week or so, I grab our heavy-duty plastic countertop container, walk down a flight of stairs, past our garbage room, across the parking lot and to this bin, surreptitiously throwing food waste into a container that I suspect was placed there for landscapers that stop by every other week. Each time, I hope the bin isn’t overflowing; I haven’t been able to figure out when it’s picked up. It certainly isn’t on our normal trash schedule.
There’s got to be a better way — and frankly, California law requires it.
As of New Year’s Day, all jurisdictions in the state are required to have a plan to keep organic waste out of landfills, and at least in my county, apartment buildings are required to compost. The goal: divert three-quarters of organic waste in California out of landfills and used as compost by 2025.
So what do my coffee grounds and banana peels have to do with climate change? When food and other organic waste is sent to landfills, it breaks down, but a lack of oxygen eventually means it produces methane as it decomposes. Methane is an intense planet-warming gas, more potent than carbon dioxide. California estimates 20% of the state's methane emissions are from landfills and the waste agency tells the San Francisco Chronicle that hitting the law’s goal would be the equivalent of taking 1.7 million gas-powered cars off the road for a year.
As a bonus, this kind of compost can be used as fertilizer that traps more carbon and water in the ground — crucial for highly agricultural but drought-hit parts of California. It's not everything, but it’s certainly a climate win.
So here's a strong climate law, with some existing infrastructure behind it. But how does it actually work in an apartment-building like mine? Getting a medium-sized apartment building in a rich neighborhood to compost more of its waste would be a bigger impact than just quietly dumping my own scraps into the bin. There’s a side-benefit here too: Fixing the compost situation might overall help what has been a trash-fire of a garbage room. Maybe I'll get to know my neighbors better. Maybe you'll learn something as well.
I avoid focusing on individual consumer choices in this newsletter, because it's easy to obsess over small things to the point of inaction elsewhere. But if we’re talking about taking climate action that's within your trash bin, where best to start than in your own neighborhood? Even though I’m not particularly friendly with my neighbors, I can try to improve this community's climate action — small as it is.
Here's some basic facts I'm working with:
As of New Year’s Day, all business & multi-family dwellings in the county are required to divert organic and food waste into a compost program.
Local financial penalties for not composting can begin Jan. 1, 2024.
Recology has the technical ability to deal with compost, and single-family home compost bins are standard in our neighborhood. They offer free kitchen pails and educational resources for multi-unit buildings subscribed to composting.
My building's apartment management company has not been excited about making climate-friendly changes. We asked about one or two chargers for the three EVs out of 20-ish cars last year. The answer: “We’re not making any upgrades of any kind right now.” But expanding compost is certainly cheaper than chargers, and eventually, it will start actively costing them if they don’t.
So where do I begin here? My standard operating procedure would be to write a strongly worded email to the apartment manager suggesting they should start working on at least getting more bins before 2024. But I think we're going to have to approach this from the bottom up: This morning, I saw a few compostable bags filled with kitchen scraps already in there — who else is adding their waste to the bin?
I'll keep you updated.
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