California’s local governments grapple with financial and logistical demands of organics recycling law


Editor’s note: This is the third in a multipart series exploring the market effects of California’s sweeping organic waste reduction law, SB 1383.

Local governments are at the forefront of implementing California’s shift toward universal organics recycling. Even where those governments have been working on the issue for years, however, getting ready for SB 1383 has been a challenge.

One factor has been the regulatory timing. While the law itself was signed in September 2016, the final regulations weren’t published until late 2020, after multiple revisions. These regulations were set to be enforceable by Jan. 1 of this year, a time frame many considered too short, as some jurisdictions were waiting to see the final guidelines before they proceeded. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Basically, cities lost a year and a half in trying to get this implemented,” said Tracie Onstad Bills, executive director of the California Resource Recovery Association and a vice president at SCS Engineers. She cited one city that had to pause its planned delivery of organics recycling containers during the fateful week of March 16, 2020, for example.

Today, readiness varies widely from Bay Area organics recycling stalwarts, to larger cities still rolling out their programs, to smaller jurisdictions seeking targeted exemptions. Numerous localities already have residential organics programs, driven in some cases by county or local policies. Yard waste collection is widespread throughout the state, and jurisdictions were already gearing up for commercial organics collection due to an earlier law, AB 1826 of 2014, but many still had major work left to do on that front. Within recent months, local governments have been making far-reaching, multimillion-dollar decisions on a near-weekly basis. 

In late 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law (SB 619) to give local governments some leeway before expensive compliance fees kick in, and more of them have been taking the required steps to pass required organics recycling ordinances, arrange collection and processing contracts as needed, then begin education and implementation. Local jurisdictions have also welcomed newly allocated funding in the FY23 budget, but cost remains a key issue, with the changes required by SB 1383 resulting in sizable collection-rate increases in many cases. And despite these steps, it could still be years until everyone is fully ready to go.

“This is an enormous lift. We’re talking about the largest infrastructure deployment since single-stream recycling,” said Yaniv Scherson, chief operating officer of organics recycler Anaergia. “This is going to take time.”

SB 1383 implementation timeline

Finding the money

Prior estimates from California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) have put the potential cost of implementing SB 1383 at $20.9 billion through 2030, with a potential $17 billion economic benefit in the same period. Because the law is an unfunded mandate, much of the economic effect lands on local jurisdictions and their ratepayers.

A November 2020 League of California Cities survey, which had 194 respondents, found that a majority of jurisdictions expected to implement double-digit rate increases in the next three years. While multiple factors played into that expectation, including the ongoing shift in recycling markets and processing fees, respondents cited SB 1383 and the need for organics recycling infrastructure as lead factors. The group recently solicited responses for an updated survey amid rising costs due to inflationary and supply-chain factors, but it has communicated in this year’s budget process that the trend continues.

While CalRecycle recognized the coronavirus was likely to affect local implementation capabilities in an August 2020 progress report, when the pandemic was still in its early stages, the agency ultimately concluded that “to meet climate change goals and to protect human health and the environment from negative impacts of greenhouse gas emissions, California must not delay the implementation or change the diversion or compliance goals set in SB 1383.”

The general consensus among many of the industry professionals interviewed for this series was also that SB 1383 implementation should not be delayed further, despite the current economic factors.

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