For many years now, residential customers of LA Sanitation have used a three-bin system to sort their trash – blue for recyclables, black for other kinds of garbage, and green for yard waste. Green bin waste was taken to city facilities that ground it into mulch, which was used by the city and its residents for landscaping and gardening. And to make sure the mulch would be clean and useful for its intended purpose, residents were always cautioned to place ONLY yard waste in the bin, with no food, animal fats or other substances that would be inappropriate for mulch or compost. Food waste (including vegetables, meat, dairy, starchy foods and food-stained paper) went into our black bins and was sent to landfills.
In September of 2016, however, the state enacted a new law (SB1383) that requires a 75% reduction in organic waste disposal by 2025. So for a while now, says James Roska, an environmental engineer with LA Sanitation, the city has been looking for ways to keep even more organic materials out of landfills, especially items that release harmful and odorous methane gas as they decompose. And to do that, it has been searching for contractors that can process all kinds of organic waste – including yard waste, plant-based foods, meat and dairy products, food-soiled paper products, and more – and turn it into reusable compost instead of sending it to landfills.
The search was successful, Roska told the Buzz a few days ago, so the city began piloting OrganicsLA, a new system of organic waste processing, with 18,000 residents in 2019, and expanded it to 44,000 customers last year. And this month it went citywide, “fully rolled out” for all LA Sanitation customers.
Roska said the biggest difference under OrganicsLA is that instead of taking green bin waste to mulching stations, the city now transports it to new transfer stations, where larger trucks take the organic materials to commercial composting facilities. Most of the resulting compost, Roska said, will be used for agricultural purposes, but some may also be made available to residential customers in the future.
The switch is big news for the city, but also for residents, who now need to change the way they separate household waste.
The city is working hard to get the word out about the new trash rules, but as with any big change, there may still be at least a bit of confusion about what can and can’t go in green bins as we get used to the new system. In this writer’s own home, for example, a lengthy discussion arose a few days ago over whether or not a small natural colored cardboard box that held leftover French fries from a restaurant could now be placed in the green bin. One family member said it looked like the kind of food-stained paper that could go in the green bin now…but another family member said it shouldn’t, because there was a slight waxy coating on the interior of the box. So we posed the question to Roska, and he said family member #2 wins the argument – plain paper or cardboard with food residue is fine for your green bin now…but the waxy coating on this particular box makes it a no-no. In other words, Roska said, most take-out pizza boxes (which generally have no coatings) are fine, but fancier take-out food boxes or coffee cups, if they have any sort of wax or plastic coating inside or out, are still black bin material.
So just to clarify, these things can now go into your green bins, according to LA Sanitation:
- Yard trimmings, including all organic materials from your yard such as tree and plant trimmings, branches, and flowers.
- Grass clippings: any variety of grass can be placed in the green bin.
- Leaves and branches, including all fresh or dried leaves and branches, thick or thin, fresh or dry.
- Food scraps: fruits, vegetables, dairy, eggshells, bread, cereal, grains, pasta, rice, beans, meat, bones, fish, shells, coffee grounds
- Food-soiled (plain) paper products: including pizza boxes and coffee filters
- Natural wood: including clean untreated wood and wood chopsticks that are not lacquered
- Natural corks (or do a web search for “cork recycling”)
Meanwhile, items that should still go into your black bin include:
- Food and beverage containers – paper or cardboard with plastic or waxy coatings (while glass, plastic, and metal containers should still be recycled in your blue bin)
- Food labels and fasteners such as rubber bands and twist ties
- Painted wood products – wood with more than 25% paint should not be included in the bin
- Animal waste and pet litter
- Non-Organic material – including curbside recyclables (glass, plastic, metal, etc.), refuse, electrical cords, cloth/fabric, appliances, mini blinds, kitchen utensils, lawn furniture, garden hoses, rubber tires and construction materials, including asphalt and concrete
- Household hazardous waste materials (HHW) – including electronics, syringes, all partially filled aerosol cans and containers for cleaning fluids, automotive fluids, all batteries (including car batteries, household batteries, rechargeable batteries), pesticides, oil based paint, garden chemicals, and pool cleaners. ( Household hazardous waste (HHW) materials may be taken to our S.A.F.E. Centers and Mobile Collection Events)
Roska said the city anticipates that even with the switch to adding food and food-stained paper waste to our green bins, the extra volume shouldn’t be a problem for most people. But if residents find they don’t have enough green bin space with just one bin, they can order additional green bins for $2.50 per 30-gallon bin per month. At the same time, though, Roska noted that placing food waste into our green bins now means we’ll be placing fewer things into our black bins, so some people might be able to switch to smaller black bins if they want to.
Also, in addition to how we organize our outdoor trash bins, the new rules mean we’ll also likely have to make some associated changes in how we collect and separate waste in our homes, particularly our kitchens. Previously, many of us have had general trash containers in the kitchen, along with large recycling containers, and sometimes small countertop containers to collect fruit and vegetable waste for backyard compost bins.
But now most of us will probably want to add an additional kitchen container for food waste to take out to the green bin. It’s not a big change, Roska said, and the city is “looking to make that as easy as possible” by giving away free kitchen containers for food waste at its sanitation yards (to find the location closest to you, see this interactive map). Unfortunately, the closest giveaway location to the Larcnmont area is about seven miles away…but Roska said they’re looking to expand the giveaways to other places soon, including, possibly, city council field offices, public libraries, and certified farmers markets. (Also, container delivery is already available for elderly and/or those who are homebound, to comply with federal ADA regulations.)
Of course, those who do still want to save plant-based food waste for backyard composting should still keep doing so, and just put the “more odiferous” food waste (meats, dairy, starchy foods, etc.) in their green bins. (As for why you can now add these materials to the green bin, but still keep them out of your back yard compost, the LA Sanitation website explains that “Commercial facilities have compost piles that are much larger and achieve much higher heat than those you would reach in your own backyard composting efforts. As a result, they can take products such as meat and dairy along with other organic waste, and then appropriately break them down into nutrient-rich compost without any pathogens. In non-commercial backyard composting, you should never add meat or dairy products to your compost.”)
As Roska said, the new system is just “part of the menu of solutions people can use for their organic waste.”
Finally, although our green bin waste is now being dealt with differently, it doesn’t mean the city won’t still produce mulch. Roska said plant trimmings from city crews, and yard waste dropped off by residents and their gardeners/landscapers – will still be mulched and made available to residents at city mulching facilities, including the one closest to us at Griffith Park.
For more information about OrganicsLA, see the program’s web page, the postcards that were sent directly to residents’ homes in the last couple of weeks, or LA Sanitation’s FAQ about the program.
The most common questions the city has received so far, Roska said, are how to control odors from the new kitchen trash containers (he suggests refrigerating or freezing smelly foods to slow their decomposition until you’re ready to take them out to your green bin), and how to get the new kitchen food waste pails (see above).
Finally, while the new Organics program is mandatory, and we are now required to place all kinds of organic waste in our green bins, Roska said active enforcement isn’t scheduled to begin until 2024, so until then the city will work on educating customers on the new system and helping them master the new sorting rules. Commercial businesses and multifamily properties that don’t sign up for organics service will receive notices to comply and time to correct the issue before more serious measures are taken.
About Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - with deep roots in both the Sycamore Square and West Adams Heights-Sugar Hill neighborhoods. She spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and is the co-owner/publisher of the Buzz.
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I recently started using a counter top composting caddy from Simple Human. It comes with faux plastic liners that are marked “certified compostable.” I just checked with the City’s help line and confirmed that these liners CAN go in the green bin.