Compost catalyst: SLO County residents now have to comply with new state rules designed to divert more green waste from landfills



Half of the waste that Californians dump into their landfills is compostable.

"Most people think that organics will just compost in the landfill. But what happens is that turns into methane gas, a climate pollutant," said Mladen Bandov with the SLO County Public Works Department.

That gas, according to CalRecycle is "a climate super pollutant 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide." Landfills are the third largest source of methane emissions in the state, but—thanks to legislation passed in 2016 that went into effect starting on Jan. 1, 2022—everyone in California will contribute to changing that.

The goals of SB 1383 are to reduce the amount of organic waste deposited in the state's landfills by 75 percent and to rescue at least 20 percent of disposed surplus food for people to eat by 2025. To do that, every jurisdiction in the state was required to provide organic waste collection to all residents and businesses at the beginning of the year. They are also required to recycle the material at composting facilities and/or anaerobic digestion facilities such as the Kompogas SLO Anaerobic Digestion Facility, which opened in 2018. The facility takes in organic waste, processes it, and converts it into renewable energy.

While SLO County and its cities might be ahead of other municipalities in the state in terms of collecting and disposing of organic waste, it still has work to do to get as many of the area's residents and businesses on board as possible. But what exactly that entails looks different for cities than it does for unincorporated areas, in part because of the county's contentious split from the Integrated Waste Management Authority (IWMA) last year. For more than 20 years, the county and its seven cities worked together to collect waste, educate the public, and comply with the state's ever-changing and increasingly more stringent regulations on managing trash, recycling, green waste, hazardous waste, and more.

WAIVED One of the things SLO County did after splitting with the Integrated Waste Management Authority was apply for waivers from SB 1383 compliance for areas of the county with populations of fewer than 75 people per square mile. - MAP COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY
  • Map Courtesy Of SLO County
  • WAIVED One of the things SLO County did after splitting with the Integrated Waste Management Authority was apply for waivers from SB 1383 compliance for areas of the county with populations of fewer than 75 people per square mile.

Although the kinks of that divorce are still getting worked out, the county is starting a new department focused on managing waste while its seven cities are sticking with the agency and deciding what their new normal looks like. Either way, they have to comply with SB 1383 and figure out what that means for the residents they serve.

Coming into compliance

Separating out food waste from other trash is something lots of individuals and business owners are already doing. Others may have avoided making the switch because, let's face it, food waste can smell bad if not stored properly, and no one wants that sitting around in the kitchen.

GO GREEN Big Sky Cafe implemented its food waste disposal system years ago. Owner Greg Holt said it's a simple and easy process. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • GO GREEN Big Sky Cafe implemented its food waste disposal system years ago. Owner Greg Holt said it's a simple and easy process.

But before you start throwing rotten tomatoes at state lawmakers for this new legal requirement, know that residents and smaller restaurants have two full years before fines and enforcement come into play. This time will be dedicated to food waste education, and local jurisdictions plan to equip people with the tools they need to make the transition as seamless—and odorless—as possible.

Take it from Greg Holt, owner of Big Sky Cafe in SLO. Because Big Sky is a larger restaurant that generates 8 cubic yards or more of organic waste per week, Holt was already required to separate out his restaurant's food waste thanks to Assembly Bill 1826, which became effective in 2016. SB 1383 basically takes that bill and applies it to everyone (with, of course, a few exceptions).

Holt said figuring out how to separate out food waste had a learning curve, but today he finds it to be second nature.

"It works beautifully for us," Holt said. "Over the course of the years we've had three or four times that they found plastic in there, or other nonfood waste items. [The garbage collection company] informed me that they didn't pick it up, we took the foreign objects out of there, and then they picked it up."

Holt demonstrated how his busers empty excess food into two green bins located in the main seating area. In the back kitchen, there are two more. All these bins were provided via IWMA-contracted partners.

"We offer on-site training to the restaurants and grocery stores, to the staff, on what to collect," said Jennifer Codron, recycling specialist with Science Discovery, an IWMA contractor. "Then we work with each of the garbage companies, there's five in the county, ... to set up the service, because they offer the outside carts and dumpsters. Then we offer free indoor containers for collection."

COMPOSTING FOOD Big Sky Restaurant owner Greg Holt separates his food waste into a green bin, something that almost all of the restaurants in the county will be required to do as part of new rules that went into effect at the beginning of the year. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • COMPOSTING FOOD Big Sky Restaurant owner Greg Holt separates his food waste into a green bin, something that almost all of the restaurants in the county will be required to do as part of new rules that went into effect at the beginning of the year.

When the bins inside Big Sky fill up, Holt's staff takes them out the back door of the building, where the restaurant's green curbside bins live. These are the bins that get collected by the garbage company. They can get a little smelly, Holt said, but that's why they stay outside. The smaller green bins indoors are dumped frequently enough that they don't cause any odor issues.

With SB 1383 now in place, Codron's outreach work will expand to office buildings, smaller restaurants, and multi-family complexes.

Just like businesses, residents will also be required to divert food waste into their curbside green bins.

"The IWMA has been giving the little compost pails, so people can take that from their kitchen and put that into the bins," said Bandov with SLO County's Public Works Department. "That's something that will probably be provided by the county as well [to] help people."

Bandov said the county is still working on developing outreach efforts to get people into compliance with the law.

"That's going to be having those one-on-one conversations," Bandov said. "It's a new law, so we want to focus on making sure people understand what's the requirement—what does and doesn't go into the bins—[and] why this is important, in terms of keeping organics out of the landfills and into composting facilities."

SB 1383 also requires that regions develop edible food recovery programs.

"The county is working with all the jurisdictions, with the regional agency, to divert as much edible food that would otherwise go in the landfill, and get it into food recovery organizations like the food bank," Bandov said.

According to the bill, the state's goal is to divert at least 20 percent of edible food that is currently disposed of into food recovery organizations by 2025.

"This is going to be a collaborative effort with everybody," Bandov said.

Divorced, kind of

Although SLO County technically separated from the IWMA last year, officials don't expect city and county residents to really notice the split for a while.

When they do, it will likely be city and CSD ratepayers—not those living in the rural county—who feel it first on their garbage bills.

Most of rural SLO County—from Shandon, to Creston, to Edna Valley—have received SB 1383 waivers from the state, which, for five years, exempt them from having to comply with most of the new requirements for organic waste.

The "low population" waivers apply to areas with fewer than 75 residents per square mile—most of unincorporated SLO County. State law says that these residents have "a small organic waste footprint and face significant challenges to collecting organic material."

ENERGIZED WASTE A bulldozer moves organic material at the Kompogas SLO Anaerobic Digestion Facility, which turns green waste into a form of renewable energy. - PHOTO BY MALEA MARTIN
  • Photo By Malea Martin
  • ENERGIZED WASTE A bulldozer moves organic material at the Kompogas SLO Anaerobic Digestion Facility, which turns green waste into a form of renewable energy.

"We applied for a population waiver in our eligible areas, and received it," SLO County Public Works Director John Diodati told New Times. "A lot of those folks don't have the three-bin systems anyway. The areas [with waivers] are everywhere except the cities, the populated CSDs with solid waste powers, Los Osos, a few areas outside Templeton and Paso [Robes], and an area between Arroyo Grande and Nipomo."

So what does that mean? SLO County only has to focus on Los Osos, rural Templeton, rural Paso, and rural Arroyo Grande and Nipomo when it comes to full compliance with SB 1383.

Ever since county supervisors decided to separate from the IWMA, Diodati said county officials have been working to hire staff and start prepping plans and programs to comply with SB 1383.

The Board of Supervisors allocated $1 million in general fund money last year to make sure they could do that without immediately raising rates on those affected areas and residents.

"It's our intent here to establish what programs are necessary to meet 1383 and bring forward to the board some options for funding—if they're even necessary to raise rates. That's the next step," Diodati said. "It may or may not result in a rate increase."

At the same time, SLO County is still relying on the IWMA to make sure that there's no lapse in services that the agency used to provide county residents, like hazardous waste disposal and education programs.

In November 2021, shortly after the separation, the agencies struck a "transitional agreement" where the IWMA will continue providing services to non-IWMA residents, and the county will continue paying the IWMA for that. The agreement expires in July 2022, unless the parties agree to extend it.

"It's like we got divorced, but we're living in the same house," IWMA President and Atascadero City Councilmember Charles Bourbeau said. "The neighbors are going, 'Weren't you guys going to get divorced?' But we're living in the same house; we're driving the same cars."

Bourbeau said the agreement also benefits the IWMA. The immediate loss of county revenue would've put the IWMA in a chaotic place, he said. Having a transitional period where waste services remain steady across the county was important for everyone.

"Not having the county would've thrown all the services into confusion and made it more complicated for the IWMA as well," he said. "By the time it came down to having a meeting with the county, there was no problem. There was no unwillingness."

How long that agreement will last and how the county will coordinate waste management with the IWMA in the future remains an open question. With SB 1383 mandating higher diversion rates of organic waste across the board, every local agency should be pulling in the same direction, officials said.

That will collectively put more demand and pressure on the local composting facilities in SLO and North County—an influx that Bourbeau is confident the operators are ready for.

"My understanding is they have a fair amount of additional capacity, and the compost operator in North County, they constantly say, 'Hey, we have expansion capability and we're licensed for this,'" Bourbeau said. "As far as I know, there's not a capacity problem at those places."

Rates on the rise

The supervisors' exit from the IWMA means that city councils are grappling with the possibility of customers receiving higher trash bills.

"I think for our customers the biggest impact is likely going to be potential increases in cost. Cost is lower if there's more of us, by scale," said Whitney McDonald, the city manager of Arroyo Grande. "The other concern, and it's unclear, is if there's possibility and potential for inconsistencies between those who are in [the IWMA] and those who are not, in terms of rules and regulations they are carrying. There's potential for confusion.

"That's another hope and intent for the IWMA—to make sure we as a region are moving in step and not out of sync."

Senate Bill 1383 requires city residents and business owners to install three garbage bins—one for regular trash, a blue recycling bin, and a green one for organic waste. Many residential and business customers already use all three, and McDonald added that customers don't have to pay extra for green and recycling bins.

"It's not a huge change for our residential customers, but it is a shift for some commercial customers and multi-family customers. Typically, your trash rates are based on your regular trash bin. There are different sizes you can pick for your regular trash bin just depending on how much waste you regularly produce, and that's really what you pay for," she said.

According to McDonald, it would be a while before customers start seeing the updated costs reflected on their trash bills. While the IWMA prepares a fee study to calculate new costs, cities like Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach are also working with a waste hauling service called South County Sanitary to determine an updated price for trash management. Increasing rates requires cities to comply with Proposition 218, informing ratepayers of the new cost and giving them the opportunity to protest the fee hike.

"Under 218, we have to provide a 45-day notice and go through a public hearing process. No matter what, there'll be a delay with that process as well," she said.

For Arroyo Grande, McDonald expects all these procedures to be completed by July 1.

Grover Beach City Manager Matthew Bronson said that the city's customers could see cost updates earlier in the year. Until all cities set new price points, customers will still be billed according to the rates that existed before the county left the IWMA.

Not complying with SB 1383 can result in penalties, but because fines won't be enforced until 2024, Bronson said the first couple of years are about education and building awareness.

"While we aren't going to be carrying out a lot of the enforcement ourselves, we'll be helping to inform our community on what's required for this new law ... and to assist them in the process. We'll be doing a lot of public communication about this over the course of the year," Bronson said.

When the county left the waste management agency, the cities only received a 30-day notice to make modifications to the Joint Powers Agreement that binds the IWMA and its members. Arroyo Grande and Pismo Beach requested the notice period be extended to six months if another member plans to pull out in the future. In fact, city councils are still feeling the consequences of the short timeframe.

"I know that the IWMA also had to quickly deal with the services the county was providing to [them] ... like human resources and treasury services," McDonald said. "If the county is no longer a member, then how is the IWMA going to get services done? These are lingering issues still being worked out. It will take time. What is the cost associated with that? How are they going to go about getting those services elsewhere?" Δ

Reach Staff Writer Malea Martin at, Assistant Editor Peter Johnson at, and Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at


Add a comment