San Diego County wastes 500,000 tons of food each year. Here’s a better solution.

Originally published in San Diego Union-Tribune February 17th. Written by Jessica S. Toth, Solana Center Executive Director. 

Government and economics are coming into alignment on the need to address climate change. In the past few weeks, climate change mitigation was hot.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors identified activation around climate policy as a key platform tenet, aiming for zero carbon emissions by 2035. The CEO of world’s largest asset management firm, BlackRock, proffered net-zero by 2050 as a core investment strategy. Climate strategies informed the agenda at the World Economic Forum. And state legislators proposed requiring emissions disclosures from large businesses in support of California’s own carbon neutrality goal by 2045.

The San Diego region is well-suited to lead by demonstrating climate change mitigation measures. Our world-class nonprofit and academic institutions bring innovation. Our weather and land-use infrastructure enable a key climate change solution: the natural circular ecosystem to return nutrients in food waste back into our soils. Our citizens — as individuals, families and communities — make the connection between actions and impact on the natural environment.

Try as it might, the COVID-19 pandemic did not change the community spirit to protect our environment. It did impact garbage — what is discarded and how it is disposed. Changes coinciding with the pandemic are stark: up to 40 percent increase in residential waste tonnage in California, 10 percent growth of national corrugated box shipments and 20 percent increase in food waste in San Diego.

Amazingly, amid the stress, the uncertainty and the isolation, people continue to take actions to divert waste from our landfills. The fortitude of individuals through the pandemic has astounded me. At Solana Center for Environmental Innovation, we saw an initial 10-fold increase in electronics, batteries and light bulbs dropped off, as families took on house-cleaning projects. Instead of discarding these items in their curbside trash, which ultimately results in toxins leaking into our soils and watersheds, residents and businesses make the trip to our center to ensure environmentally sound disposal. Adjacent to our site, the city of Encinitas and EDCO have teamed to offer cardboard and packaging recycling. It is always overflowing though it is emptied multiple times per week.

Even in these toughest times, I see people remaining committed to doing right by the environment.

For regional results, San Diego County is perfectly positioned to implement effective climate crisis solutions. With year-round growing seasons and the largest number of small farms of any U.S. county, San Diego County can demonstrate effective circular economy practices.

We throw away an estimated 500,000 tons of food waste each year in San Diego County. When landfilled, all that food generates over 270,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases. Diverting it from our landfills — whether conserving edible food for people in need, creating animal feed, composting or extracting renewable natural gas — avoids the emission of those harmful gases. Finished compost, which is recycled food waste, actually sequesters carbon from our air. Using compost on all the region’s agricultural lands would sequester the equivalent of the annual carbon emissions from the entire city of San Diego.

Food Cycle on Farmlands is a program designed to demonstrate the circular nature of organic material from farm to consumer and back, by taking food waste from local grocery stores to be composted at agricultural sites. Compost, a naturally nutrient-rich soil amendment, returns minerals to our soils that are removed when produce is harvested. Whatever isn’t eaten should be recycled back into our earth. However, the county has ordinances that don’t permit implementation of Food Cycle on Farmlands.

To take advantage of our region’s natural resources and infrastructure and to create examples for elsewhere, we need some governmental changes. Policies should promote composting of food waste on agricultural lands. And landfill tipping fees should incentivize waste diversion, rather than being among the lowest of large population centers in California.

Leaders in politics, the financial markets and the community are calling for action to avert the climate crisis. We need ordinances and policies to make that possible. To be comprehensive, San Diego County’s net carbon zero plan must incorporate community behavior change as well as the incredible potential of our agricultural lands.

If our community can remain motivated to protect our natural resources during the hardship of an unforeseen global pandemic, we can put plans in place to avert the approaching climate crisis. We have the will. We could use some help with the means.