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What El Cerrito residents need to know about the mandatory compost program

on October 20, 2021

A state law mandating organic waste recycling will go into effect in Contra Costa County on Jan. 1. El Cerrito is drawing up plans on how it will implement the law. 

Organics like food scraps, yard trimmings, food-soiled paper and cardboard make up half of the trash in landfills and are the third-largest source of methane in California, according to California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery. To reduce methane emissions, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law in 2016 establishing targets to reduce the disposal of organic waste and food.

El Cerrito plans to expand green waste collection, which it already does, and to provide more information on how to segregate waste. 

“A lot of the waste ends up as litter,” said Will Provost, manager of El Cerrito’s Operations and Environmental Services Division. “It can end up in our storm drains and our creeks. So I think our hope is yet to improve stormwater quality, reduce plastic, address climate change and improve public health overall.”

What does this mean for El Cerrito residents?

Most El Cerrito residents in single-family homes and small apartment complexes are already in compliance with the new law. Larger apartment complexes will be required to provide the same services by either the city or a private hauler. 

At a September Environmental Quality Committee meeting, some residents expressed concerns about a lack of education on proper sorting. Rochelle Wheeler said she has struggled to find information on the city’s website

“I spent a lot of time looking on the city’s website and labels on containers, trying to figure out which of these were compostable plastics and which were recyclable plastic, and it was not clear to me,” Wheeler said.

Provost said more education and outreach will be done. Postcards, brochures, and newsletters about how to properly sort the organic waste will be sent to every address. The city is also working on new container labels to help identify compostable waste. 

Provost said residents who aren’t sorting properly will receive a note on the door or a letter in the mail. He said a review may be done at the curb, looking in bins, or by truck at the end of a route.

What does this mean for businesses?

Businesses in El Cerrito already collect organic waste, such as food scraps and soiled paper, and they also must provide customers with recycling and composting options. 

Under the new law, businesses like restaurants and grocery stores will be required to recover food that would otherwise go to waste and redistribute it to people experiencing hunger. The food recovery program will be implemented in two phases. In January, supermarkets, grocery stores, food service providers, food distributors and wholesale vendors will donate their food. In January 2024, restaurants, large venues, hotels, health facilities and state agencies with on-site food facilities will join the food recovery program.

What does this mean for schools?

Schools in El Cerrito must either subscribe to the city’s collection services, contract for  service independently, or register to self-haul organic waste. Private schools will follow the city’s business requirements. 

Any school with an on-site food facility must start the food recovery program on Jan. 1, 2024.

Will there be a penalty?

There will be no penalty for non-compliance until Jan. 1, 2024. Businesses and multi-family homes that do not have space or do not generate enough organic waste can apply for a waiver.

Businesses and residents without recycling or without organics services should reach out to the city and East Bay Sanitary Co., which provides services for El Cerrito, by December.

Howdy Goudey, a member of the El Cerrito Environmental Quality Committee, said the two-year window for some businesses to comply provides flexibility but does not help the program. 

“I understand the need to give flexibility to the businesses, but it’s really only continuing this problem of confusion,” Goudey said.

What still needs to be figured out?

An extra garbage fee for residents and business owners is possible because the mandate requires more trash bins and staff. However, city officials said they hope to avoid the fee by using existing staff and grant funds, and by renegotiating with the hauler.

“The city of El Cerrito has kind of a tight budget right now, especially due to the pandemic and losses and revenue with recreation,” Provost said. “There are a lot of different fronts, a lot of different conversations, trying to implement this and be creative about how we do so to try and avoid having to raise funds in other ways.”

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