California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) 

Innovations Case Studies

Summary: Food Waste Recovery

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Californians dispose of almost 5.6 million tons of food each year. This represents 16 percent of material going to landfills. Fortunately, the state is home to many food banks, farmers, animal feed manufacturers, renderers (who make soap and other products), and composting operations that are eager to divert this valuable material to beneficial uses. A number of jurisdictions are linking food waste generators with haulers and end users. The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle)'s Food Waste Web provides information and resources to help reduce food waste and save money on disposal costs.

  • City and County of San Francisco: With assistance from the City and County of San Francisco, food banks, haulers, farmers, and renderers are diverting 37,400 tons per year of commercial food discards from disposal. The city and county provide technical assistance, funding, program planning, and implementation. In 1999, the city and county expanded its pilot residential food recovery program (started in 1996) to the rest of the city.
  • City of Berkeley: Under a pilot Food Scraps Collection Program, the City of Berkeley provides 39 business accounts with city collection services of food discards.
  • Santa Cruz County: Santa Cruz County has awarded a series of small grants to link food waste generators with end users and to provide technical assistance and funding to schools, camps, and other small food waste generators for on-site vermicomposting (worm bin composting) systems.
  • City of San Jose: The City of San Jose is funding two pilot projects to test in-vessel composting of food waste from supermarkets.
  • City of San Bernardino: In May and June 1998, the City of San Bernardino operated a pilot program targeted at 21 restaurants. Food recovered from these restaurants diverted 4 to 6 percent of the city’s total municipal solid waste during those two months.

Several other jurisdictions that have either operated pilot programs to recover food or are starting a program include: City of Rancho Mirage, West Contra Costa County, Palm Springs, Chula Vista, Ventura County, San Leandro, and Sonoma County.

Community Recycling & Resource Recovery of the Los Angeles area may be operating the largest food waste diversion project in the world. The organization collects grocery waste and waxed cardboard from more than 1,000 grocery stores for mixing and composting with green waste.

California BioMass provides a similar outlet for food recovery efforts in Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties.

A number of schools from elementary to college campuses are vermicomposting their food wastes on-site. These include University of California at Davis, University of California at Berkeley, and Laytonville and Sierra Elementary Schools in El Dorado County. Other campuses such as San Francisco State University are using in-vessel composting systems.

On the residential side, backyard composting has been the main method of encouraging households in the United States to reduce food waste. However, in many European countries, food discards are typically combined with yard trimmings and collected at curbside. These systems are slowly making their way to North America. San Francisco is the first California city to launch this type of program.

In California, 342 local jurisdictions (65 percent of the total in the state) have existing or planned separate collection programs for residential green materials. Adding food discards to these programs has the potential to significantly increase diversion.

California jurisdictions can build on the experience of these private and public sector initiatives in developing their own food recovery efforts. The potential for expanding food diversion in the state is high because California already has a strong composting infrastructure and markets in place to use compost products. Food discards have the added benefit of enhancing the composting process and the quality of compost products.

Costs, Economics, and Benefits

Commercial food waste generators may receive the highest economic benefit from diverting their unwanted food to beneficial uses. This is especially true if haulers offer reduced rates for collection of segregated organic materials.  By reducing the number of trash pickups, collection costs–the majority of waste handling costs—tend to go down. On-site composting, whether low- or high-tech, offers the benefit of avoiding collection costs.

Residential households can also save money if they pay variable rates for trash.

Cities that offer collection services may also benefit.  Tip fees at composting facilities are generally cheaper than tip fees at landfills. In residential programs that already have a weekly yard trimmings pickup, adding food may increase diversion without significantly adding to costs.

Tips for Replication

  • Identify businesses that generate significant quantities of food discards.
  • Identify businesses that use food discards (such as food banks, composters, vermicomposters, animal feeders, animal feed manufacturers, and tallow companies).
  • Place the highest use value on edible food redistribution. Work with and support local food donation organizations.
  • Devote staff time to linking commercial food waste generators with haulers and end users, and to encouraging organics diversion in general.
  • Work with haulers to develop a collection strategy and financial incentives for participating businesses. If applicable, amend franchise agreements to include the collection of source-separated food discards.
  • Devote resources to working with businesses. Provide technical assistance, monitoring, and follow-up.
  • Devote a staff person or employ a consultant to work with generators to set up composting and vermicomposting systems at generators’ sites.
  • Work with haulers to add food discards to residential yard trimmings collection programs.
  • Provide full or partial funding for a pilot project or facility start-up, or seed money for on-site composting systems.  Funding could cover equipment to help end users or other costs.
  • Work with local and State enforcement agencies to assist composters during the permitting process.
  • Develop a local composting facility or other end user if none exists.
  • Adopt and enforce ordinances to mandate source-separation of food discards.
  • Pass a procurement ordinance requiring venues with green space to use locally produced compost.
  • Promote the concept of separating food discards as a normal activity for households and businesses.
  • Target all types of food (not just vegetative food) in order to increase participation, diversion, and compost product quality.


Pursuant to contract (IWM-C8028) with the University of California at Santa Cruz for a series of 24 studies and summaries, the Institute for Local Self Reliance (Washington, D.C.) researched and prepared this summary.

The statements and conclusions in this summary are those of the contractor and not necessarily those of the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle), its employees, or the State of California. In addition, the data in this report was provided by local sources but not independently verified. The State and its contractors make no warranty, express or implied, and assume no liability for the information contained in this text. Any mention of commercial products, companies, or processes shall not be construed as an endorsement of such products or processes.

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Last updated: October 5, 2015
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