California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) 

Innovations Case Studies

Summary-Organics Options: Opportunities for Local Government Reuse, Recycling and Composting

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A wide range of options are available to local governments to decrease, reuse, recycle, and compost organic materials. Communities that have implemented only some of these programs may find that adding other organics programs could pay off large dividends quickly for greater waste diversion.

In California, the 1999 statewide waste characterization study found that 35.1 percent of the remaining waste stream going to landfills is organic material. This finding presents a tremendous opportunity for greater waste diversion.

Some of the greatest savings come from reducing the production of yard trimmings or using them on-site in a closed loop system. Other significant diversion results from composting residentially and commercially discarded foods. Adding discarded foods and food-contaminated paper to residential yard trimmings collection programs may be one of the fastest growing trends in the future.

Program Characteristics

Organic materials include yard trimmings (e.g., tree trimmings and grass clippings), discarded food (and food-contaminated paper), wood debris from construction and demolition projects, stumps and large logs, gypsum wallboard, reusable lumber, rebuildable pallets, manures, (horse and zoo) and crop residues.

In 1990, more than 90 percent of all these organic materials were disposed in landfills. By 1995 California diverted about 3 to 5 million tons of organic materials, but the majority of organic materials were still disposed in landfills. The California Integrated Waste Management Board (now the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery or CalRecycle) targeted organic materials as a key to meeting the goals of the California Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989 (AB 939, Sher, Chapter 1095, Statutes of 1989) in the 1997 CalRecycle Strategic Plan.

Most municipalities in California have implemented some form of organics recycling programs. In fact, communities are finding that organics reuse, recycling, and composting programs are diverting as much or more waste from landfills as curbside recycling programs.

In addition, organic materials are high in moisture content and contribute significantly to the generation of methane and leachate from landfills. Diverting these wastes decreases the amount of moisture in landfills, which is critical to ensure optimal landfill operation. Reducing organic materials waste also decreases landfill impacts on global warming and climate change.

Organics Materials Reduction and Reuse

As in all aspects of solid waste and environmental management programs, the lowest cost option is conservation. Generally, 80 percent of the costs of recycling and solid waste management are in the collection of the material.  Programs that use materials on-site—or do not produce the waste—can contribute those savings directly to the household or business participating. For local government organics programs, that means incorporating the following components:

  • Home composting
  • Grasscycling and mower programs
  • Food donations
  • Xeriscaping

Home Composting

Most communities in California promote home composting along with recycling education. Many communities provide additional incentives by providing free or discounted home composting bins to residents. San Mateo County provides subsidies to residents to purchase backyard bins and has sold more than 10,000 bins to date. The City of Seattle reports that more than 43 percent of the public participates in the city’s home composting program after eight years of outreach.

Compost bin sales can be one-time events or a routine service of the community. One-time events often take place in a parking lot where customers purchase bins from the back of a manufacturers truck at wholesale and subsidized prices. In Santa Cruz County, 15 percent of all households obtained home composting bins from the hauler or from parking lot sales.

Grasscycling and Mower Programs

During peak growing seasons, up to 7 percent of the waste stream is grass clippings. This adds up to several million tons per year. Grasscycling offers a simple alternative:  just leave clippings on the lawn when mowing.

CalRecycle partners with many local governments to promote grasscycling techniques. CalRecycle has held many workshops around the state, targeting landscapers and other professionals in the field. Some communities partner with manufacturers of grasscycling mowers: they promote the purchase of mowers, and the companies provide discount coupons for the communities to distribute.

Food Donations

Donation of edible food to the hungry is the highest and best use of this resource. Last year, one billion pounds of food supplied America’s Second Harvest. This charitable national network fed 26 million Americans, eight million of whom are children.

Many communities include lists of food donation opportunities in their areas with general lists of recycling opportunities. Some communities have also helped the food donation organizations to improve the services they offer, including purchase of necessary vehicles and equipment. The City of San Francisco provided the San Francisco Food Bank with several grants for purchasing two refrigerated trucks, a forklift and two pallet jacks, and a sorting conveyor system.


Xeriscaping, a water-conserving method of landscaping, involves careful selection of plants. Trees and shrubs that are native to California are often drought-tolerant and slow-growing. These plants will generally produce less waste and require less water than non-native plants. Lists of native plants in your area can be obtained from local master gardeners or most professional nurseries.

Communities could require Xeriscaping to be used in new developments as a condition of local land use permits. Communities could also require Xeriscaping practices be used on all public facilities.

Residential Yard Trimmings Collection

In most communities in California, residential yard trimmings are between 15 and 30 percent of the total residential waste stream. In 1999, 294 communities (56 percent of the total statewide) implemented some type of yard trimmings recycling program. Another 28 (9 percent) had planned such programs.

Collection programs are typically available weekly or biweekly to customers to obtain maximum participation. Unlike curbside recycling materials, residents generate yard trimmings on a sporadic basis after working in their gardens, mowing lawns, and pruning. Although weekly participation is not likely, more frequent service provides residents with adequate service.

Residents are usually asked to set their yard trimmings out in cans, bags, rolling carts, or unbundled in the street. The least expensive system often uses existing garbage cans for yard trimmings collection (sometimes with a decal or sticker to label the can).

A majority of the most successful programs are providing rolling carts or collection services for unbundled trimmings. Carts are also appropriate for discarded foods and food-contaminated paper.  Local composting facilities will often process residential yard trimmings. After shredding, these materials can also serve as alternative daily cover (ADC) at landfill sites.

Evidence from the 1990s has shown that all of the above collection programs can produce quality compost feedstocks. An important key to quality compost is proper enforcement of good preparation requirements and monitoring of yard trimmings at time of collection. In many communities, collectors leave behind improperly prepared material with a note to educate residents on proper preparation.

Christmas Tree Recycling

Most communities collect Christmas trees after the holidays as part of their solid waste services. Most programs offer both curbside and drop-off locations. Drop-off locations are particularly well designed for Christmas trees. Residents often prefer leaving trees whole to cutting them up to comply with yard trimmings collection programs. Because most of these trees are uncontaminated (except those flocked or left covered with tinsel), many communities have found that they can recycle these trees into valuable compost and mulch products.

Commercial Yard trimmings

Many facilities with large landscaped areas are instituting their own composting programs on-site. These include parks, golf courses, corporate campuses, colleges and universities, and large multifamily residential developments.

In areas where adequate space is available, chipping and mulching or windrow composting may be done on-site. In more densely developed areas, new commercial on-site composting systems are in use. Independent landscapers are often responsible for maintaining the properties, including disposing of yard trimmings. Landscapers can take their materials to competitive composting facilities in areas where they are available.

Discarded food

Discarded food and food-contaminated paper (sometimes referred to as “soiled” paper) make up 10 to 15 percent of the residential waste stream in many communities. Once the basic curbside, yard trimmings, and construction and demolition debris recycling programs are up and running, communities can focus on food waste.

Besides going to charitable organizations, food can also become animal feed, soap or other products, or compost. One major consideration in California is the availability of processing systems to handle different types of discarded foods. Most composting facilities that accept yard trimmings are not permitted or designed to accept all discarded foods. Some of those facilities may be able to accept produce wastes, but not meat and grease. Communities should contact their Local Enforcement Agency (LEA) to identify the permit status of composting facilities in their area to learn if food composting can take place on site. If not, they should find out what steps to take to make that possible.

Residential Discarded Food Collection

In residential programs with a weekly yard trimmings pickup, adding food can increase diversion without adding significantly to costs if the current composting facility can accept discarded foods.  Residents place food-contaminated paper with food waste. By combining both discarded food and contaminated paper together, the paper will absorb the moisture from the discarded food.

Additional costs may also include cart service, outreach, and kitchen pail distribution if necessary. Savings in collection efficiencies and avoided disposal costs can offset the additional costs.

Based on programs around the world and pilots in North America, programs that collect discarded food in this way should be able to obtain a weekly setout rate of 30 to 50 percent. Those participating will generally provide 80 percent of their discarded food and food-contaminated paper. The result of adding this material to a yard trimmings program could yield diversion of another 3 to 6 percent of the total residential waste stream once the program is operating.

Commercial Discarded Food Collection

On-site Composting

Over the past several years, commercial operations have begun using new in-vessel and enclosed composting systems. These systems enable businesses and institutions to compost on-site, saving collection costs.

These systems cost approximately $30 to $50 per ton to operate, which is competitive with most landfill tip fees in California. Businesses can easily amortize capital costs for these systems when they include avoided collection and disposal costs as part of their calculations.

While several manufacturers of these products exist, they are just beginning to be used in different California applications. One of the constraints appears to be the lack of technically knowledgeable people at businesses to oversee such operations. Service companies may be willing to finance, place, and maintain such units for a fee. Communities could assist in funding the startup of such service companies or help promote the in-vessel equipment directly to appropriate businesses.


Vermicomposting is the controlled degradation of organic materials primarily by red worms. Composting worms are capable of ingesting one-fourth to two times their body weight in food each day, depending on variations in temperature, pH, and environmental conditions.

Worm boxes have become popular as one method for safely composting food scraps at home, schools, and offices. Some communities subsidize the purchase of home worm bins as another option for home composting. Larger worm bins are now available for use in commercial and institutional settings, including cafeterias, restaurants, campuses and nurseries.

Produce Collection

Source-separating produce for collection at groceries and food processors is becoming popular around California. Community Recycling and Resource Recovery (Community) pioneered a produce collection system that serves more than 1,000 grocery stores throughout the state, including all the Safeway supermarkets. Community mixes the discarded foods with yard trimmings at its composting site near Bakersfield.

Animal Feed

Inedible food can go directly to feed animals or undergo blending and processing to produce animal feed. San Francisco diverts more than 21,000 tons per year from the waste stream through animal feed (including rendering).

Composting Facilities

Siting composting facilities was one of the great challenges of the past decade, with many ending up close to existing landfills. Composting facilities may charge a tip fee that is less than the rate charged at the landfill to attract landscapers and others with green waste to use their facilities.

Many communities today solicit private composting operators via requests for proposals for composting services (which may or may not include collection of the materials) or indirectly through an overall yard trimmings recycling collection company. Communities should check the background and experience of the service provider, their technical knowledge of composting processes, and their marketing experience to sell or use products made. Other items to check are the status of their permits and enforcement track record and their financial capabilities to accomplish what they propose to do.

In addition to yard trimmings, many communities include wood wastes as part of the scope of these proposals. Materials and services that could be included in such solicitations, depending on community needs and costs, could be:

  • Wood debris from construction and demolition.
  • Firewood for sale (especially from stumps and large logs, using “log splitters”).
  • Gypsum wallboard composting.
  • Lumber salvaging.
  • Pallet rebuilding.
  • Manures (horse and zoo).

Communities could encourage composting, reuse, and recycling companies to supply these services jointly. This would encourage creative partnerships, a greater diversity of services, and competitive prices.

Selling Compost Products

Markets for compost products have changed dramatically during the past decade. At the start of the decade, the CIWMB estimated that another 9 million tons of organic material must be recycled to meet AB 939 goals.  This means developing new markets, particularly in the agricultural, landscaping, and horticultural industries.

Since 1994, CalRecycle has funded demonstration projects that field-test the uses of compost and mulch in various situations. CalRecycle has funded field projects that monitor the effects of compost on crop and soil productivity. The projects also examine the use of compost as a soil erosion prevention tool. In addition, CalRecycle has developed regional partnerships with various growers and communities to promote the use of compost and mulch at field days and demonstrations. Through these efforts, compost has been shown to have a wide range of beneficial uses in both agriculture and pollution control activities.

CalRecycle is currently examining compost and mulch for their erosion control properties. A recent contract with CalTrans involves conducting research on the use of mulch to control erosion on highway rights-of-way. Vineyards also have been interested in using mulch as a cost-effective alternative to straw and cover crops for hillside erosion control.

Around the state, wine grape vineyards continue to expand onto hillsides. Many jurisdictions are requiring mitigation measures for erosion control. CalRecycle funded two hillside vineyard erosion control projects in Napa and Sonoma Counties; another research project involved the use of mulch in controlling erosion in citrus orchards in Ventura County.

Other potential markets for compost and mulch include:

  • Horticulture.
  • Wetland restoration.
  • Bio-remediation of air and wastewater streams.
  • Mine reclamation.
  • Forest restoration following fires

Buying Compost Products

State and local agencies need to buy compost and mulch products to help create the new and expanded markets necessary for achieving AB 939 goals. To help the public—including State and local agencies—buy more compost and mulch products, CalRecycle maintains a list of compost and mulch producers.

Some communities specify the use of compost and mulch products in publicly funded construction and maintenance projects. These include streets, highways, mass transit facilities, parks, public buildings, housing, erosion control, and environmental restoration projects.

CalRecycle is actively working to ensure that State agencies help the community in which they are located to meet its diversion mandate. Through the State Agency Buy Recycled Campaign, CalRecycle is working to increase the amount of recycled-content materials that State agencies purchase, including compost and mulch.

Permit conditions for new developments

One of the most powerful and familiar tools for local governments is placing conditions on local land use permits. Planning departments can include recycling and recycled-content requirements in conditional use permits.

In Los Angeles, approval of the Playa Vista development of 5.1 million square feet of commercial space and 13,000 residential units included special conditions for:

  • Recycling C&D debris.
  • Use of recycled-content products.
  • Ongoing recycling programs.

The Playa Vista project included recycling more than 84,000 tons of C&D material (with 9,000 tons of green waste) and recovering 92 percent of all materials generated. Many other recycling efforts are underway. Based on the success of this project, the Los Angeles City Council has passed a motion to develop similar sustainable development guidelines for all future city building projects and private sector developments.

Other communities could follow this lead. In addition to the recycling of green waste, communities could require public and private developers to use compost and mulch products as part of the conditions for approval of those projects. In addition, communities could advocate that projects built with State and federal funding within their community use the maximum amount of recycled products, including compost and mulch. This could have a major impact in stimulating the use of locally-generated compost and mulch products.

Tips for Replication

  • Identify which organics programs have not been implemented in your community.
  • Identify the largest organic recyclables remaining in your waste stream and the generation point (residential and/or commercial).
  • Identify compost processing facilities and service providers in your area.
  • Help expand existing organics services in the area, either through direct funding or working together with county and regional programs.
  • Match businesses that generate materials with service providers.


Pursuant to contract (IWM-C8028) with the University of California at Santa Cruz for a series of 24 studies and summaries, Gary Liss & Associates 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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