The US state of California will start its food waste recycling programme that requires residents to separate organic food waste from the rest to help mitigate climate change. 

Californians will be legally required to separate all organic material and food waste from other trash starting from January 1, in an effort to curb planet-warming methane emissions from landfills and reform the state’s throwaway culture. 

The state law, which was first passed in 2016, mandates all residents to toss organic material such as coffee grounds, eggshells, banana peels, vegetables, bread and other leftover food waste into “green bins” typically used for throwing out leaves and garden waste. 

Collected green waste will then either be composted, turned into fertiliser and mulch, or converted into natural gas through anaerobic digestion to generate power. Supermarkets and grocery stores will also have to donate unsold, edible food to food banks instead of throwing it away.

Individuals and businesses who don’t comply with the new law and separate their green waste can be fined up to $500 a day, while cities could be penalised with a $10,000 fine. 

“This is the biggest change to trash since recycling started in the 1980s,” said Rachel Wagoner, director of the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, adding that this “is the single easiest and fastest thing that every single person can do to affect climate change.”

Food waste is one of the biggest and growing environmental concerns around the world, where about one third of global food supplies are wasted or lost every year. When food waste ends up in landfills, it releases large amounts of methane gas into the atmosphere as it breaks down. Methane is a greenhouse gas that has 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide, and many scientists believe cutting methane is key to limiting global warming in the short term. At COP26, more than 100 countries pledged to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030 to help curb climate change. 

Currently, half of the waste generated in the state is organic material, according to CalRecycle, which accounts for around a fifth of methane emissions in California. Under the food waste recycling programme, the state aims to reduce organic waste to landfills by 75% by 2025 – potentially up to 17.7 million tons of organic waste, and the equivalent to the weight of more than 9.5 million cars. 

Returning organic waste to the ground also comes with other benefits aside from slashing methane emissions, it can improve soil quality – an important factor as the effects of climate change continue to worsen and become more frequent. Better soil quality can aid drought resistance and support better crop yields.

However, some have raised concerns in regards to compost or anaerobic digestion centres the state requires to process all the incoming organic waste. Los Angeles County is projected to need 12 digestion plants to process about 1.9 million tons of food waste a year. 

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