Methane and Food Garbage, a wonky speculation on SB1383

In the fall of 2021, I got a letter from Waste Management, our trash collector.  Starting in January, we were required to help reduce methane by putting food waste into the green waste bin…Huh??

The state legislature had passed SB 1383, seeking to reduce greenhouse warming by cutting methane emissions from landfills (garbage dump.)  It was the first I had ever heard of such a thing.

Then just as the new year began, the city of La Verne sent out letters informing us of the same law.

How to do this?  Dump food waste into green bins.  But won’t that make the bins smelly and gross with insects and rotting food?   No matter, eventually, you could be fined $500 for failing to hop on board.  (The fines won’t start until 2024.)

I called my city (La Verne) for information.  Learned that food scraps could be placed in a paper bag and the bag put in the green bin.  But no plastic bags, please.  I asked who will enforce this law…and was told, “That’s a good question….”

The question of enforcement is an intriguing one.  And one that has a smelly history.

Angelenos have never been happy when asked to do anything new and strange, so thus, in the l950s and l960s, a major political battle roiled over a brand new city requirement to separate recyclable materials from trash, to reduce the growing landfills.  It became a political crusade for then Mayor Sam Yorty, whose objection to this new  edict gained traction with the announcement of a draconian penalty of $500 or 6 months in jail.  The battle got ugly and vicious until l964, when the LA City Council threw in the towel.

Today, LA and most cities in our megalopolis require separating garbage into black trash bins, grey for recyclables and green for compostable waste.  The  law (1383) throws in yet another wrinkle.

The argument is that food waste is compostable and will be used to create mulch to be made available to citizens to use in our gardens.  The problem is that there seems to be a wide range of instructions about what is included.  For example, meat and fat is never included in backyard composting because they do not biodegrade fast enough to create mulch.  But instructions from La Verne and Waste Management say we can throw meat, bones and fat in the green waste bin.  And compostable plastic bags (from Trader Joe’s) are not acceptable.  (Have you handled these compostible bags…they are so incredibly flimsy they feel like they are biodegrading even as I drop in my apples.)

But not to worry.  Enforcement (yet another $500 fine) does not begin until 2024.  Why the delay?  Here I turn to speculating.

It is common knowledge that carbon dioxide is the largest greenhouse gas and the most harmful.  Methane? The second largest greenhouse gas which, sadly, is 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Turns out methane is much like natural gas…it is odorless, colorless and comes from a large number of sources, including the oil and gas industry, cattle, sheep, goats and buffalo.  And even people.

Other natural sources include swampy areas, but the major producer of methane pollution could be the oil and gas industry.  We don’t seem to have a good handle on this question..some point to the oil and gas industry, some point to the livestock industry.  Livestock, you say?  Close to 30% of methane is from ‘enteric’ sources…that is from intestines.  Ours?  No, from cows, sheep, goats and buffalo.  Are we talking flatulance here?  Nope.  Its’s from burping.  So burping cows produce a lot of methane.

Landfills appear to come in third.  But again we don’t have a clear picture.  (Speculating again.)  We do know that 10 years ago measurements of methane emissions came from aircraft surveys of reflections of gasses, and using infra-red technology.  (Forgive the wonkiness here…)  And in the next two or three years, further studies involving specialized satellites will be able to detect methane emissions at the factory level.

And there seems to be much international cooperation lining up, including petroleum industry giants Shell and BP in the form of an International Methane Observatory and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition.

So in two years or so, we will have a clearer picture of how much methane pollution comes from landfills.  And how dangerous our garbage is to the environment.

In the meantime, we are encouraged to separate our food waste and scraps and dump them into the green waste bins.

image credit:  Laxmi Nagar, Times of India.






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