San Diego reached highest-ever recycling rate last year

SAN DIEGO — The City of San Diego hit its highest-ever percentage of waste that was diverted from local landfills through recycling and composting last year, according to new data from CalRecycle.

In 2022, San Diego achieved a 71% rate for recycling and composting waste that would have otherwise gone into landfills or trash incinerators in the area, marking a milestone that brings the city closer to meeting its goal of cutting waste by 90% in 2035.

“The City’s diversion rate is a clear signal that San Diegans are embracing recycling and are dedicated to meeting our climate goals,” City Councilmember Joe LaCava, chair of the Environment Committee, said in a release on Wednesday. “This positive shift toward zero waste is the product of hard work by City staff to educate the public about the impact of waste diversion.”

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The previous highest waste diversion rate in a single year was 68% in 2012, according to city officials. While the city’s Zero Waste Plan sought to cut three-quarters of all waste by 2020, the local diversion rate has fluctuated between 64% and 67% since then.

At the end of 2023, officials with the city’s Environmental Services Department are anticipating another increase in the amount of waste that is directed away from landfills, as it will be the first full year after the city introduced its “green bin” Organic Waste Recycling Program.

The distribution of green bins to San Diego residents was part of the city’s efforts to comply with a 2016 law, Senate Bill 1383, that aimed to reduce short-lived climate pollutants through a number of strategies, including cutting organic waste disposal by 75% by 2025 through locally-run collection services.

Since January, ESD has reported collecting more than 53,000 tons of organic waste — like food scraps and yard trimmings — from San Diego residents’ in the new green bins. By the end of the year, the city is projecting the total amount of organic waste collected to hit roughly 70,000 tons.

“We are very encouraged by our progress in 2022, and believe that 2023 will prove to be even better, after a full year of San Diegans participating in the City’s new Organic Waste Recycling Program by diverting their food scraps, food-soiled paper and yard waste into green bins,” said ESD Director Renee Robertson.

Recyclables, food scraps and other compostable material account for most of the garbage that is received at landfills across the country, according to the Environmental Protection Agency — a trend that contributes to harmful emissions, pollution and other health hazards.

Each year, the EPA estimates that landfill waste accounts for about 14% of all methane gas emissions in the U.S. — third-largest source behind Natural Gas and Enteric Fermentation.

On top of that, U.S. food loss and waste contributes about 170 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — equal to the annual CO2 emissions of 42 coal-fired power plants.

The latest figures from the EPA estimates that at least 75% of the waste that is sent to the nation’s landfills could be either recycled or composted. However, the country’s recycling and composting rate has hovered between 30 to 40% for nearly two decades.

“Diverting waste from our landfills is a crucial part of the City’s overall climate action goals, and we are delighted to see the progress to date,” Shelby Rust Busó, Chief Sustainability Officer with the Sustainability and Mobility Department, said in a release. “We are grateful to all San Diegans who are decreasing their carbon footprint by recycling and reusing materials on a daily basis.”

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For residents who still may be getting used to how to use the new green bins, A list of what can and cannot be put into the green bins can be found here. Although, city officials say a good rule of thumb to use when sorting waste is “if it grows, it goes” in the green bin.

Online guides about how to use the green bins are also available on the City of San Diego’s recycling website. Multiple languages are available, including English, Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese.

“It is in partnership with residents and businesses – who recognize the importance of recycling and the urgency to eliminate harmful greenhouse gases – that we will continue to see these diversion rates rise in the coming years,” LaCava continued.

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