Farm to Fork to compost in Sacramento

KJ Dastur tries a compost crank during a composting workshop given by Master Gardener Bill Maynard at Brooks Truitt Community Garden in Sacramento April 24. Photograph by Andri Tambunan

City implements SB1383 

By Hannah Ross

Brooks Truitt Community Garden — a pearlescent oyster shell sits atop a softly steaming pile of mulch next to the light rail track, the cherry on a compost sundae. The mulch, now in its fourth week of rotations, is waiting for the worm to turn. 

Community members take a few steps closer, holding notepads and new compost pales to their chests, sometimes poking the hodgepodge mulch, spotting egg shells, fruit peels, the occasional bone and last year’s leaves. A few students step forward to take turns on a twisty crank that aerates the stack like a wine opener. 

At this late April session, City of Sacramento Master Gardener and Community Garden Program Coordinator Bill Maynard shows how to work it: flip it, and reverse it. Taking down the side slats of the large wooden box holding together the “compost cake,” he offers tips for operating the at-home GeoBins the the City of Sacramento’s Recycling and Solid Waste Division distributes for free at its composting seminars. 

Sacramento RSW has been hosting these free-to-the-public compost seminars since 2001. The sessions are held at community gardens across the city. Each garden has a composting set-up like the one at Q Street, fed and tended to by the gardeners who rent plots. When it’s ready, the soil is available for them to use in their plots.

“Can I put animal waste in my compost?” attendee KJ Dastur asks. Dastur recently raised a raft of ducks in their Del Paso Heights backyard and is looking for ways to turn the birds’ impressive amounts of poop into something useful. Maynard is encouraging, noting that animal waste generates heat that accelerates the composting process. “I’m very excited because I’ve been trying to get rid of this poop for a while,” Dastur says.

As California approaches six months from projected goal markers set in the Short-Lived Climate Pollutant Reduction Strategy or Senate Bill 1383, Sacramento has found a handful of hurdles in implementing a countywide composting mandate in a city whose reputation has been built on its soil. 

Dirt don’t hurt

Master Gardener Bill Maynard demonstrates how to use a compost crank during a composting workshop at Brooks Truitt Community Garden in Sacramento April 24. Photo by Andri Tambunan 

Signed by Gov. Brown in 2016, SB 1383 set two goals: to reduce the state’s level of organic waste to 75% of the 2014 level by 2025, and to recover and redirect 20% of edible food disposed back to human consumption. 

Experts agree that reducing organic waste and other short-lived climate pollutants will have the fastest impact on slowing the climate crisis. When organic waste heads to landfills, it goes through a process of anaerobic decomposition, in which bacteria produce high levels of methane gas. Before implementing SB 1383, food scraps, yard trimmings, paper and cardboard made up half of California landfills. Twenty percent of all methane emissions in the state originated from landfills, according to the California Air Resources Board.

Composting could reduce California’s greenhouse gas emissions by 38–84% by diverting this organic waste from landfills and recycling it into nutrient-rich soil, according to a study released in 2023 in Scientific Reports by researchers at UC Berkeley. 

“This is a way that we can immediately improve the health of our landfills and our air quality and also find a way to make a useful product from that material, which is compost,” says Jesa David, media and communications specialist with Sacramento RSW. 

David noted that adding compost back into our soil helps reduce the need for irrigation, increases nutrients in the fruits and vegetables grown, and helps reduce the need for chemical fertilizers. “There are a lot of ways that we’re creating a benefit, both by reducing that food waste on one end, and then also increasing this valuable material that can be used in a myriad of ways by local communities.” 

How the city implemented SB 1383

An attendee tries working a compost crank during a composting workshop given by Master Gardener Bill Maynard at Brooks Truitt Community Garden in Sacramento April 24. Andri Tambunan

Having launched a residential organic waste recycling program in 2015 before the state’s mandate was signed in 2016, Sacramento was steps ahead of other counties in getting their ducks (and their droppings) in a row for the January 2022 implementation deadline. 

“We had weekly green waste collection already … so we did have an advantage. It wasn’t so much the frequency as it was, ‘Don’t put it in this container now, put it in this other container.’” says Erin Treadwell, integrated waste compliance manager for Sacramento RSW. 

The biggest push was establishing a network of franchised organic waste haulers, who would collect organic waste from over 7,000 businesses across the city, redirecting the material to composting facilities and a small portion to an anaerobic digester to be turned into biofuel. Sacramento RSW vets all haulers, who then implement collection and customer education by their standards, with city oversight, according to Treadwell and David.

Atlas Disposal, based in Rancho Cordova and one of the city’s biggest waste haulers, added three additional routes to handle the increase in business participation and the amount of organic waste coming from said businesses.

“It’s early days, but the last few years represented a really significant increase in the amount of food waste and organics that are being collected,” Grant Scruggs, sustainability coordinator at Atlas Disposal says. “It’s a pretty significant transition that occurred over a short period of time, but it definitely wasn’t too big of a challenge for us to implement.”

In April, Sacramento RSW launched its free compost program, where residents can pick up compost through one of the city’s organic waste recycling companies. 

Treadwell reported anecdotally Sacramento meets above-average compliance compared to the rest of the state — 126 jurisdictions used extra time permitted by the legislature to reach compliance, according to Lance Klug, public information officer at CalRecycle. Sacramento RSW and CalRecycle will not have the data to back their performance until their next material characterization study is complete in 2025.


Common tools used for composting are seen during a composting workshop at Brooks Truitt Community Garden in Sacramento April 24. Photograph by Andri Tambunan

Residents and businesses have some alternatives to franchised mega-haulers: They can also give their material to a community composting site. Enter David S Baker from ReSoil Sacramento and Green Restaurant Association of Sacramento.

ReSoil Sacramento is a community compost collective and a program of GRAS. In addition to ReSoil, GRAS offers cork recycling, education and consulting on best green practices for restaurants. Having seen room for eco-improvement during his years in the restaurant industry — most notably as a sommelier at Selland’s Market-Cafe where he picked up his interest in terroir —  Baker launched GRAS in 2015, around the same time Sacramento was rebranding as the Farm-to-Fork Capital. 

ReSoil was the first to do restaurant composting in the Sacramento area, originally partnering with Atlas Disposal to haul scraps from 13 restaurants, including Selland’s, Waterboy and Thai Basil, to farm-to-table legend Suzanne Ashworth’s Del Rio Botanicals in Yolo County for traditional composting. 

A year in, according to Baker, Atlas started testing out their new anaerobic digester. 

“To me at best, it’s recycling. It’s going back to fuel. You collect it for its value, burn it up for the buses or the trucks or whatever, but then you really can’t use it anymore,” says Baker of the biofuel these digesters create. “That’s better, it’s good but it’s also not very progressive. … We’re witnessing a fast track of this [organic waste processing] to make fuel.”

Since SB 1383 hit, ReSoil has had to get more official with its processes, often competing with franchise haulers for customers. ReSoil collects scraps by e-bike from their restaurants and redistributes the scraps to local farms including Root 64 Farm in West Sacramento, New Roots Farm run by the IRC in West Sacramento, UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento and community gardens across the county. In addition to their restaurant route, they collect citizens’ compost at the Saturday Midtown Farmers Market. 

“We want every scrap and we want to sow them directly into the soil to build our ecosystem and climate resiliency for the trees,” Baker says. Though digesters and new composters that have come on the scene since SB 1383 are helping to reduce methane gas levels, he worries that the important part of getting the nutrients back into the soil is being overlooked. 

“That’s why I’m so up in arms about Big Waste capturing all of this material,” Baker says. “We want to try to keep it open. … Over my dead body are you going to make this the farm-to-fork-to-fuel capital.” 

Baker has watched over the last four years as franchised haulers create elaborate gas-reliant routes across the city, and set up transfer stations as Republic Services has, to take the material away from Sacramento. Republic Services, a franchised hauler with the City of Sacramento, acquired its first anaerobic digester in partnership with Archaea now owned by BP.

“So now they’re buying into what BP’s infrastructure is,” Baker says. “There’s money involved now, right? Whereas when we started it was garbage. Now, there’s a whole infrastructure that realizes the value of this and is ready to profit.”

Progress Report

A compost crank, a tool used for composting, is seen during a composting workshop at Brooks Truitt Community Garden in Sacramento April 24. Andri Tambunan.

Treadwell feels Sacramento RSW has made a strong “good faith” effort to implement organic waste recycling in the region, and reports anecdotal evidence of organic waste declining in landfills over the past three years. 

“We have seen very anecdotally that our garbage weights have gone down a bit and our organic weights have gone up,” Treadwell says. “So in very, very rough terms, we do know that there’s been a shift.”

CalRecyle’s most recent study, conducted in 2021, showed that organic waste decreased by about 2 million tons statewide since 2014, even before SB 1383 officially took effect in 2022, according to Klug. 

The biggest challenge RSW faces now is customers misunderstanding what materials are compostable. Takeout packaging and any container or paper product with a wax, film or liner on it, are not compostable. Many products marketed as compostable can only be recycled with a very specific composting process that requires high heat or a particular breakdown method that local processors don’t do.

“There’s that disconnect of what we can take in our system and what folks are selling and marketing as though you’re being green. They say ‘Hey, this is compostable stuff,’ and it’s sadly not, at least in our systems, and in a lot of systems. There’s very few in California that actually can take that stuff,” Treadwell says. 

David agreed, “It’s a lot of greenwashing, unfortunately.”

Baker is also worried about the forever chemicals, or PFAS, these products introduce into the compost when not taken out of the decomposition process.

Baker noted that educating people about compost and all its magical intricacies is an essential but challenging part of implementing citywide composting. He helps the city with its composting seminars and has spoken at Sacramento State’s Regenerative Agriculture Community Forum.

The legislature has also taken steps to address pollution in organic waste. Gov. Gavin Newson signed AB1201 in 2021 which addresses mislabeling of compostable materials and bans PFAS from any products labeled as compostable.

Super sorters and the school districts

Breathe California, the Sacramento-area nonprofit with over 106 years of work in the region supporting clean air and healthy lungs through policy advocacy and community involvement, has stepped up to tackle organic waste recycling education programs for youth. 

“The kids are all in. The kids want to do this. They like having control over what happens. I think they understand the impact that this has and the biggest benefit that we’ve been seeing is that they are going home and asking their parents or caregivers: “Well, why don’t we have [composting at home]?’” says Jennifer Finton, CEO of Breathe California.

Breathe started its food scraps recycling program five years ago, and is still the only organization running an education program on composting in the region. They are currently contracted by the county to work in 54 schools across several local districts.

Their programming has been perfected through trial-by-fire, adjusting implementation for school size, staffing and schedule structure for each campus. 

Breathe elects a team of “Super Sorters,” typically upper-classmen at each school, who lead their classmates through accurate sorting practices each meal period. “We love to see their participation and their excitement over having control over what happens to their food scraps,” Finton says. 

Finton noted that a big challenge with the program was the “incredible amount of food waste” schools generate, noting the milk that comes with California’s free lunch program is often opened, not consumed, and makes for really heavy organic recycling. 

“We’re finding the most challenging part is related to the infrastructure and the plant managers that are already overworked, having to navigate a new process when there isn’t necessarily support … to make sure they’re not lifting too heavy bags or there’s literally not enough time in between the lunch [periods].”

School districts were meant to be compliant by January 2024, but Finton says that many are behind schedule.

“As implementers of what we think the intent of the bill is, [we see] it as almost a cart before the horse situation,” Finton says, reflecting on the last four years of implementation strategies the Breathe team has piloted. “[The kids] overall embrace it, they want to take a leadership role in this. It makes sense to them. But it’s the existing infrastructure by adults getting in their way.”

This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and the James B. McClatchy Foundation. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.

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