San Diego Business Journal

Waste diversion isn’t rocket science, but getting people to put the right stuff in the right bin has always been an uphill battle.

We’re busy. And taking the time to decipher if your cup should go to the landfill, recycling center, or compost facility simply isn’t something most people will do when they’re in a hurry.

That’s why a new state law, AB 1826, is going to be challenging for many California businesses and institutions. Under the new law, hundreds of restaurants, schools, supermarkets and large venues must divert food waste from the landfill beginning in 2016.

They’ll have their work cut out for them. Look inside any recycling bin or trash can at a public place, and you’re likely to see a lot of the wrong things in the wrong place.  

Simple Solutions

So to keep food out of the landfill, it’s critical to keep things simple.

Big establishments (think stadiums, schools and cafeterias) often use disposable plates, cups, food wrappers and utensils. There are two options for keeping these out of the landfill: recyclable or compostable packaging.

Here’s where it can get complicated: Food can impact disposable packaging in a big way. Recyclers don’t want any food waste: It gums up the machinery and reduces the value of materials that can be sold to companies who will recycle it into something else. Composters don’t mind food: It can be turned into soil.

In short, recyclers hate food scraps and composters embrace them.

For businesses, that means recyclables must go in one bin and food waste in another. Of course, it’s not easy getting customers to put everything in the correct bin. And persuading them to scrape the lasagna off a recyclable plate is an even bigger challenge.

Compostable packaging, on the other hand, can go in the same bin as leftover food. There’s no need to wrestle a toddler’s macaroni and cheese off a paper plate. It can stay.

As a result, many businesses and institutions have turned to compostable plates, utensils and cups. It’s a lot easier for everyone.

But it doesn’t come without costs.

Businesses will likely have to spend a bit more to change over to environmentally preferable packaging. That’s especially true if they’re currently using cups and plates made from foam — an incredibly cheap material. How big the cost increase will depend on their current packaging solution.

New bins, signage, and staff training could be required. Businesses also will also need to find someone to take the compostable materials, but given that foodservice operators are already dealing with trash and probably recycling, their current hauler would be a good place to start.

Businesses should be aware that California’s law empowers cities and counties to set fines for noncompliance as part of their organics diversion program.

But take heart. California’s new law may actually be good for business. 

A recent survey found one in five Americans would be more likely to buy concessions at a stadium if they learned that all of the trash left behind was recycled or composted. And if a venue isn’t green? One quarter of Americans said they’d buy fewer concessions if the stadium was sending all of its waste to the landfill.

Don’t Throw Away Opportunity

So the new state law could represent a good opportunity for businesses. It’s a chance to tie a positive environmental message with a brand.

Take a compostable coffee cup, for example. A customer reads the printing on the cup and learns that it doesn’t have to go to a landfill; it can be turned into soil at a local farm. That’s a great feeling to be part of the solution. And customers reward businesses that make them feel good.

So it’s not just the environment that will be benefitting. It’s the bottom line, too.

Sarah Martinez is Sustainability Maven for Eco-Products.