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California, it’s time for some trash talk on food waste

A pile of compost waste next to a trailer truck
A trailer dumps raw materials to be turned into compost at Recology Blossom Valley Organics last week. On Jan. 1, Californians will be asked to comply with a law that requires them to separate organic waste — banana peels, coffee grounds, eggshells and more — from the rest of their trash.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Dec. 10. My name is Deborah Netburn and I’m the faith and spirituality reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

Today, I’d like to begin by talking trash.

Not that type of trash (although I’m usually down). I’m talking about garbage. The stuff we throw away.

On Jan. 1, a state law will go into effect that requires Californians to separate all organic material from their other garbage. That means adding food waste such as coffee grounds, eggshells, banana peels, moldy bread, last night’s table scraps and those vegetables at the back of your fridge that are starting to look slimy to the garden waste already in your green bin.

Half of the trash produced by Californians is organic material — especially kitchen scraps and garden waste. If the state successfully meets its goal of reprocessing 75% of its green waste by 2025, we can expect 17.7 million tons of material to be diverted from landfills and turned into products such as compost, mulch and natural gas.

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There are many reasons why this is beneficial — it reduces the amount of garbage that will end up in our landfills, and it returns organics to the land — improving soil quality, enhancing drought resistance, bolstering crops and reducing climate-warming gases.

However, there are still some questions about how it will all be implemented. As my colleague James Rainey reports, the state will need to build anywhere from 50 to 150 large compost or anaerobic digestion centers to process all this organic waste. Los Angeles County alone projects it could need a dozen anaerobic digestion plants to process 1.9 million tons of food waste a year. The price tag? Around $840 million.

Rainey’s story is packed full of facts about the benefits and challenges of the law, which was passed by the state Legislature and signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 2016, but I still had some questions about how it was going to affect Californians on an individual level. Was my green bin about to get super-stinky? And why hadn’t I heard about any of this yet if the new law was set to go into effect in just a few weeks?

Fortunately, Rainey was happy to get on the phone and talk.

The first thing to know is that although the law technically goes into effect Jan. 1, nobody is going to get penalized for not following it until 2024.

“It’s not like everyone has to wake up Jan. 1 and, if they weren’t doing this already, worry they’d have to separate out all their green waste,” Rainey told me. “This is going to be a work in progress for the next couple of years.”

Also, it’s likely this law won’t affect all of us in the same ways. Different cities will have different rules. For example, if you live in San Francisco, your life won’t change at all. The city has required residents and businesses to put their food scraps in green bins since 2009. Today, San Franciscans are already encouraged to recycle things such as crab and oyster shells, salad dressings, pasta, vegetable oil, jam and cooked meats.

I asked Rainey how gross our green bins would get if we start putting our food waste in them.

He said it’s not going to be as bad as some of us might think.

“The folks who have been doing this consistently say the ew or ick factor is gravely exaggerated,” he said.

When the time comes, his advice is to line your kitchen waste pail with paper towels to soak up the moisture and keep the bottom of the pail from getting too juicy.

Rainey’s son is a soil scientist and huge composting advocate, so with his kid’s strong encouragement, Rainey has been recycling his own kitchen scraps for a few years now.

“It doesn’t really seem to create a lot of mold or bad smells,” he said. “It seems manageable.”

Good to know!

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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L.A. STORIES

The Los Angeles Unified School District has a new superintendent. Alberto Carvalho, who served as the head of Miami-Dade County Public Schools since 2008, has been named the new superintendent of L.A. Unified. In coming to L.A., Carvalho moves from heading the fourth-largest K-12 public school system in the country to the second-largest, taking on one of the highest-profile and most challenging posts in public education. Carvalho is credited in the Miami-Dade district with providing stable leadership and improved academic performance, and with creating special programs that offer more schooling choices for parents. In Los Angeles, he would immediately have to confront a school district in which many students have long struggled to achieve and were further set back — academically and emotionally — by the COVID-19 pandemic. He will be the ninth schools chief since 2006, including interim officeholders. Los Angeles Times

Where to find the best tamales in L.A. Do you live in Los Angeles? Congratulations. You have the honor of calling “the historic center of Tamale America” your home, according to food writers Daniel Hernandez and Bill Addison. We are fortunate enough to have easy access to multiple forms of tamales from the cuisines of Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia and other countries — each representing distinct culinary subcultures within each nation’s boundaries. As Angelenos, we can easily eat tamales year round, but Hernandez and Addison think they taste better around Christmas and New Year’s. Here are some of their favorite spots from the Valley to Watts that you might want to check out. Los Angeles Times

Two tamales with the husks open
Tamales at Los Cinco Puntos, a carnicería and traditional corner grocery in Boyle Heights.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

State regulators sign off on phaseout of gas-powered leaf blowers. California regulators voted Thursday to ban the sale of new gas-powered leaf blowers and lawn mowers starting in 2024 and portable generators by 2028 — the latest step in the state’s aggressive effort to reduce harmful pollutants and transition toward a carbon-free economy. The new regulations by the California Air Resources Board require all newly sold small-motor equipment primarily used for landscaping to be zero-emission by the target dates, with some exceptions. The restriction applies to homeowners and commercial landscapers alike, and the ban also includes gas-powered weed trimmers, chain saws and power washers. The regulation does not ban existing gas-powered equipment, which can continue to be used. Los Angeles Times

California created the nation’s first state reparations task force. What’s next? The state Legislature passed Assembly Bill 3121 to create the task force in the late summer of 2020, three months after video was released showing George Floyd dying under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Under state law, the task force is charged with investigating the history of injustice and brutality against Black people, “with a special consideration for African Americans who are descendants of persons enslaved in the United States.” The group must recommend ways to educate the public about its findings and propose a formal apology, potential compensation and other remedies. The mission is to deliver a reparations proposal to the Legislature by July 1, 2023, that can become law. The plan includes listening sessions beginning in January to hear what people need and want. Los Angeles Times

CRIME AND COURTS

Lawsuit alleges sexual battery by UCLA doctor who ran student health center. A former UCLA student has sued the university, alleging she was sexually battered as a patient by gynecologist Edward Wiesmeier, who oversaw student health services for a quarter-century. As an undergraduate in 2000 or 2001, the woman, identified as Jane Doe in the lawsuit, went to the UCLA Student Health Center for routine gynecological care. Instead, court documents say, she “was subjected to sexual contact and — later — to an excruciatingly painful and sexually abusive ‘procedure’ by Dr. Wiesmeier,” who at the time was an assistant vice chancellor at the university. The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, names both the doctor and the university system as defendants and alleges civil rights violations, sexual battery, negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Los Angeles Times

In Southern California, a surge in unsubstantiated school shooting threats. In the last two months of 2021, schools and law enforcement agencies have issued bulletins about reports of guns or possible threats of violence at campuses in Redlands, Los Alamitos, Bloomington, Long Beach, Corona, Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades and elsewhere. None were deemed credible, but reports of possible attacks can’t be ignored, and each one has the potential to result in panic, Redlands Unified School District spokeswoman Christine Stephens said. Orange County Register

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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

California’s coronavirus cases are rising again. Are we bracing for a winter surge? AAAAHHHHHH! (Sorry, just needed to get that out of my system.) Health officials from a number of California counties say they’re seeing early signs of a rebound in coronavirus cases related to Thanksgiving, an upturn some worry could be the beginning of the state’s fifth COVID-19 surge. Statewide, the daily average of newly reported infections has risen more than 30% since before Thanksgiving. The number of Californians hospitalized with COVID-19 also has climbed during that time, interrupting weeks of mostly steady declines. But don’t freak out just yet. It’s still far from clear whether California will see a significant increase in cases this winter or whether the combination of relatively high vaccination rates and various safety rules will limit the scope of a surge. Los Angeles Times

Environmental group purchases 5 miles of rugged California coast for redwood preservation. In the largest coastal land preservation deal in Northern California in 20 years, the Save the Redwoods League has agreed to pay $36.9 million to buy a 3,181-acre expanse on the Mendocino Coast from a timber company, which has owned it since 1963. The area is home to Roosevelt elk, coho salmon, mountain lions and other wildlife. It has second-growth redwood forests 80 to 100 years old, a few remaining old-growth redwoods, and some trees roughly 230 feet tall. The terrain is so steep that plans to extend Highway 1 through the region in 1984 were ultimately abandoned, leaving the oceanfront the most undeveloped and isolated portion of California’s famed coastline. After the sale is completed, the league plans to conduct a detailed biological survey of the property, then build trails for eventual public access. The Mercury News

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

How Erewhon made luxury groceries a lifestyle. Before it became the land of $21 superfood smoothies, mushroom tinctures and organic-raw-vegan-sugar-free-gluten-free key lime pie, Erewhon had dwindled to a single, overcrowded store on Beverly Boulevard in 2011. Ten years later, that’s all changed. Vogue recently called the chain a “health-food holy site,” the New York Times said it’s “the unofficial hangout for the young, beautiful and bored,” and Vanity Fair declared: “The hottest pandemic club in Los Angeles is Erewhon.” It’s a cultural phenomenon (and occasional spectacle) that customers, critics and industry analysts joke could exist only in L.A. But company executives hope that’s not the case. They are in the midst of an ambitious expansion plan to increase Erewhon stores to as many as 20 locations in all — including those outside Southern California for the first time in decades. Los Angeles Times

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CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: Partial sun, 62. San Diego: Partial clouds, 62. San Francisco: Sunny, 58. San Jose: Sunny, 58. Fresno: Some sun, some clouds, 50. Sacramento: Sunny, 54.

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory is from Kenneth Wong:

I remember the building of the 10 Freeway next to our house near Vermont Avenue during the late 1950s/early 1960s. I and my brothers used to go up onto the under-construction freeway and play baseball and fly my balsa wood glider when the only vehicles allowed on the 10 were construction vehicles like road graders and steamrollers.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.


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