Packaging People and Leaders

Need for Degradable Takeout Packaging may Decline as Commercial Sector Implements Food Recycling (FREE)

David Goldstein, an environmental resource analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency writes about the declining need for degradable takeout packaging. This is a FREE article.

Phil White, who serves on Ventura County’s Climate Emergency Council, was at a restaurant recently and found he had ordered more food than he could eat. He did not plan to return directly home after dining, so having the food packaged in a clamshell and eating it later could be unsafe.

He asked restaurant staff if they had a separate container for food scrap recycling, but he learned the restaurant discards food with all other waste, into a landfill-bound dumpster. Eager to participate fully in the statewide campaign launched in earnest two months ago to cut climate-changing methane gas by preventing food from rotting in landfills, Mr. White brought the food home, not to eat, but to place in his curbside organics recycling cart.

This level of dedication to recycling cannot be expected of many people, so he emailed me, asking whether restaurants, like homeowners, are also required by new California mandates to recycle food scraps. Placing recycling requirements on just single-family homes would leave much of the organic waste stream still flowing to landfills and generating methane.

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In fact, restaurants and all other commercial generators in California, do also have new requirements under California Senate Bill 1383 of 2016. Like the residential sector, statewide rules for business waste collection accounts, including for apartments of five or more units, became effective January 1 of this year. Current state and local programs for commercial recycling focus on education, and penalties for non-compliance may begin in 2024. 

One implication of this changes could be a reduction in incentives for conversion to degradable packaging. Customers who would care enough to regard a restaurant highly for use of degradable to-go containers would be equally impressed with the ability to have their food scraps collected on site for composting. Of course, reusing food for eating is a much higher environmental priority than composting food scraps, but the motivation not to waste, and not to cause methane emissions in landfills, may be diminished by the availability of compost programs.

However, many businesses may be able to obtain local exemptions from new recycling obligations. Cities and the County (for businesses outside city limits) can offer businesses exemptions for specified reasons. One is a “de minimis” exemption, for businesses generating organics below established thresholds. Another is an exemption for lack of space to site recycling containers. 

The County of Ventura sent notices of organics recycling requirements to the 2,019 holders of business licenses for the generally non-commercialized areas outside cities, and has, as of last week, granted 37 waivers. Jill Sarick-Santos, Recycling Manager for the City of Oxnard, the largest city in the County, says Oxnard sent notices of SB 1383 requirements to approximately 4,000 business license holders citywide. Home-based businesses can comply with rules by using residential recycling carts. Sarick-Santos predicts, after weeding out home-based businesses and others not subject to the requirements, the list will decline to about 2,200 businesses needing organics recycling or waivers. She expects nearly half of those businesses to qualify for waivers based on low generation rates or lack of space available. The task is complicated in Oxnard and other large cities by the number of tenants in multi-tenant developments sharing refuse service. Each business is individually responsible for meeting the mandates.

The de minimis waiver is available to businesses if waste generated on site is less than two cubic yards per week and organics are less than 10 gallons per week. Businesses generating over two cubic yards of waste per week may also qualify, but only if organics generated on site are less than 20 gallons per week. 

Some fast-food restaurants may qualify for de minimis waivers from requirements for organic recycling because, although packaging raises the waste stream over two cubic yards per week, little food is consumed on site, pre-apportioned ingredients limit waste in the food preparation area, and customers eating on-site tend to finish their entire meals. 

State regulations also allow self-hauling, and yard clippings may be hauled by landscapers. Some businesses haul materials to landfills and recycling centers, rather than employing a hauler. Similarly, businesses may choose to either compost organics onsite or haul to a composter. 

Businesses claiming to meet recycling requirements without subscribing to service by a contracted hauler will likely be required to provide proof of recycling to the jurisdiction in which the business is located. Each jurisdiction will verify with an on-site visit whether a waiver should be granted.

As for Mr. White’s second question, if a farm is a commercial business, then the same requirements apply. However, most farmers just plow waste crops into the ground, so jurisdictions may waive requirements for organics collection service. Food processing facilities and fruit packing centers associated with agriculture are less likely to meet waiver requirements. In fact, many such businesses are also subject to an additional requirement applicable to two categories of waste generators. 

In addition to recycling organics, “Tier One” waste generators, by this year, and “Tier Two” waste generators by 2024, must contract with a food recovery organization so edible food discards can be saved for hungry people. 

Tier One businesses include large supermarkets and grocery stores, food service providers and distributors, and wholesale food vendors. Tier Two businesses include large restaurants, hotels, health facilities with on-site food facilities, large events, and educational facilities with cafeterias.

Abound Food Care, a consulting firm hired by the County to compile countywide lists of Tier One and Tier Two entities, will soon complete work and make recommendations for expansion of Ventura County’s food recovery infrastructure so more food can be recovered, rather than just recycled. 


This article was written by David Goldstein, an environmental resource analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency.

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