Is California’s organic waste recycling a failure?

Your guide to California policy and politics
Lynn La BY Lynn La May 24, 2023
Presented by UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Institute, Western States Petroleum Association, FIX PAGA: A Better, Fairer Way for Workers and Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership

Is California’s organic waste recycling a failure?

Reuse, reduce… recalibrate? 

According to one watchdog agency, California is “falling short” in its ambitious organic waste recycling efforts and may need to hit the pause button until state agencies and local governments can sort themselves out.

But that rankled the state officials in charge, who considered the very suggestion, well, garbage — prompting a spirited debate at a Tuesday meeting of the Little Hoover Commission.

In an upcoming report, the commission points out what it considers major flaws in the state’s requirement to decrease the amount of organic material sent out to landfills — which includes household food scraps and yard waste — by 50% by 2020 and 75% by 2025. The mandate was created by a 2016 law, Senate Bill 1383, that fully took effect in 2022.

Not only did the state miss its 2020 target, the report finds, but California dumped more organic waste in landfills than it did in 2014 (the baseline year used to calculate targets) and is set to miss its 2025 goals, too. The commission’s top recommendation is for the Legislature to temporarily pause implementation.

CalRecycle says that would be a big mistake.

  • Rachel Wagoner, director of CalRecycle: “Holding and pausing 1383 would be absolutely, absolutely detrimental… We’ve spent nearly half a billion dollars in California to jump start 1383 in organic recycling and a lot of that would be halted.”

Nonprofits, private waste and compost operators and bioenergy companies also spoke out against halting the program, citing the millions of dollars businesses have already invested.

And because landfills are the largest source of methane emissions in California, pulling the program back would mean pausing climate change efforts as well. As one engineer from the California Compost Coalition said, “We really don’t have the time for the bureaucracy to catch up with climate change. We need to go forth.”

In response, the commission emphasized its overall support for organic recycling and reducing methane emissions. But it said a pause would give counties, particularly rural ones, more time to establish the outreach and infrastructure to comply with the law. (Local governments that do not can be fined $10,000 a day, and individual residents can also be penalized).

Members of the commission also said the concerns about a temporary pause are being overblown.

  • Anthony Cannella, a commissioner and former state senator: “It’s my goal to fully implement this bill. I think that’s important for our state, our country, our world. But I do think we have time to get it right. I don’t think if we delay this then the whole world is going to go into chaos, that’s not going to happen.”

California has run into issues with other forms of recycling. From confusion over which plastics can really be recycled to reducing single-use plastics, even the most well-intended policies have contentious drawbacks.

At the end of the meeting, the commission approved the draft of the report. Pending final technical changes by staff, it is up to legislators whether to adopt the commission’s recommendations.


Reparations calculator: CalMatters has created an interactive tool to estimate how much someone might be owed in reparations for slavery and racism, under recommendations going from a task force to the Legislature and governor. Look it up here, watch a TikTok about it (from our engagement team and featuring CalMatters data journalist Erica Yee), see it on Instagram and read the full story from Wendy Fry of CalMatters’ California Divide team.


1 Looking for a place to call home

Carolina K. Reid, an associate professor at UC Berkeley specializing in affordable housing and urban policy, speaks during a panel on homeownership at the CalMatters Studio in Sacramento on May 23, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters
Carolina Reid, an associate professor at UC Berkeley, speaks during a panel discussion on homeownership at CalMatters’ offices in Sacramento on May 23, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters

From CalMatters’ homelessness and housing reporter Marisa Kendall:

Homeownership: What once was a middle-class California dream now is a milestone increasingly reserved for the wealthy. How did we get here and what do we do about it? 

In CalMatters’ first Sacramento Sessions event, CalMatters reporter Alejandro Lazo addressed those questions Tuesday with a panel of housing experts.

Only about one in five Californians can afford to buy a typical home here at the median price of $822,000 — marking the state’s lowest level of affordability since the economic downturn of the late 2000s, according to the California Association of Realtors.

  • Ellen Martin, director of homeownership for the California Housing Financing Agency: “We sort of have this trifecta of challenges in terms of persistently high housing prices, low inventory, and now we’ve introduced interest rate volatility that just makes it really, really challenging for any homebuyers to access the market.”

So what’s the solution? Several bills moving through the Legislature, such as Senate Bill 684, aim to make it easier to build housing people can afford. And the state this year launched the Dream For All program, which helps first-time homeowners with down payments; in exchange, homebuyers give the state a portion of the home’s appreciated value when they sell.

  • Carolina Reid, faculty research advisor at UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation: “I think we need to do a lot more than that, particularly if we want to redress racial inequalities in access to homeownership.”

Bummed you missed this discussion? Not to worry — there will be more CalMatters events. The next one will be June 13 and focus on Attorney General Rob Bonta investigating police shootings — an issue explained in Tuesday’s newsletter. Register here to attend in-person or virtually.

Alejandro, along with Wendy Fry from CalMatters’ California Divide team, also did a deep dive into Blackstone, the world’s largest owner of commercial real estate, and its 2021 purchase of more than 5,000 apartments in San Diego.

The impact: Rising rents, threats of possible evictions and maintenance issues, say some tenants.

  • Darlene Simpson, who lives in a Blackstone building in the San Diego suburb of Escondido: “They’re kicking everybody out, raising the rent so high that nobody can afford them.”

Tenants’ cause has been taken up by housing advocates, who are pushing for statewide renter protections and legislation that would make who owns big apartment buildings more transparent. They also accuse the University of California, which recently invested $4 billion in Blackstone’s real estate ventures, of contributing to the housing affordability crisis.

Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, a Democrat from San Diego, shares their concerns, and says the company “should not be building its portfolio on the backs of working Californians.”

In its defense, Blackstone says that its apartment rents are lower than 80% of the competition in San Diego and that it is improving California’s housing stock by investing in and renovating its properties.

2 Will legislators rescue firefighters?

CalFire firefighter Bo Santiago lights a backfire as the Rocky fire burns near Clearlake in 2015. Photo by Josh Edelson, AP Photo
Cal Fire firefighter Bo Santiago observes a backfire near Clearlake in 2015. Photo by Josh Edelson, AP Photo

Excessive drinking, health issues, drug use, marital strife — these are some of the struggles for firefighters with post traumatic stress disorder. But some help may be on the way: A Senate bill that would expand workers’ compensation coverage for them, and add police officers and other first responders, was unanimously approved and is now before the Assembly.

As CalMatters environmental reporter Julie Cart explains, an existing law already classifies the disorder as an occupational illness, which can be covered by workers’ comp. The bill, authored by Santa Cruz Democratic Sen. John Laird, extends that benefit from 2025 through Jan 1, 2032.

Cal Fire officials say tackling the mental health crisis among California firefighters is a “top priority.” For more on this subject, check out “Trial by Fire,” Julie’s series published last summer.

The final cost of the legislation is unclear, however, and depends on how many employees submit claims for covered injuries, especially skin cancer.

Budget alarm bells: The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office is warning legislators against spending more. 

In its multiyear budget outlook published Tuesday, the office estimates that the 2023-24 budget deficit is more like $34.5 billion than the $31.5 billion projected in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s May plan. And to cover that shortfall, the office recommends that the Legislature further cut one-time spending it added in 2021-23 from $11 billion to $4 billion and eliminate it entirely going forward.

Looking further out, the analyst warns that it is “very unlikely” that state revenues will support the spending proposed by Newsom — revenues would need to be $30 billion more than forecast to cover the deficit in 2024-25. And because reserves would cover less than half the projected deficits, the rest would have to come from cuts in one-time spending, plus other spending trims or revenue increases, according to the analysis.  

The Legislature must pass a budget by June 15, and the governor must sign it by June 30.

3 Newsom to promote his other gig

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at the Capitol before signing into law his oil profit penalty plan in Sacramento on March 28, 2023. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr. , CalMatters
Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at the Capitol in Sacramento on March 28, 2023. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr. , CalMatters

From CalMatters politics reporter Alexei Koseff:

After an attention-grabbing tour of the South this spring to fight “rising authoritarianism” and boost Democrats in red states, Gov. Newsom continues to turn his gaze beyond California’s borders.

This time, however, the purpose is less political and more boozy — a speaking engagement at a nearly $2,800-a-person wine weekend in New York City.

Newsom is scheduled as a special guest speaker to discuss “the future of California wine” at the 42nd Annual New York Wine Experience, a “three-day celebration of exceptional wines” hosted by Wine Spectator magazine in late October.

The event is also slated to feature actress Sarah Jessica Parker, who “shares her 93-point New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc,” and seminars with “wine stars,” including a group of California pinot noir growers. The full weekend package — with VIP access to “critics’ choice grand tastings,” seated wine seminars, two wine luncheons, a champagne reception, continental breakfast and a Wine Spectator bag and special gift — is $2,795 per ticket.

Newsom spokesperson Nathan Click did not respond to questions about the governor’s role in the event. Neither did the events team for M. Shanken Communications, the publisher of Wine Spectator.

Wine has been a key source of Newsom’s wealth. He founded a wine shop in San Francisco in 1992, which grew into the PlumpJack Group, a multimillion-dollar collection of wineries, restaurants, bars and a boutique hotel.

Newsom maintains an ownership interest in the PlumpJack Group, of which his sister is co-president, though he placed it in a “blind trust” managed by a family friend after he was elected governor in 2018.


CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: The Klamath and Colorado rivers are being resuscitated, but taxpayers are footing the hefty costs rather than those who profit.

California passed a 2021 law to confront racial disparities in maternal and infant health, but Black women need more, writes Dana Sherrod, co-founder and director of the California Coalition for Black Birth Justice.


Other things worth your time

Some stories may require a subscription to read

Do lawmakers have an appetite for reparations? Some early tests // KQED

California regulators will reassess widely used rat poison // San Francisco Chronicle

California, Walmart settle over brass knuckles sold online // The Sacramento Bee

Walgreens settles CA and AZ consumer claims it knew Theranos was a fraud // Bloomberg

The end of ‘Gavin’s Law’ to increase penalties for fatal hit-and-runs? // The Fresno Bee

State board orders closure of two troubled LA County juvenile halls // LAist

Lawmakers question Newsom’s San Quentin State Prison plan // The Sacramento Bee

Once-dead Tulare Lake is nearly as large as Lake Tahoe // San Francisco Chronicle

California advances bill banning hedge fund water profiteering // Bloomberg

Silicon Valley chosen for $4 billion chip research center // The New York Times

San Joaquin Valley’s economy to face ‘serious slowing’ // The Sacramento Bee 

SF mayor, supervisor push for denser housing in outer neighborhoods // The San Francisco Standard

Asylum panic comes for schools; here’s some perspective // Voice of San Diego

See you tomorrow


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