Many Hands are Digging Santa Barbara Out of Its Food Waste Problem

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A new facility in Santa Barbara hopes to divert over 85% of the county’s organic waste. Is there still a place for community composting programs?

On yet another blue-sky day at his Santa Barbara farm, Jason Lesh sat on a tractor, overturning a pile of dirt speckled with rotting produce. With each toss of the compost a sour stench permeated the air. Tucked away in the Carpinteria foothills, Lesh’s small farm sprawls in tidy green rows — life derived from that putrid dirt mound. Lesh’s two young, beach-blonde kids skipped over, munching on leafy greens from the garden. “It smells gross,” remarked Lesh’s daughter. All was quiet on the farm, until a garbage truck clanked along the winding mountain road. 

Lesh and his wife, Katherine, are most known in the community for Farm Cart Organics, the Community Supported Agriculture program and food delivery service that they founded in 2012. As time went on, Lesh, who holds a degree in meteorology, grew disheartened by Santa Barbara County’s waste infrastructure, which until recently did not include organics separation. When organic material sits in landfills, it decomposes without oxygen, generating methane, a greenhouse gas 28 to 36 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere. The EPA estimates that landfill methane emissions in 2020 were nearly equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions from 20.3 million passenger vehicles driven for one year. 

In May 2021, the Leshes founded The Better Bucket, a curbside compostables collection service, out of a sense of urgency. “By filling up your compostable bin, your food scraps become nutrients, not pollutants,” says The Better Bucket website.

When Lesh started operations, there were other composting options for Santa Barbara residents, such as the city’s educational resources for backyard composting or the organics dropoff at the local farmers’ market. But The Better Bucket, which has served a total of 245 residents, offered a solution for those who don’t have the time or space to compost and still want to partake in a “circular food system.” For a monthly fee of $27, subscribers received a bucket to put their food scraps in and leave out for pickup every Friday. Then, once a quarter, The Better Bucket van would stop by with a special gift — a carton of free-range eggs and the returned bucket, filled with fresh compost. 

Eco-conscious residents seized the opportunity. When Cyndi McHale first moved to Santa Barbara, she was surprised that there was no municipal curbside compost bin like she had used when she lived in San Francisco and Manhattan Beach. McHale had a composter in her first house but didn’t have time to tend to it. When she received her first batch of compost from The Better Bucket, she recalled, “It was lovely and I put it on the roses immediately.”

From the start, Lesh has wanted to be in the food business, not the waste business. But, when he decided to go ahead with The Better Bucket, Lesh thought, “If I have to go into waste, then I will.” And, feeling a sense of urgency, Lesh kicked operations into gear before securing all the required permits, citing the difficulties and delays of the permitting process. “I know this is illegal, but it has to get done,” said Lesh.

The launch of a new organic waste program in Santa Barbara County, however, offers to lift the burden from Lesh and other community composting programs. California’s Senate Bill 1383, which went into effect on January 1, requires municipalities to reduce organic waste disposal 75% by 2025. Instead of implementing an additional curbside bin like many cities, Santa Barbara is placing its bets on a $135 million facility that will sort and process food waste. The reason the county went this route, according to Bryan Latchford, Public Information Officer at the City of Santa Barbara’s Sustainability and Resilience Department? “It just ensures we’re capturing as much as possible,” he says. Despite this recent development, Lesh doesn’t see an end in sight for smaller scale composting. He insists that to get to the root of the problem — consumers’ lack of responsibility for their waste — everyone needs to get their hands dirty. 

Hidden in a canyon on the pristine Gaviota coast is decades worth of buried trash. The Tajiguas Landfill now shares its site with the new $135 million materials recovery facility (MRF) and anaerobic digestion facility (ADF). The county finally opened the ReSource Center in July 2021. The center has been in the works since 2016, before SB 1383 was passed, and has taken so long to open in part because of its hefty price tag. While the MRF began operations over the summer of 2021, the ADF didn’t kick into gear until September. 

The first thing you see along the winding canyon road is a massive warehouse overlooking the ocean. Here at the MRF, visitors can access a viewing observatory, and feel like scientists peering into a radioactive lab. But even the plexiglass can’t keep the stench out. Various components of a Rube-Goldberg-like machine spin, shake, and sift through the trash according to size, weight, and even color, sorting everything from food scraps to dog poop. This is how the ReSource Center reaches its above 85% diversion rate for organic material. 

Trucks then transfer organic waste from the MRF to the nearby ADF. Here, the organic material is combined with green waste and placed in a bunker. Remaining in the bunker for two 28-day cycles, the material breaks down into digestate, the compost product of anaerobic digestion. The methane gas generated in the process is collected and sent to a power plant, where it will provide enough energy to power 3,000 local homes each year.  

While some cities such as San Francisco have seen success in their curbside collection, others have struggled to educate the public on separating their own organic waste. Sarah Smith, research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, notes the difficulties that many cities face in rallying participation and educating residents on waste separation. “Thinking about the higher level strategies, the human behavior aspect of it is really important,” says Smith. In a mission as urgent as methane reduction, there may not be time to get the general population on board. 

The ReSource Center’s approach solves problems of urgency and buy-in, but the compost product it generates will not be usable across the board. This compost cannot be used for row crops because of the small pieces of glass that remain in it, or for organic crops because it contains non-organic materials. It will, however, suffice for terrain such as orchards, golf courses, and ranches. 

Smith has found in her research that “if you look at the results for greenhouse gasses, it’s kind of like anything that gets the waste out of the landfill is going to be good, and then there’s marginal differences depending on what you do with it.”

The quality of the compost generated at Tajiguas has thus far lived up to staff expectations, according to Carlyle Johnston, Project Leader at the ReSource Center. The compost was tested by a soil control lab in late January.

Santa Barbara County opened the ReSource Center MRF in July 2021. —Courtesy of Santa Barbara County Public Works

After years of waiting for a facility such as this and despite some initial skepticism, Lesh booked a tour at the ReSource Center and was impressed with what he saw. “It’s kind of the lazy man’s modern tech solution,” he observed. Lesh felt relieved that there was finally a county-run system to divert as much organic waste as possible from the landfill. But to him it was lacking what he appreciated most as he tossed compost on his little Carpinteria farm — a personal connection with the whole food cycle. 

“This is reality. Where do you think food goes?” says Lesh, reflecting on his daughter’s comments that the compost stunk. “None of us are so privileged that we should be removed from having our hands dirty.” But to Lesh and The Better Bucket, it’s about more than just taking responsibility for your waste. It’s about understanding the human connection to food — from planting seeds to discarding scraps. 

“A lot of people — even conscious people — are really so disconnected from the soil,” says Lesh. So what should customers without gardens do with their compost, according to Lesh? “Go feed the frickin’ oak tree down the street,” or dump it in a park on your walk. Do something with it to partake in the whole cycle, he suggests. 

Not everyone wants to face their waste, however, making the Resource Center essential to getting organics out of the landfill on a large scale. Sigrid Wright, CEO of the Community Environmental Council (CEC), notes, “Efforts like The Better Bucket are really important and help connect people directly to converting food scraps into compost, but we have to have a community-wide solution like up at Tajiguas to handle the volume of what’s coming out of our homes and businesses.” 

In the wake of his tour, Lesh has had to decide whether or not now is the time to put down the bucket. But, for him, the value of a small-scale, involved program persists despite the sudden lack of urgency. 

Lesh still awaits composting infrastructure in cities that are not serviced by the ReSource Center, such as Carpinteria, and nearby counties, such as Ventura, that have yet to establish a comparable organics program. He wants to serve those areas as well as continue operations in Santa Barbara for waste-conscious residents. “Having a curbside pickup is only for the population that’s aware and cares,” says Lesh, referring to The Better Bucket program. “It’s to get people aware and owning and getting involved in their trash. You’re hoping to spur people into action where they’re thinking on a broader scale.” 

County officials, too, consider community efforts such as The Better Bucket to be beneficial even with the new facilities. According to Sam Dickinson, Program Specialist at the ReSource Center, one of the benefits of these community-based groups is that they foster the perspective-shift that is essential to addressing the climate crisis in the future — they help people take ownership of their actions, and in this case, their waste. “It all fits together in a complicated puzzle,” says Dickinson. 

In January 2022, The Better Bucket had to temporarily halt service due to a labor shortage. Lesh says that residents can expect the program to be up and running as soon as he finds a driver, which he was in the process of searching for at the time of publication. 

But in the meantime, there are a number of other ways Santa Barbara residents can take responsibility for their food waste. The Santa Barbara farmer’s market has discontinued its compost dropoff service owing to the ReSource Center opening. But, the website for the group in charge of the service, Compost Santa Barbara, encourages other residents to start a similar program, saying, “If others are interested in picking up where we left off, we are happy to pass on our knowledge and experience, our contacts, logo, website url, resources, and anything else that would be helpful.” 

For those who want to be involved in the entire scraps to compost process, the city still offers buckets for backyard composting. The CEC has been involved in a number of initiatives relating to SB 1383, including rescuing edible food. The law requires that cities rescue at least 20% of disposed, edible food for distribution to food insecure populations by 2025. Volunteering at the Food Rescue Network is one such avenue to get involved. 

“The first priority is to reduce food waste, the second priority is to get high quality edible food that would otherwise be going to waste to people in need, and the last priority is to turn it into energy or compost,” says Wright.

Those who for years sought to address a problem beyond their capacity can now pass the torch and play a crucial yet supplementary role to their cities’ programs. “It’s awesome that there are pledges, and it’s awesome that the municipalities now have mandates,” says Lesh. “These guys are a little late, but late is better than never.”

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Lily Olsen
Lily Olsen
Lily is an Associate Editor and Reporter on the Bluedot team — joining from sunny California. She is a recent Princeton graduate with a degree in political science. Her work spans human rights and advocacy through internships at the State Department and the AND Campaign.

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