Monday, August 25, 2008

Food scraps on the menu


The city of Santa Barbara — credited with helping to launch the modern environmental movement — is blazing a new trail these days through tons of coffee grounds, vegetable peelings and food scraps.
It’s all part of an effort to divert organic waste from a shrinking landfill into a commercial composting operation.
Santa Barbara is one of only about 15 jurisdictions nationwide, and one of the smallest, that are running food scrap-to-composting operations, according to Eric Lohela, the city’s recycling coordinator.

That has made Santa Barbara a pioneer in dealing with the muck and yuck of food scraps. Larger entities involved in similar programs include San Francisco, Alameda County, Seattle and King County in Washington.
“The future of waste management is looking at taking the organics fraction out of the stream,” Lohela said. “It’s been a challenge for us because there are no books on this. There are no classes on this and there’s no certifications. There are few people that are really at the forefront . . . so we’ve actually had to be trailblazers in a sense and figure out what works for us.”
The city has so far managed to do just that, convincing businesses and institutions that the food scrap recovery and composting program is not only good for the environment, but also for their bottom line. A rate study under way in early 2008 could result in even lower fees to businesses that hop on the composting bandwagon.
The city also is looking at saving money on tipping fees by diverting the material from the Tajiguas Landfill.
The city began its pilot program in April 2007 with seven commercial businesses, including Cottage Hospital, City College, Santa Barbara Zoo, Harding Elementary School and several restaurants and coffee shops. The program was expanded in January to five more businesses, including Peets Coffee which generates several hundred pounds of coffee grounds daily and is looking, as are several other participants, at totally eliminating its garbage.
At the Sojourner Café on East Canon Perdido street, co-owner and president Donna Mudge said the popular eatery has reduced its waste by 60 percent to 80 percent.
“I think it’s a great thing,” she said of the program. “The great thing is compost is reusable. It goes back into the land. So we keep feeding the land rather than the landfills.
“Our customers like what we’re doing,” she added. “This can be quite the wasteful business. It’s nice not to be just throwing it away.”
The food scrap recovery program, administered by the Environmental Services division in the city’s Public Works Department, will within the next two years encompass the entire city, taking in all commercial, multifamily and residential users. Food scraps will eventually go in a recycling container along with green waste, which the city now collects separately from residential and commercial customers. It also collects commingled recyclables, such as paper, cardboard, glass, plastics and aluminum and steel cans as well as construction and demolition materials.
“Our goal right now is on the commercial user,” Lohela said. “We know that 65 percent of what we generate as a community comes from our businesses.”
Of that amount, about 22,000 tons of food scraps are sent to the Tajiguas Landfill each year, about 20 percent of all the material sent there.
Statewide, more than 5 million tons of food scraps are tossed into the trash each year, representing 16 percent of all disposed materials going into landfills from businesses, institutions and residents, according to California officials.
Nationwide, some 96 billion pounds of food waste are thrown away every year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported. In 2005, only a fraction of the total — less than 3 percent — was recovered, with the balance being dumped into landfills or burned in incinerators.
In the United States, food scraps and other organic materials dumped in landfills are the largest human-derived source of methane, a greenhouse gas. That detritus accounts for 34 percent of all methane emissions in the U.S., according to the EPA.
Converting food waste to compost not only lessens greenhouses gases, but offers numerous other benefits when the compost is put back into the earth, Lohela noted.
For agricultural users, he said compost will reduce water usage by 10 percent to 20 percent “which is a huge economic boom to farmers.” The ag industry also realizes increased soil tills and fertility, with the compost providing nutrients for growing plants and inhibiting root rot and fungal growth, he said.
The Santa Barbara solid waste management strategic plan, which contains 23 initiatives including the food scrap program, initially mandated that 70 percent of all solid waste be diverted from the landfill by 2010. Officials subsequently modified the plan to say Santa Barbara should “maximize” diversion.
“That means there’s no end game. There’s no stopping point,” said Stephen Macintosh, environmental services supervisor. “We’re going to get as much as we can out of the landfill.”
Under the pilot food scrap recovery and composting program, food scraps and food waste are collected daily from the various locations, which are provided with bright yellow 32-gallon or 65-gallon carts lined with corn-based biodegradable bags.
“Because we have biodegradable bags that we put all the stuff into, the upside is we’re not putting roughly 10 to 15 (plastic) trash bags into the landfill as well,” the Sojourner’s Mudge noted.
When full, the bags are placed into large metal trash bins at each business, which are then collected daily by Allied Waste. The bins contain only the food scraps and food waste as part of the source separated program. Included in the mix are not only food scraps, but everything that is biodegradable, such as waxed cardboard boxes, soiled paper, coffee filters, tea bags, napkins and Kraft and parchment papers.
“We’ll take anything that is organically based,” Lohela said. “They all go in the same container to make it easy and it does now go away, but it turns into something positive. The only things we won’t take are glass, metal and plastic.”
After making its daily rounds, Allied dumps the collection into a large roll-off bin, which is currently hauled off every eight or nine days by the Engel and Gray Composting Facility in Santa Maria. As the food scrap program expands, hauling the bins to Engel and Gray, the only fully certified composting facility in Santa Barbara County, will become more frequent.
Engel and Gray’s 40-acre regional composting operation processes organic waste from homes, farms, businesses, wineries and plants. Its compost is sold under the Harvest Blend brand, some of which is purchased by the city of Santa Barbara for use on its park lands.
“Every time we use compost we’re increasing soil fertility the natural way,” Lohela said. “We’re not using all the fertilizers, pesticides and synthetic inputs that are petroleum-derived that we have to put on agriculture.
“Santa Barbara is a huge agricultural county. We do millions and millions of dollars a year in agriculture. We realize we can increase the level of sustainable development in terms of agriculture in our county by using the compost we have and reduce our dependence on foreign oil, on synthetics, on things that are toxic. No one really wants to be spraying that stuff on his or her plants. They do it because they want to have production. If we can do it with compost, we see that as a win-win for everyone.”
Bob Engel of Engel and Gray agrees, pointing to the fact that compost addresses soil, water and air problems. The company, started in 1946, has been in the composting business since 1993.
“Compost is a definite solution to greenhouse warming, global warming because it addresses all three [soil, water and air issues],” he said. "That’s probably the biggest thing. Other than that, we think compost is a great product to use and we think composting is a good way to handle organics. The city of Santa Barbara is showing good leadership in moving in that direction.”
The early success of the Santa Barbara program has caught the attention not only of other local businesses, but of governmental agencies throughout the U.S.
“I think we’re taking a very fresh approach to waste management and that’s exciting for a lot of people,” Macintosh said. “A lot of people have been doing trash for 30 or 40 years, there’s an established way to do it that we think can be reinvented into a better way.”
“I think we're really looking at a compost revolution,” Lohela added.

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