Moving up the food chain

Start in California and head east. By the time you reach the Atlantic, you'll have encountered a slew of food waste composting programs — and without once having had to stop in a major city. From a curbside collection pilot in Iowa to a drop-off program in Minnesota, communities across the country are proving that you don't need a seven-digit population to make a composting program work. As anyone involved will tell you, it just requires some creativity.

The Route Less Taken

Take Orange County, N.C., for example. With a population of 120,000, the community has turned a food prep waste project that started on a pig farm into a countywide operation that handles nearly 1,850 tons of food waste per year from 25 businesses and some University of North Carolina cafeterias. “Dollar for dollar, this is one of our most effective recycling programs,” says Robert Taylor, recycling programs manager for the county. “I've had discussions with others wanting to duplicate this success.”

Still a barrier for many would-be composters is the small number of facilities permitted to accept food waste. Matt Cotton, president of the Holbrook, N.Y.-based U.S. Composting Council, estimates that of the nation's approximately 4,000 composting facilities, only 100 to 150 of them can accept food waste. Yet in Orange County, a local farmer who wanted feed for his pigs solved that problem. He began collecting food prep waste from local restaurants and turning it into pig feed until he became so busy collecting the waste that he no longer had time to farm.

Eventually his farm went out of business and the program ended. Another local farmer filled the void by permitting his facility to compost food waste (including post-consumer) and obtaining a grant from the state to purchase a collection vehicle — a dump truck modified specifically for food waste collection. Operating as Brooks Contractor, the small company not only can handle more organics than the previous operation but it doesn't have to worry about pigs inadvertently consuming forks (a problem once experienced by the initial farmer).

The company, which has a contract with the county, turns the waste into finished compost, distributing more than 55,000 tons per year to landscapers and other large operators.

Just as the landscape from coast to coast changes, so do the challenges. “It's important to remember that everything doesn't have to be the same in composting programs,” says Susan Darley-Hill, environmental program coordinator for the Western Lake Superior Sanitation District (WLSSD), which handles waste for Duluth, Minn. “You have to adapt to each situation.” And she would know, as WLSSD has taken an unusual approach to residential food waste composting. (The district also runs a successful commercial food waste program.)

For Duluth, the main challenge was getting all of the private haulers onboard. After a curbside pilot program ended, the city was left with a composting site and eager residents, but not willing haulers.

To offer an option that didn't involve a lengthy drive for residents, the district began placing containers where residents can drop off their food waste for free in compostable bags. “We thought we would try composting from all angles and see what worked,” Darley-Hill says.

There now are four sites and Darley-Hill projects that by the end of the year, the program will have brought in 33 tons of food waste since beginning in spring 2004. Just as every community has to tailor a program to fit its needs, each location is slightly different. Some sites are staffed, while access to some containers is restricted by locks.

Curbside Your Enthusiasm

Travel almost due south from Duluth for seven hours and you'll land in Dubuque, home to Iowa's first curbside food waste program. To make it worthwhile for all involved, many programs start by focusing on larger generators. (Supermarket programs are becoming particularly popular in the world of food composting.) Dubuque, however, chose a different approach.

The city already had achieved the minimum recycling rate of 25 percent that is mandated by the state. But squeaking by at less than 26 percent, Dubuque decided to do more by addressing compostables, which make up an estimated 20 percent of the city's household waste. “We need to get into sure ground by addressing different waste streams,” says Paul Schultz, the city's solid waste management supervisor and a former organic farmer.

“I was interested in working with these materials to reduce the methane component,” Schultz adds.

Because the state allows composting facilities to accept up to 2 tons of food waste per week without a separate permit, Dubuque initially opened up the two-year curbside pilot program to households only. The food scraps are picked up with yard waste, keeping the city's cost increases to a minimum. To get a feel for how a commercial program might operate, several businesses subsequently have been allowed to participate.

Another important change Shultz wants to make for the second year of the pilot is decreasing fees from $26 for eight months of service to $8 in order to increase participation. Because Dubuque operates under a pay-as-you-throw waste system, Shultz wants cost savings to be an incentive for participants. He points out that when the city initially went to pay-as-you-throw, garbage disposal installation in kitchen sinks shot up noticeably.

Shultz has had parents of children in the composting education classes he occasionally teaches thank him for helping lower their garbage bills through food waste diversion as well as recycling.

Supermarket Sweep

Regardless of the type of program, participants love seeing their food waste turned into money. Supermarkets have become an attractive target for program developers because of the large amount of organics they produce, both in sheer volume and as a percentage of their waste. That means an even greater cost savings for the stores. “Supermarkets are working really well,” Cotton says. “That's an obvious success story. The collection part and the incentives are there.”

But what does this mean for less populous areas looking to divert organics? As chains in denser areas participate in organics programs, outlets in smaller communities owned by the same parent company get drawn into the fold. And as more facilities become permitted to handle food waste, it becomes more likely that a town will have one within reach.

That has been the case in Massachusetts, according to Peggy Harlowe, branch chief of commercial waste reduction programs for the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The department recently has implemented the Supermarket Recycling Program Certification, which exempts supermarkets with composting and recycling programs from having their loads routinely inspected at transfer stations for state-banned materials, such as paper, glass and yard waste. More than 80 supermarkets in the state already are part of food composting programs, with the eastern and less rural part of the state accounting for a majority of the locations.

In the western part of the state, the non-profit Center for Ecological Technology (CET) has used a DEP grant to divert food waste from supermarkets and other large producers directly to farm-based compost operations, which have agricultural exemptions and can receive smaller amounts of waste, as in Iowa.

“As more attention is paid to waste costs going up, more and more businesses are open to the idea,” says John Majercak, associate director for CET, which also is helping small-scale composters in the eastern part of the state increase their capacity.

For Massachusetts, which eventually hopes to ban organics from landfills, the supermarket program also is helping reach other industries. “Supermarkets are only a segment of commercial waste,” Harlowe says. “We are using them as a template and then we can reach out to other industry sectors and figure out what is best for them. By targeting an industry sector, we can find out who the players are, what their waste streams look like and work it through the industry and trade associations.”

Scrap It? No Way!

Despite the obstacles, communities of all sizes across the country remain undeterred in their food waste composting efforts. And although some may not be bringing in record-breaking amounts of food waste, they are helping prove to their residents and those of other towns, counties and states that composting programs are logistically and financially viable.

Keep in mind that it's not just the “San Franciscos” and “Californias” of the country paving the way to more landfill diversion. In Dubuque, one woman told Schultz she didn't think she needed regular waste service at all anymore after beginning to take advantage of the city's compost and recycling services. Upon further consideration, she conceded that once per month would probably be OK. And Dubuque is just one stop along the way.

Jennifer Grzeskowiak is managing editor of Waste Age.