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Food Waste for Thought

Alameda County, Calif., and the city of Berkeley boost food waste diversion.

In 1990, voters in Alameda County, Calif. (population 1.6 million), adopted a "75 percent and beyond" landfill diversion goal. Reducing the amount of organics going to landfills is a critical step in reaching that goal. In countywide waste characterization studies conducted in 1995, 2000 and 2008, food scraps and food-soiled paper were identified as the largest unrecycled portion of the waste stream. Thus in 2010, the Alameda County Waste Management Authority Source Reduction and Recycling Board, better known as StopWaste.Org, adopted a goal of reducing organics and recyclables to less than 10 percent of landfilled waste by 2020.

Since 2001, StopWaste.Org has targeted these materials by offering assistance to Alameda County jurisdictions to develop and expand organics collection services. Now residential curbside food-waste collection is available in all 14 jurisdictions and unincorporated areas, serving nearly 350,000 households. Commercial organics are collected from 1,100 businesses in 11 jurisdictions. The programs accept all food waste, including meat and bones, and food-soiled paper including paper towels, pizza boxes and ice cream cartons. The city of Berkeley is leading the way with strong participation in both their residential and commercial organics collection programs.


Berkeley began targeting organics from commercial accounts long before the 2005 adoption of its zero waste goal. The city, which has collected residential yard waste since 1990, began a pilot commercial food waste collection program with 15 volunteer businesses in 2000. The initial customer base included a mix of supermarkets, produce markets, restaurants and cafes. The pilot program collected 150 tons per month with no change to the customer's refuse fee.

In 2001, Berkeley established a commercial compost rate that was 20 percent less than the standard garbage rate to incentivize implementation of organics collection. The city benefits from business corridors dense with markets, restaurants and cafes that produce organic-heavy refuse and aid route efficiency. In 2003, the city hired a contractor to actively expand the program through recruitment, training, site visits and coordination of service changes. Over the next several years, the program continued to expand as the city added organics collection service to all public schools and undertook an initiative to convert 100 restaurants to green practices. Berkeley currently collects from approximately 250 commercial accounts and processes 6,570 tons of food waste per year.

Berkeley officials estimate that a typical restaurant can reduce its trash by 80 percent by recycling and composting. Organics are deposited in both 64-gallon carts and front-loader bins so both can be collected on the same route. A truck with a driver and a helper operates six days per week, typically carrying over 10 tons per load. Customers with smaller carts and once-per-week service may be assigned to residential plant debris routes. The food scraps are combined with residential yard debris and delivered to a privately-operated composting facility.


StopWaste.Org began offering financial and technical assistance to Alameda County cities in 2001 to jump start residential food scrap collection programs. A municipal grant helped subsidize weekly curbside collection of food scraps with yard waste at single-family households. The grant covered the cost of outreach materials and an indoor kitchen collection pail labeled with a list of acceptable materials.

In 2001, the Castro Valley Sanitary District became the first jurisdiction in Alameda County to offer residential food waste collection. Berkeley began offering weekly curbside pick-up of food scraps in 2007, and although one of the late adopters, the city currently boasts the highest participation rate in the county.

StopWaste.Org conducts audits of green waste carts twice a year to measure participation by jurisdiction over time. The green cart audits, or "lid flips," are used to identify the presence of food scraps visible at the top of material inside organic waste bins. Additionally, StopWaste.Org conducted a series of studies, focus groups and phone surveys to better understand residents' behavior patterns, motivation and barriers to participation. Studies included a visual compensation study that accounts for food scraps not immediately visible in the lid flip audits, a weight-based sort to determine the weight of the food scraps recycled, and a four-week audit to determine the cart set-out patterns of households.

By 2005, a critical mass of municipalities had implemented food scrap recycling programs. StopWaste.Org launched a regional media campaign to encourage program participation. The award-winning campaign featured a variety of playful seasonal food and paper items and reminds people to make food scrap recycling "second nature." The ads have run on TV, radio, transit, print, and in city and hauler publications. Green waste carts were relabeled with graphics showing acceptable materials. The campaign materials made it easy to promote a consistent message to residents throughout the county. Program information, focus group results and the media campaign ads are available at www.StopWaste.Org/foodscraps.


The city of Berkeley is the only Alameda County municipality to provide municipal waste collection for the residential and commercial sectors (all other Alameda County jurisdictions contract franchised haulers for recycling, waste and organics collection). The city owns and operates a transfer station that processes refuse, recycling, and approximately 34,000 tons of yard waste and food waste per year. There are five major composting facilities serving Bay Area communities. Berkeley uses Recology/Grover (formerly Grover Environmental Products), a traditional windrow composting facility in Vernalis, Calif., whose products and blends are highly regarded throughout the industry.

Berkeley has an agreement with Recology/Grover to return up to 5 percent of processed organics tons back to the community as finished compost. The certified organic compost is used by the city's parks department, distributed to over 30 community and school gardens, and is available for public pick-up.


Aside from the obvious benefits of reducing waste and extending landfill life, composting organics also helps with Berkeley's plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Removing organics from the landfill reduces the production of methane, a GHG 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Additionally, the use of compost fortifies soil and boosts crop yield, improves soil water retention, and reduces the need for fertilizers and pesticides.

Countywide residential program participation has grown steadily over time. Initially, the average number of green carts at the curb containing food scraps was approximately 30 percent. Currently the countywide average of green carts containing food scraps is nearly 50 percent. In Berkeley, the participation rate is 70 percent.

Since 2007, Berkeley's annual residential refuse tonnage has dropped by 18 percent (more than 3,000 tons) and annual tonnage of recovered organics has increased by 58 percent (nearly 5,000 tons). The processor reports contamination at less than 3 percent. The growing participation rate can be attributed to an increased understanding and acceptance of the program by residents, continuing recruitment and training in the commercial sector, and ongoing outreach effort by the jurisdictions and StopWaste.Org.

Robin Plutchok is a program manager at StopWaste.Org in Alameda County, Calif. Additional contributions from Brian Mathews of Stopwaste.Org and Tania Levy and Andrew Schneider of the City of Berkeley, Calif.

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