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August 1, 2007

11 Min Read
Feasting on Food

Patricia-Anne Tom

THE HURDLES TO establishing a food scraps collection program often appear to be high, with the materials being wet, heavy and difficult to process — plus consumers' unwillingness to participate because of their perceptions of smelly garbage that attracts rodents. Nevertheless, with a goal to divert 75 percent of its waste stream from landfills by 2010, Alameda County, Calif., has decided to rise to the challenge. The county's current diversion rate is approximately 60 percent.

All but four of the 17 jurisdictions that make up the county have begun a food scrap recycling program, serving a total of 311,000 single-family residences. “Food scraps and food-soiled paper make up about 35 percent of the waste stream,” says Robin Plutchok, program manager for StopWaste.org. “It's a critical element of reaching the landfill diversion goal.”

The Alameda County Waste Management Authority (doing business as StopWaste.org) is a joint powers authority made up of the cities, sanitation districts and unincorporated areas in Alameda County. Among its other services, the agency provides marketing and educational materials about the StopWaste.org food scrap recycling program that has been adopted by jurisdictions within the county. The organization also funds a county-wide media campaign involving print, radio, television and event displays to encourage participation in food scrap recycling.

The agency says that in 2004, county residents recycled 144,620 tons of organics (yard waste and food scraps). In 2005, the figure increased to 164,983 tons — a jump that officials attribute to the food scrap program.

Participation in the program is measured by “flipping lids” and looking in green yard waste carts that are set at the curb. The per cart set-out rate is a statistically measure of how well the program works. The method takes in the variability of participation, such as when a resident has a landscaper who removes materials himself, or if the resident is on vacation or composts at home, explains Brian Mathews, senior program manager for the StopWaste.org food scrap program.

Generally, county residents place 10 pounds of food scraps in the average yard waste bin set out, Mathews says. “Assuming 52 weeks per year, this is 520 pounds or one quarter ton per household per year.”

Participation Pails

Throughout Alameda County, located on the east side of the San Francisco Bay, cities have implemented a three-bin collection program. Residents typically receive three 64- or 96-gallon carts — one green cart for yard waste; one blue or gray cart for recyclables such as plastic, glass and metal; and one brown or burgundy cart for garbage. Residents also receive a small kitchen pail that holds about two to three gallons of materials.

Throughout the week, residents are advised to collect their food scraps and food-soiled paper, such as napkins and paper takeout boxes, in the kitchen pail. Then, on garbage collection day, residents empty the pail contents into their green cart, which is emptied by the city's contracted haulers once a week. After the combined yard waste and food scraps are picked up by the hauler, they go to one of several regional composting facilities — one in Vernalis, Calif., that is owned by Grover Environmental Services; Newby Island, an Allied Waste site in Milpitas, Calif.; or Z-Best Composting in Gilroy, Calif.

“The idea behind the program was to maximize the collection infrastructure that was already in place that could be used for recycling,” Mathews says. The food scraps program is now available to 80 percent of single-family residences in the county. StopWaste.org estimates that county residents include food scraps in the green carts in 25 to 30 percent of cart set outs.

In addition to marketing support, the agency provides a per household subsidy — which typically includes the cost of the pail plus educational cart labels — to help jurisdictions roll out the food scrap recycling program with information on how to participate.

The benefits of the food scrap recycling program may not be immediately apparent. The bulk of the compost resulting from the food and green waste is sold for agricultural and landscaping projects, with the profits mostly going to the composting facilities. But, some cities have contracted with facilities to get some compost back; the material is then used in areas such as parks and schools, sold in small quantities or distributed to consumers in annual compost giveaways.

Furthermore, Mathews says the long-term benefits are numerous. “Cities benefit from the reduced need for landfill space, which means there will be longer landfill capacity,” he says. “There's also less greenhouse gases produced and an environmental benefit for having this material recycled for organic compost instead of using non-natural fertilizers. The use of the compost reduces pesticide use, provides better soil stabilization for erosion control and lowers water use. These are all benefits that have long-term effects on the community.”

Mathews also points out that food scrap recycling is important because California mandates a 50 percent diversion rate. “Alameda County's landfill diversion goal doesn't have punitive measures if the 75 percent objective is not met on time; the state's has financial penalties,” he says.

One Plate at a Time

The city of San Leandro in Alameda County implemented the food scrap recycling program in 2002. Jennifer Nassab, an administrative analyst for the city, says San Leandro officials believed StopWaste.org's system was a good way to divert many tons of waste, and the city's franchised waste hauler — Alameda County Industries — was willing to integrate the new service into its existing operations without increasing rates.

The program now serves fewer than 13,000 residents. But, with everyone doing a little part, the waste reduction benefits add up, Nassab says. “We don't really know how many tons of food scraps are collected annually because we only have the total figure for yard trimmings (everything placed in the green bin),” she says. However, prior to implementing the food scraps program, the city's average collection total was 5,000 to 6,000 tons annually from yard waste bins. “That figure went up about 1,000 tons after we implemented the food scraps program,” she says.

While the increase can't definitively be attributed to participation in the food scraps program, the figures illustrate the program's potential. Currently, about 30 percent of residents put food scraps in their yard trimmings carts, and San Leandro hopes to gradually increase that figure.

Nassab often encourages new participants to put items into their kitchen pails one plate at a time. “I say, ‘Why don't you just try putting in napkins, paper towels and paper plates?” she says. “’Start with that and see how it works.'”

Some residents, however, were unsure about the food scraps initiative. “Before we started the program, I don't think people really understood the benefits, and they could just see the negatives,” Nassab says. “We'd get periodic phone calls about concerns about rodents, raccoons and insects if they decided to participate.”

Nassab says she'd tell naysayers to try the program and to stop if it didn't work for them. Often, initial skeptics continue to recycle food scraps. “Residents really get a sense of how much they are recycling when they participate,” Nassab says. “We want to continue increasing awareness and participation.”

As an added incentive, the city purchases about 6,000 bags of compost from the processing facility each year and gives it back to the public for free in an annual giveaway.

On Track in Oakland

Oakland, the county seat of Alameda County, adopted the food scrap program in February 2005, offering the services to single-family households and multi-family buildings with four or fewer units. According to Becky Dowdakin, Oakland's solid waste and recycling program supervisor, adding food scrap recycling to its host of services was relatively easy because the city rolled out the program at the same time it converted to a single-stream program for the collection of paper, cans and bottles.

As the city delivered the new gray single-stream collection carts, it also sent out the kitchen pails and literature on what food scraps to include or exclude when placing the pails in the green yard waste containers.

According to Oakland's figures, before 2005, the city sent an average of 89,800 tons of material to the landfill each year, while about 53,500 tons of organics were collected for composting. In 2006, after the food scrap recycling program was implemented, the tonnage placed in the green organics carts rose to 71,558 tons, and the amount of materials sent to the landfill totaled 73,635 tons.

A key factor in consumer's acceptance of the food scrap program was that it was implemented without having to raise rates, Dowdakin says. Waste Management, the city's contracted hauler, agreed to take the additional materials without increasing costs.

Waste Management currently provides garbage collection for residential and commercial areas, as well as collection of yard trimmings and food scraps in residential areas. The company also picks up half of the city's residential recyclables; the other half is handled by another hauler.

Dowdakin admits that the city has a long way to go to increase participation in the food scrap recycling program beyond the 30 percent rate and to reach the city's zero waste goal by 2020. But the program is a good first step, she says, conceding that “some people can't get over the ‘ick’ factor.”

Dowdakin also emphasizes to avid recyclers who compost at home that there is still a benefit to the city's program because they can put meat, fish, bones, moldy leftovers and soiled paper in their bins, whereas backyard compost doesn't reach a high enough heat to process those materials.

Also, “it's kind of puzzling that people who are very good recyclers see a difference between putting food scraps into their green cart versus into their burgundy bin when they are the same materials,” she says. “It will take a little while for the program to grow.”

In the meantime, the city is focusing its food scrap efforts on the business sector. Commercial waste and recycling, in general, represent almost two-thirds of the waste stream, Dowdakin says. So, by targeting businesses, the city hopes it will make larger strides in reaching its diversion goal.

Nearly Full in Fremont

The city of Fremont in Alameda County made its food scrap recycling program available to all of its 47,000 single-family households in July 2003, with rates for collection built into the solid waste collection rates. As waste is collected by Allied Waste, it is delivered to the Newby Island Composting Facility, where it is ground and managed in open windrows, says Ken Pianin, Fremont's solid waste manager.

Fremont is required to provide an annual compost giveaway event, but Pianin says that element of the program was built into the city's contract with Allied before it started the food scrap recycling program.

About 12 percent of green cart set outs in the city contain food scraps.

Pianin admits that the food scraps recycling program participation rate is “woefully inadequate and demonstrates that residents have not embraced food scraps as a legitimate and meaningful component of recycling efforts.”

Currently, Allied Waste has capped the city's commercial organics monthly collection volume at 200 tons per month because its processing facility is already operating at capacity, as it handles several jurisdictions' waste. Until the city can find an alternate service provider to process the yard and food materials, it won't be feasible to increase program participation, Pianin says.

“We'd be happy to increase diversion substantially, but available processing capacity is viewed by city staff as a limitation,” he explains. The city is working with Alameda County to seek out additional processing options.

“But it's not reasonable to put all of our ambitions on [the county], with their having 17 jurisdictions that need to divert material,” Pianin says. Thus, the city also is seeking options on its own, hoping it can find another composting facility, transfer station or new technologies that will allow it to accommodate increased participation in its food scrap program.

When that happens, Fremont says it plans to expand its commercial food scraps recycling program. In addition, the city has adopted a 75 percent landfill diversion goal, similar to Alameda County's goal. “Expanding residential and commercial food scraps collection is part of our desire for meeting that goal,” Pianin says.

The city is operating a two-year commercial pilot study with 25 participants. The program is scheduled to expand in 2008, when the city negotiates new rates for solid waste collection. “The generators are willing to do it in order to earn a small incentive through reduced municipal solid waste service,” Pianin says. “We intend to do more outreach and to create more awareness that food scraps are an important recyclable.”

“I recognize that managing food scraps in a household is a challenge,” Pianin adds. “But we'll continue our outreach messages.”

With enough “begging and pleading,” Pianin says he expects residents will develop sound food scrap recycling techniques and habits.

Meanwhile, Alameda County officials are hoping that food recycling becomes entrenched enough among county residents to help make its 75 percent diversion goal a reality.

Patricia-Anne Tom is a contributing editor based in San Francisco and a former editor of Waste Age.

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