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Compost: Recycling's Last Frontier

GTW032714Food waste is collected in more than 100 American communities. When will Santa Cruz County get on board? 

There they stand, proffering fistfuls of carrot peels, zucchini tops and kale stems, scanning the kitchen in bewilderment.

“Where’s the compost bin?”

Any Santa Cruz County household that has hosted guests from San Francisco—or Portland, Ore., Seattle or a number of other American cities—may be familiar with the scene.

For residents of more than 100 American communities with curbside compost collection, separating food scraps is, like recycling, simply part of the routine. Since San Francisco became the first U.S. city to mandate food scrap collection in 2009, compost bins are ubiquitous kitchen fixtures in every residence and commercial business. As a result, the city sends 600 tons of food waste to its composting operations every day.

But here in Santa Cruz County, in dwellings at which home composting is not an option or that have yet to start home composting for whatever reason, the bits and pieces discarded while cooking or left over on plates get tossed into the garbage, destined for the landfill. Up to 40 percent of landfill waste in Santa Cruz County is compostable.

“People are surprised that Santa Cruz is not collecting food waste because we have a reputation for being very progressive and very compost friendly,” says Cary Oshins, director of education for the U.S. Composting Council, whose office is in Santa Cruz.

Compost collection services for residences, businesses, or both, are becoming more common across the country and are already prevalent in much of Europe and Canada. The Natural Resources Defense Council was recently quoted as saying 150 U.S. communities now offer this, but Oshins points out that it is such a rapidly changing figure that it is hard to pin down. Connecticut, Vermont cover orangepeeland Massachusetts have gone so far as to ban food waste from landfills. If California Assemblymember Wesley Chesbro’s (D-2nd District) recently introduced Organic Materials Management bill passes, the Golden State will also have to phase organics out of landfills completely.

The proliferation of the practice at the municipal level is a result of concern about climate change. To protect the surrounding earth from a landfill’s contents, there is a thick liner beneath the waste and, when a landfill cell is filled, one placed over it, sealing everything in. The organics trapped inside produce the greenhouse gas methane—so much of it that landfills account for 20 percent of methane emissions, according to the EPA. Adding to the problem, methane is a particularly potent greenhouse gas. By the EPA’s estimate, it is 25 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide. Local landfills use methane-capturing systems, but officials concede that they are imperfect and leaks occur.

With 34.5 million tons of food waste dumped into these trash graveyards each year nationwide—including six million just in California, according to the state’s solid waste agency, CalRecycle—pressure is mounting to tackle the problem. The fact that landfills are expensive and filling up (building new landfills is not an option in many places, including locally) adds to the urgency. Much like with recycling 40 years ago, the crux of the task is to change society’s definition of food waste from “useless garbage” to “valuable resource.” When diverted and processed, food waste is an agent for creating beneficial products like electricity, natural gas, and—of course—compost. Among its benefits, compost enriches soil, conserves water and prevents pollution.

“It’s a resource that should be used and not wasted,” Oshins says. “We want to recycle it so that those resources aren’t buried for thousands of years.”

Small compost-collection programs exist for around 50 businesses in the Mid-County area through the County of Santa Cruz and for 20 businesses in the City of Capitola. UC Santa Cruz’s five dining halls are diverting their waste—560 tons last year—from the landfill. But the food waste from all three locations is trucked to the Monterey Regional Management District’s landfill in Marina, Calif. One year ago this month, the site launched its SMARTFERM dry anaerobic digestion plant, which churns food waste into electricity and compost.

However, no inclusive, large-scale food waste operation or collection service exists anywhere in Santa Cruz County.

But if a city the size of San Francisco can do it, Oshins says Santa Cruz can, too. 

“People say ‘just because it works there doesn’t mean it will work here,’” he says. “They face challenges others don’t, such as density and geography. You can also say that if you can make it work there you can make it work anywhere.”

Jack Macy, senior commercial zero waste coordinator with the San Francisco Department of Environment, urges Santa Cruz County to bite the bullet.

“There isn’t something inherently easier with a big city,” he says. “For a smaller community, especially if they are already collecting yard trimmings, adding food waste from residents is straightforward. Commercial collection is a bit harder. But my main suggestion is to just do it. Perhaps start smaller if your available capacity can’t handle everything at once. The sooner you do it, the sooner you can benefit.”

The ball is, in fact, rolling locally: The county, cities of Capitola, Santa Cruz, Watsonville and Scotts Valley, and UC Santa Cruz are in the early stages of exploring the possibility of a collaborative, regional operation. They say something could be in place in the next five or so years.            

“It will happen,” says Scott Hamby, public works director for the City of Scotts Valley. “We will have food waste recycling countywide at some point, it’s just a matter of coming up with the right program that’s a fit for everyone. It’s the last large piece of the waste stream that is out there to grab a hold of that would give us substantial solid waste diversion.

“It hasn’t happened yet,” he adds, “because food waste is a whole different animal.”

cov digesterOrganic material is loaded into the Monterey Regional Waste Management District's SMARTFERM anaerobic digester in Marina. Photo: Courtesy UCSC Dining.Why Now?

The concept of jurisdiction-wide composting is not new to any of the local entities. The same stakeholders convened a decade ago to consider the possibility but determined that a number of potential new landfill or composting sites were unfeasible. They went their separate ways and pondered the viability of independent operations. A slew of factors—the cost and availability of land and issues related to being small communities, among them—led most of the parties to rule out solo operations. (All cities and the county are interested in a collective effort first and foremost, but UCSC Dining Sustainability Manager Clint Jeffries tells GT they are pursuing an independent operation but remain open to the possibility of a joint project.)

“Even all of us together are relatively small,” says Mary Arman, public works operations manager for the City of Santa Cruz. “These things are capital intensive—we’re talking millions.”

Santa Cruz, where more than 10,000 tons of food scraps head to the Dimeo Lane landfill in a year according to a 2009 waste audit, has spent the last six years seriously researching options. Prospects included collecting commercial food waste and processing it in the existing wastewater treatment plant digesters, and installing a SMARTFERM anaerobic digester such as exists in Marina. (The largest SMARTFERM facility in the world is in San Jose.) But Arman says the estimated amount of collectable food waste in the City of Santa Cruz alone wouldn’t justify a minimum project cost of $1.5 million.

“We came to the conclusion that we need to be looking at a larger quantity of food and organics to make this financially feasible,” she says.

So she got the gang back together.

This time around, there are added motivations to find a solution. At the state level, AB 32 dictates greenhouse gas reductions by 2020. CalRecycle, meanwhile, is tasked with achieving an overall 75 percent waste diversion rate by the same year. The County of Santa Cruz, which is already at a 75 percent diversion rate, has a directive to become “zero waste”—a concept that other local municipalities are eyeing, as well.

“None of that is going to happen unless organics are kept out of the landfill,” says Arman. New sources of financing available from cap and trade funds make the timing ripe, she adds.

“Finding solutions to this is the thing [my department is] spending the most staff time on other than our day-to-day operations,” she says.

The fact that our area is often ahead of the curve on environmentally minded policy, but has dragged its feet in this regard, is not lost on the group. But Arman argues that the delay has a serious silver lining. Locales that pioneered large-scale food waste processing 15, 10 or even five years ago had far fewer options to choose from. Oshins, at the U.S. Composting Council, agrees: there has been an explosion of technologies and companies that handle food waste in recent years. 

“Even though it’s nice to be on the cutting edge, with something like this it’s nice to have someone else have the initial experience,” says Arman.

Decisions, Decisions

As of this writing, the group had held two meetings about the matter and had another planned at which a timeline will be determined. Eventually, the hope is for a proposal package to take shape, after which the agencies would take it to their various governing bodies, seek public input, and open it up for bids from companies. Considering the crawling speed at which government is known to cov UCSC USEPlates of student leftovers travel down a conveyor belt, with food scraped off into a compost bin along the way. Photo: Courtesy UCSC Dining.move, cooperation between five to six such bodies (working together in an unprecedented way, adds Arman) does not suggest rapid action.

“There are a lot of pieces, agencies, and possibilities,” Arman says. “We don’t all know what we want. That’s one of the reasons it’s taken a while—it’s not like building a landfill. With that, it’s ‘OK, we’re running out, let’s add another cell.’ It’s a known quantity. Here, we know we want something that can handle organics but there are so many options and so many angles to cover that it’s difficult.”

Permitting and regulations are one aspect to consider. In addition to the usual agencies that have a hand in overseeing composting, Santa Cruz County has the Coastal Commission to answer to. Other hurdles can appear unexpectedly: When Santa Cruz County’s pilot commercial food scrap recovery program began composting at the county’s Buena Vista Landfill property in 2006 (since becoming a permanent program in 2010, its collected organics are hauled to Marina), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) got involved. The FAA was concerned about the compost attracting birds because of the site’s proximity to the Watsonville airport.

As for what the project will look like, it is too soon to say. The group has a host of choices to make moving forward, from whether they will offer residential or commercial pick-up, or both, to what sort of facility will process the food scraps, where it will be located, and what they will charge for service. Will they spring for an operation that produces compost as well as compressed natural gas, electricity, or neither or both? Will they go with the option du jour, an anaerobic digester plant? Anything is possible at this point—including the location.

“Talking about geography and logistics, it occurred to us that the county landfill and the City of Watsonville landfill adjoin each other,” says Tim Goncharoff, with the Santa Cruz County Department of Public Works. “They are divided by the railroad tracks. And at the other end of the tracks, there is the City of Santa Cruz landfill. So we thought, well, if we can’t do this all in one place, could we divide it between a couple of places? And if we need to move material, is there potential for doing it by rail, which is more efficient, inexpensive, and kinder to the environment than using all of the trucks? We are at the very beginning of talking about this, but it’s something we want to explore further.”

He adds that the resulting compost sold as the end product of an operation may come in both certified organic and generic varieties. Organic compost must meet strict standards, and contamination

is an ongoing challenge in large-scale composting. If and when ground is broken on a new food scrap processing facility locally, a campaign to educate residents and train kitchen staffs on proper food waste separation will roll out. But even the best composting efforts need screening methods on the back end to catch things like rubber gloves or glass that sneak through.

Jack Macy, at the San Francisco Department of Environment, says Santa Cruz County shouldn’t worry about finding a market for the resulting compost.

“With the amount of agriculture we have, the potential demand for and use of compost in California is huge,” Macy says. “You can actually compost all of the yard trimmings and food waste and still not reach the potential use you could have just in agriculture. Add to that landscaping, and once you produce a consistent quality product, there is no concern about being able to market it. The need exceeds what we can produce.”

However it pans out, food scrap collection is not intended to replace the preferred method of dealing with food scraps: home composting. (The need to reduce food waste in the first place is a conversation unto its own.) Local governments, which offer subsidized or free home compost bins, all support home composting and will continue to encourage it for households with yards even once a food waste collection route is in place. The April 19 Earth Day celebration at San Lorenzo Park in Santa Cruz will feature free home-composting workshops. Other learning opportunities are easy to come by in Santa Cruz County, including during International Composting Awareness Week, May 5 to 11. (For more on that, visit visionrecycling.com.)

“Even though we very much want to roll out this countywide program, the more locally you can close the cycle the better,” says Goncharoff. “If people can compost their own food scraps, and use it on their own yards or gardens, that’s better anyway. Why transport the stuff many miles if you can use it in your own yard?”


Six Million Tons: The amount of food waste thrown out each year in California. (Source: CalRecycle)

36 Million Tons: The amount of food waste generated in the United States in 2011. (Source: The EPA)

40: The percentage of Santa Cruz County’s landfill waste that is compostable.

Comments (4)Add Comment
retired tile contactor
written by Arthur Wood, November 10, 2014
Contrary to what Angie says above, food waste should not be put in the green waste; at least in the City of Santa Cruz. The city grinds up the green waste for land cover, food waste gums up the grinder. Even rotten apples that fall from your tree can get a note from the waste collectors.
Raw fruits and veggies can go in the green waste
written by Angie Gruys, April 10, 2014
The article starts out using carrot peels, zucchini tops and kale stems as food waste examples. While we don't have a full scale compost pick-up, those very items are allowed in the green waste bins. A missed opportunity to educate those who don't know that raw Fruits and veggies are currently accepted in the green waste bins. Just keep a counter top small compost vessel in the kitchen and empty into your green waste if you don't home compost.
Food scraps, chickens and compost go together
written by Sally Montiano, hobby farmer, Fallbrook, CA, March 28, 2014
Anyone who has chickens knows how to deal with food scraps. The chickens love them. Now I have taken this practice to a larger scale in partnership with our local food bank. Now I go to the food bank 3 times a week and pick up boxes of food scraps they cannot use. Chickens are great sorters and recyclers. They eat an amazing variety of food (even bananas and melons) and what they don't eat gets raked up and tossed into the compost heap! It's just one wonderful, small-scale, local recycle method I wanted to share. For the trivial and enjoyable effort of picking up waste from the local food bank, I have reduced my feed bills, reduced contributions to the landfill, and made 30 hens very happy.
Founder & Executive Chairman, FOR (Food and Organics Recycling) Solutions
written by Nicholas Smith-Sebasto, Ph.D., March 27, 2014
According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, decentralized, small-scale composting efforts produce more jobs than landfilling and incineration combined and more than medium-sized or large-sized composting operations. The message is clear: recover uneaten food locally, for example, on a college/university campus, in strategically located parts of a municipality, etc., compost the food scraps on-site or locally (in a biologically and economically efficient manner that is enclosed, low-odor, and that will not attract undesirables), and use the nutrient-dense compost to revitalize soil and to grow and to distribute/market nutritious food locally. The nutrients in uneaten food are to vital to be flushed into a sanitary sewer system. They must be recovered and returned to the soil!

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