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Food-Scrap Revolution

As communities examine the economic and environmental impact of waste-collection systems, the composting movement is gaining ground

by Darryl McGrath on November 10, 2011 · 1 comment

Photo by Joe Putrock

“I have to warn you, it’s going to be smelly.”

Scott Kellogg offers this caveat as he prepares to set out on his weekly pickup of food scraps from a couple dozen homes in downtown Albany, where residents subscribe to the compost collection service that Kellogg runs with his wife, Stacy Pettigrew.

The odor that wafts through Kellogg’s 1998 vegetable-oil-powered Volkswagen Jetta as he traverses the Mansion Neighborhood on this mild afternoon is earthy, slightly pungent and  overripe, but not noxious. It’s more a garden smell than a garbage smell, familiar and not unpleasant to anyone who has ever turned over a compost pile in their back yard and thrown a full shovelsful of the stuff on the tomato plants.

At each stop, Kellogg lifts a packed bag of food scraps from the bright-green plastic bucket on the front stoop, drops the bag into a larger collecting bucket in his car and leaves the customer a fresh clear liner bag that crinkles like a grocery store plastic produce bag but is actually made from biodegradable corn starch. The collection bags, along with the banana peels, egg shells, and coffee filters and grounds they contain, can be composted.

And at the end of the day, the buckets of food scraps will be added to the circular chicken-wire enclosures of compost at the Grand Street site of the nearly-completed Radix Ecological Sustainability Center. When fully established, the center’s half-acre complex—which features a year-round, 1,200-square-foot greenhouse—will produce edible plants, fish, honey and possibly small animals such as rabbits—all fueled by solar power and other environmentally passive methods. The compost produced through the neighborhood collection service plays a major role in supporting this tiny urban farm project.

Kellogg and Pettigrew co-founded the Radix Center—the name Radix comes from the Latin word for root—almost two years ago, drawing on their years of experience in the sustainability movement and a similar project they ran in Texas. They envision the center as an educational project and are working to build partnerships with area schools. The Radix philosophy of reuse, recycle and reclaim is encapsulated in the Community Compost Initiative, through which food scraps that most people consider garbage are utilized for food production instead of dumped into the Rapp Road Landfill.

The Radix Center’s environmentally-attuned customers pay Radix $15 a month for weekly pickup of their food scraps from a carbon-filtered, sealed bucket, the contents of which, by the end of a week, have turned into a damp, slightly compacted mass of stale bread, leftover pasta and rice, banana peels, fruit rinds, paper towels, tea bags and coffee grounds.

And this is just the stuff in a small sampling of households whose residents could fairly be described as more eco-conscious than average; most of what Kellogg picks up is the inedible byproduct of a waste-not, want-not mentality. Peek into the back rooms of  the produce department of many a grocery store, and you will see the makings of a feast piled into used banana boxes, waiting to go into the garbage: up to 50 pounds a day of slightly damaged, bruised or overripe vegetables and fruits. Even if consumers could be persuaded to buy less-than-perfect apples, stores can’t sell damaged produce because a broken skin or peel can be an entry point for bacteria.

“I’ve heard estimates that between 50 and 80 percent of the food that is produced in this country is wasted between farm and table,” says the 36-year-old Kellogg.

Composting expert Jean Bonhotal, a senior extension specialist at Cornell University’s Waste Management Institute and a sought-after speaker and guide on food-scrap composting, puts it another way: According to the Environmental Protection Agency, this country produces an average of 5.6 pounds of food scraps per person, per day.

Out of this realization has come the food-waste—or, as its advocates prefer to call it, the food-scrap—composting movement, which has been described by proponents as the next big idea in recycling. At least four dozen food-composting efforts large and small now operate all over New York state, and enthusiasts ranging from grassroots neighborhood collection efforts such as Radix to large, commercial and municipal operations are starting food composting projects around the Capital Region.

The idea has caught on “all over the country,” says Cornell’s Bonhotal. “The EPA and the DEC want this to happen.”

A number of municipalities in the Capital Region already produce what is known as “yard-waste compost”—a crumbly dry mixture of pulverized leaves, grass clippings, brush, discarded Christmas trees and, as in the case of Albany, which maintains a horse farm for the police department’s mounted unit, an infusion of manure. Counties and municipalities sell or give away the resulting product, which has the appearance of coarse, slightly damp soil. Now communities are looking at these yard-waste composting operations, and at the cost of hauling away garbage—  which can run $50 or more a ton, a cost that is passed along to residents in their property taxes—and composting food scraps suddenly seem like a good idea.

Several agencies, corporations and small businesses in New York are already collecting food scraps for composting, says Bonhotal, including the Hannaford grocery stores and, in western New York, the Wegmans groceries. The New York State Office of General Services has been collecting food-scrap compostables since 2009; its food-service company, Sodexo, maintains collection bins in several locations at Empire State Plaza. A number of area coffee shops and cafes give gardeners bags of  used coffee grounds, either seasonally or year-round. Slowly but steadily, food-scrap composting is catching on.

“It’s the last untouched frontier of recycling,” says Jim Yienger, a partner in Climate Action Associates in Watervliet, an energy and climate consulting company that helps municipalities develop plans for energy efficiency and sustainability. “Organics have really still been on the fringe. It’s a community solution, but it hasn’t been mainstreamed.”

Climate Action is advising Watervliet on the development of a pilot project for food-scrap composting. The city received a $12,000 startup grant from the Cargill Corp., the national agricultural company, and is enlisting 50 households to participate. The program is expected to start at the end of the month, although it’s not yet known what the city will do with the compost. Among the ideas: simply give it away to residents, at least at the outset. As Yienger puts it, anything is better than dumping it in the landfill. Watervliet will compost its food scraps at its public-works-department complex.

Watervliet Mayor Mike Manning and General Manager Mark Gleason are optimistic that residents will accept food scrap recycling. Manning, a part-time mayor for the city and a full-time engineer for General Electric, came into office in 2008 with a commitment to energy efficiency and a plan to reduce Watervliet’s garbage production—and, by extension, its garbage hauling fees. Three years and an intensive public relations campaign later, city residents have increased their recyclables by 70 percent, according to Manning, who says the city aims to improve even that figure. Now the city is planning a similar publicity blitz about the benefits of food-scrap recycling.

“Food waste is heavy,” Gleason says. “If we can get just 25 percent of it out of the garbage, we think we can save $50,000 a year. It ain’t rocket science, right? We figure even if this builds slowly, every bucket we don’t have to haul is $4 we don’t have to pay.”

The Schenectady County Conservation District is also in the early stages of developing a plan for large-scale food-scrap composting at its Glenville site, says David Mosher, the Conservation District’s programs coordinator. The site’s permit already allows it to take up to five tons a day of food scraps, although it is not accepting food waste right now. For an operation of the regional scope that Mosher envisions, the permit would have to be revised to allow up to 15 tons a day.

“The finished compost, we could blend it right in with our yard waste. It would add organic matter and more nutrients to the mix,” says Mosher, who ran a discussion group at a food-composting conference at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in October that attracted 80 enthusiasts from academic, municipal and grassroots circles around the region and the state.

The startup of such a project is a lot more involved than just emptying buckets of overripe tomatoes and apple peels into a pile on the ground, because food-based compost has an image problem. Commerical-scale composting enthusiasts start talking about food scraps, and residents and municipal officials envision rats, maggots, scavengers and the stink of decomposing garbage.

Experts can explain all they want about how a properly maintained composting operation does not stink, or that a topping of nice, familiar yard-waste compost will seal off the decomposing food scraps from the seagulls, or that the addition of wood chips to the compost will stave off the production of noxious gas, but it can still be a hard sell. Aesthetics aside, the longer that food scraps sit in a bucket in someone’s home, or in bins in back of a restaurant waiting to be picked up, the more they break down into a soupy mixture that can become more difficult to handle.

Contamination is another concern for large-scale collection, Cornell’s Bonhotal says. If a municipality is trying to sell its food-scrap compost for commercial use, the presence of shredded plastic bags; wads of bubble gum; metal twist-ties or bottle caps can be a deal-breaker, because these items do not decompose. It can be difficult or impossible to catch all foreign objects, even if the compost is sifted. The inclusion of commercial cleaners is another hazard. Such substances can get into food scraps from a restaurant, for example, if someone scoops up vegetable trimmings from a sink that’s just been sprinkled with Comet and tosses them into a collection bucket.

“The goal is to have a food-grade compost product that could be trusted to grow food,” says Sheree Cammera, one of the organizers of the RPI conference, which featured Cornell’s Bonhotal as the keynote speaker. The conference grew out of discussions among a group of Troy-area residents  involved in sustainability or grassroots “livable city” initiatives, including RPI student Anasha Cummings.

Municipalities also either have to collect and haul food scraps themselves, or find a company to do it for them, which can be difficult and which can ratchet up the cost, thereby defeating the argument that food composting is a cost-effective alternative to landfills.

“The reason it hasn’t happened before now on a large scale is it’s hard to collect; it weighs; it stinks,” Bonhotal says. This is one effort in which bigger is not always better, she says; smaller municipal food-scrap composting projects may be easier to handle than massive regional programs.

“The economics are an issue with food composting; collection is an issue,” she says. “I think we can do it. It’s a matter of showing people it can be done, and done well.”

The commitment to food-scrap composting is now part of the sustainability and recycling philosophy at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and the state is “very supportive” of efforts to collect and compost food scraps, says Gary Feinland, a DEC environmental program specialist. The DEC has completed a new solid-waste management plan for the state. Draft regulations for solid waste management are now posted on the DEC website for public review at dec.ny.gov/chemical/41831.html.

“It is very clear that in our hierarchy, organic recylcing is pretty high up,” Feinland says.

As more large-scale operations get under way in the Capital Region, acceptance of food-scrap composting may come down to individual attitudes. Subscribers to small local collection services also have to accept that they are paying extra to get rid of something they could simply throw into the garbage—and they already pay for garbage collection through their property taxes.

For some, the commitment to a larger effort is worth the cost.

Tim Truscott, a resident of downtown Albany’s Jay Street who subscribes to the Radix Community Compost Initiative, pays $180 a year for the service but says he is also “supporting a nonprofit organization that is trying to make an urban area more sustainable.”

“It may be just a minuscule part of waste organics,” says Truscott, “but it’s a way of educating people.”