Wednesday, February 24, 2010

There's Gold in those Kitchen Scraps (or At Least Some Serious Green)

In the spring of 1988 we bought a 3’ x 3’ x 3’ compost bin from Burpee’s. Over the following 22 years we have added to it at least three, 64 oz. milk/juice cartons of compostable material every week: coffee grounds, tea bags, houseplant clippings, egg shells, vegetable peels and apple cores… That’s 3,432 cartons. With each weighing in at three pounds (conservatively), that’s 10,296 pounds, or 5.15 tons of material we have kept out of the municipal waste stream! These figures only reflect the household waste we have put into our composter. They do NOT include any of the leaves and grass we have added to it, or the yard waste we have brown bagged, or branches we have tied and left on the curb.

Let’s imagine what that number could be if everyone in New Haven did the same. If each of the 47,000 households in the City would compost just 9 pounds of household waste a week, as we do, there would be 423,000 pounds less trash each week. According to the Deputy Chief Administrative Officer of the City of New Haven, it costs the City of New Haven $80.40 to transport and dispose of each ton of waste it collects. That 423,000 pounds removed from the stream would mean a weekly savings of over $17,000, and a yearly savings of over $884,000 to the City. That is a pretty good chunk of change.

And, just as there are economic incentives for the City to encourage home composting, there are also economic incentives for gardeners to take up the practice. Let’s return to our 3,432 cartons of kitchen scraps. With top soil selling at ~$7.00 per 40 lb bag, these scraps have a monetary value of over $1800. Come back later this week and I will explain how easy it is to get started.

But, if you are not a gardener, or you do not have a yard, you might not want to compost at home. That is where municipal composting comes in. Municipal composting is a program where residents put their compostable material into a special container collected for composting rather than disposal. This may sound like a pipe dream, since New Haven is still gearing up for a new single-stream recycling program. And composting is not part of the plan.

But San Francisco has made the program work. Last Spring when I was riding through San Francisco on the Muni, I could not help but notice that there were three different containers on the curb, each a different color. It should be no surprise that I have Googled for more information and I am now able to tell the story.

What I was witnessing was San Francisco’s newly instituted “Fantastic Three” program. This innovative residential curbside collection program includes separate collection and composting of mixed organic materials (all food scraps, food-soiled paper, and yard trimmings). The blue container (recyclables) and the green one (compostables) are collected at no charge. There is a monthly fee for collection of the black one (trash). The charge for the standard 32-gal container is $25.48, but for those who can contain their trash to a 20-gal “mini-can,” the fee is reduced to $19.62. Last March the program was still voluntary, but on June 23, it became law. The City of San Francisco has set the ambitious goal of diverting 75 percent of waste generated in the city away from landfill disposal by 2010 and to achieve zero waste by 2020.

This is not just composting as we in New Haven know it. Items for the green container include ALL food scraps including bones (or “anything that used to be alive” as the instructions read) and various paper food containers, including greasy pizza boxes. The program is contracted to Recology, an employee-owned waste management company that is the end result of expansions, mergers, and acquisitions of a number of smaller “scavenging” companies servicing San Francisco since the late 19th century.

What happens to all this material? According to the Recology site, hundreds of thousands of residents and over 3,000 restaurants and other businesses send over 400 tons of food scraps and other compostable material each day to Recology's Jepson-Prairie composting facility. There it is turned into nutrient-rich “Four Course Compost,” which is sold to farmers, nurseries, landscape supply yards, and vineyards. There would seem to be gold in these compostables.

Food scraps to wine. I love San Francisco.

And, there is more. Recology has constructed a sculpture garden as a screen between the landfill and the neighboring residential area. And it has established an Artist in Residence Program at the Solid Waste Transfer and Recycling Center. There “Art is created from what would have been sent with the rest of San Francisco's trash to landfills across the Bay or recycling plants across the nation.”

San Francisco has a plan. It seems to be working. We still need one. We have lots of compostables. And restaurants. And smart people. And artists. We have an old transfer station. Maybe New Haven could mine a bit of green gold. I feel like Dreaming Big today. 

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