Citywide Composting of Food Wastes in San Francisco Sets National Model

Associated Press
Nov. 03, 2004

Citywide Composting of Food Wastes in San Francisco Sets National Model
Earth to earth: San Francisco food makes good compost
by MICHELLE LOCKE

BERKELEY, Calif. – Haute cuisine is going green in a program that recycles restaurant and household food scraps into high-grade compost for Northern California vineyards.

More than 2,200 restaurant or food businesses and 75,000 households in San Francisco are involved in the clean plate, clean environment plan, which has become a national model for food recycling. Scraps deposited in green plastic cans from Candlestick Park to Fisherman's Wharf are converted into "Four Course Compost."

The result is less waste in landfills, lower garbage pickup costs, vibrant vegetables – and a cheerful sense of completing a crop circle, a feeding-the-hand-that-feeds-you approach.

"Now you have restaurateurs that are excited about sending nutrients back to the farms and vineyards. That's exciting stuff. That's role reversal," says Robert Reed of Norcal Waste Systems Inc., the San Francisco-based producers of Four Course.

Norcal Waste began looking into recycling food scraps in 1996, when the city of San Francisco asked for research on what was going into the landfill. They found that 19 percent of the material was food scraps and designed a program to capture that material and turn it into a marketable product. The program takes food scraps from restaurants ranging from burger joints to some of the city's swankiest, including Jardiniere and Boulevard. "We love the program," says Jonathan Cook, supervisor of operations at the Metreon, an entertainment complex in San Francisco that has eight restaurants supplying compost fodder. "It's increased the morale in the kitchens. People feel they're not throwing things out, they're doing something good for the environment while they're working."

Along with the warm feelings, some cold cash. Metreon restaurants saving about $1,600 in garbage pickup fees every month because of reduced volume, says Cook.

Growers like the program, too.

"I think it's been fabulous," says Kathleen Inman, owner and winemaker at Inman Family Vineyards in Sonoma County. The organic compost makes for healthy green vines, and it's a kick to think of it as a movable feast with a possibly candlelit past, she says.

Californians throw away more than 5 million tons of food scraps each year, according to the state's Integrated Waste Management Board. That amounts to 16 percent of materials going into landfills from businesses, residents, and institutions.

Nationally, it's estimated that food scraps make up about 12 percent of the waste stream, says Kate Krebs, executive director of the National Recycling Coalition.

While many cities are recycling bottles, cans and paper, food waste remains "the new frontier," she says.

When San Francisco began the pilot program in the late '90s, there was some skepticism in the national recycling community. Doubters "kind of sat back and put their arms across their chest and said, 'Sure. Let's see how it will work in a city that has hills, that has little if any storage space … let's see how it works," says Krebs.

But in fact the program did work, due to a combination of identifying a market, delivering a good product – and giving participants the bonus of lower garbage charges.

"That is what is so absolutely cool about it," says Krebs. "Not only is a good, green environmental story but it goes right to the bottom line." In the Four Course program, food scraps and other compostable materials are collected by Golden Gate Disposal & Recycling Co. and Sunset Scavenger Co. The compost is made by Jepson Prairie Organics outside Vacaville, about 50 miles east of San Francisco. All three companies are subsidiaries of Norcal. At the compost facility, the scraps are ground with cardboard, soiled paper and yard trimmings – the compost is about 50 percent food scraps – and pushed into bags. The temperature shoots to 140 degrees naturally and the composting begins.

The compost has been approved for use on organic soils, a key issue for organic-friendly Northern California.

In the early days, some of the yard trimmings came from Vacaville and Dixon, where Norcal also has recycling contracts. Now, trimmings come solely from San Francisco.

Sales of Four Course have increased 23 percent by volume in each of the last two fiscal years, says Reed.

The program has expanded to some restaurants in Oakland, while Los Angeles city officials recently asked Norcal to begin a pilot program with restaurants there. Meanwhile, the Seattle City Council recently voted to start a residential food scrap program.

This month, with harvest ending early in Northern California, has been especially busy as growers get the vines ready for winter. "We like the compost. It seems to have done really good things for the soils that we added it to," says Linda Hale of the Madrone Vineyard Management Group. "With the agricultural community, the big buzzword right now is sustainability, using less resources and trying to protect the environment. Using this kind of a product helps us achieve those goals."

At the Metreon, Cook is thinking about organizing a wine tasting of vintages grown with Four Course.

"It's closing the gap, throwing the food out and bringing it back with the grapes and drinking it again in the restaurant," he says. "It's pretty great."

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