Turning Food Trash Into Treasure
Americans throw a lot of food away, and that’s having a huge impact on the environment. A study by the UN Agriculture and Land commission found that if buried food scraps in landfills were a country of their own they would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet. New Mexicans are working to keep food out of the landfill, but the efforts are ripe with challenge.
Normally when people throw their trash away it’s out of sight, out of mind. The Environmental Protection Agency, whose job it is to examine what’s ending up in landfills, found that more than anything else, what’s getting thrown away is food. Millions and millions of tons of it ends up in our nation’s dumps every year.
Juliana Ciano is with Reunity Resources in Santa Fe. She said all those buried morsels are effecting climate change dramatically.
“So when food scraps get put into the landfill,” Ciano explained “often they're in a black plastic garbage bag. They get entombed and they essentially ferment and create methane, which is a noxious greenhouse gas that warms our planet much faster then carbon dioxide.”
Food gets bagged up along with all the other trash and tossed into what’s called the waste stream, which tends to flow directly into landfills. But a whopping 84 percent of what goes to the dump can actually be diverted from that stream, or simply speaking, recycled.
Recently the City of Santa Fe partnered with Reunity to collect food scraps from businesses before they get tossed into the trashcan. This material is then turned into products that, when mixed into the earth, enrich the soil for gardening. But so far, no other city government in New Mexico has taken on diverting food scraps from the dumps.
Jill Holbert runs the Solid Waste Management Department in Albuquerque. She says in reality the city’s waste transfer facilities weren't built with diversion of green waste in mind.
“We recognize the fact that we're limited in our current facilities,” said Holbert “and we really would like to develop something that does accommodate the forward thinking ideas that we have.”
Currently, the only other crew in New Mexico besides Reunity that collects food scraps on a large scale is a private company just south of Albuquerque called Soilutions. They’ve actually being doing it for quite some time.
John "Ski" Shaski runs the food waste program for Soilutions and he feels that out of everything that gets dumped into the waste stream, food is absolutely the most valuable recyclable material. He explains that when it’s converted into compost and added to barren dirt, it increases the soil's ability to hold water by several magnitudes.
“When you start to produce compost,” Ski said, “you're essentially seeding life. You’re creating a path for abundance.”
Ski said about 50 percent to 60 percent of what's being thrown away is compostable.
“Anything that was once alive,” he explained, “belongs back into the cycle of the composting process.”
That includes everything from popcorn to paper cups, because to have a dynamic and active compost, all you need are four ingredients.
“All you have to do is put the four ingredients together in the right ratios. Carbon, nitrogen, water and oxygen,” Ski said, “keeping your carbon and your nitrogen at about a three to one ratio. The microbes, they find it, because they're there already, and they just go to work.”
It’s basic organic chemistry. Mix nitrogen, which is food scraps or fresh grass clippings for example, with carbon, which is dry leaves or paper. Add some water, turn the pile occasionally to aerate, and within a few months everything has broken down into a black silky soil, fecund and teeming with life.
On a morning collection route for Soilutions, Ski stops at the Cien Aguas International School to pick up some carts. In the elementary school cafeteria they serve lunch on thick paper trays and use sporks made out of plant starch. When the kids are finished eating, they just toss the whole tray into a big bin that Ski collects once a week. An excited group of kindergartners explain.
“In the lunchroom food trays are able to go in the compost,” they exclaim. “It’s better for the land because they don't have to go in the landfill, and you can put it on your gardens to make them grow.”
Clients pay Soilutions to pick up their compostable waste, but the drop in trash collection costs largely offsets the fee. Business owners who use the service say their bottom line has increased only slightly, if at all.
After gathering full bins all morning from around town, Ski heads back to the Soilutions yard, which is a certified composting facility.
“We just roll the carts off of the back of the truck onto the trailer,” he says. “ We put them on the scale, here this cart came in at 423 pounds in this one.”
Ski jots down the weight of every bin and those numbers can be run through an EPA sponsored carbon footprint analysis so that clients can track what kind of reduction of greenhouse gas emissions they are responsible for by diverting their food scraps from the waste stream.
“Three thousand nine hundred and seventy six pounds of food waste collected in the morning, that's two tons! It’s going to be probably another two tons this afternoon, so we'll have a four-ton day!
In 2012 Soilutions recycled close to five hundred tons of food scraps which is equivalent to taking about one hundred cars off the road for a year. Ski says the volume of what they are diverting paints a nice picture.