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There is huge amount of interest in decreasing the amount of food that is wasted and also recycling or repurposing the food scraps that are generated. This interest spans across many sectors and types of organizations, but certainly includes municipalities. In fact, municipalities throughout the U.S. are making significant strides when it comes to organic recycling programs.

As an example, Tempe, Arizona has recently taken its green organics collection program to a whole new level. According to Melissa Quillard, public information office for the City of Tempe, in 2008-09, an audit of Tempe’s bulk trash program showed that 40 percent of the material consisted of compostable green organics (yard trimmings, bushes, etc.). As a result, the Tempe City Council asked the solid waste and recycling services team to develop a green organics composting program.

“A pilot spanning 2,500 homes was launched in 2010, and residents were asked to separate their bulk trash from green organics during their regular bulk collection week,” Quillard said. “Tempe began taking the green organics to a vendor, who ground and processed the material at their facility, and trained city staff on the scientific and operational requirements to successfully compost.”

In 2013, City of Tempe staff prepared space for the new program and secured the necessary equipment to operate an on-site program, which included a front loader to move material around, assist with turning the green organics piles and load material into the grinder, and a water truck to wet the pile as part of the cooking process, control dust and prevent fires.

As Quillard explained, training included the proper carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, appropriate moisture content, proper temperature stages for cultivating healthy microbes, cooking time, dust control (particulate matter is a problem in the Phoenix area) and fire prevention. Other important information included the sun’s impact on varying pile locations, the importance of laboratory testing via a third party, composting in the summer versus winner, reactivating dormant piles and avoiding certain materials such as palm fronds.

“As a result of the overwhelming success of the bulk trash/green organics program, in 2015, Tempe began offering residents three green organics pickups every year as part of the every other month bulk pickup program,” Quillard says.

The success of the initial green organics collection, as part of the bulk trash program, enabled Tempe to begin full oversight of its own program during the 2015-2016 fiscal year.

“Acquiring expertise from a well-known vendor in the Phoenix area lent credibility to our operation and gave our staff the tools they needed to keep the compost yard running efficiently,” Quillard said. “Had we scaled the initial part of the program too quickly, we would likely not have the successful operation that we have today.”

Advancing the program in manageable steps has also allowed the city to come up with processes that work well for its particular facility. This includes creating carbon-to-nitrogen recipes with the materials they collect, including grass clippings and manure, and planning for the appropriate time to grind. Once fourteen to fifteen hundred tons of material is collected, the city rents a grinder and screener from a local company.

“Although we received accurate weights from our composting vendor that we hauled to in 2010 and 2011, when we started composting at our facility in 2013, we had to simply estimate weights based on yardage,” Quillard said. “The installation of an industrial scale and scale house in January 2016 allowed us to more accurately track numbers and provide weight tickets to vendors. (With the exception of large-scale compost giveaways, vehicles are weighed upon their arrival and prior to their departure for accurate weights).

In December 2016, the City of Tempe further launched a pilot green organics curbside program and they targeted single-family lots with more vegetation as well as horse properties. As of February 2017, Tempe residents can now drop off their green organics at the city’s compost yard and they are continuing to expand the number of commercial customers that they service including the Desert Botanical Garden, the Phoenix Zoo, Tempe PD Mounted Unit stables, area schools, our parks and untreated wood-producing businesses.

“Plans are also underway to accept green waste from commercial landscapers but a pricing structure must be approved by management and City Council before we can launch this program, which we anticipate will help curb some of the illegal dumping in the city,” Quillard said. “Tempe is pleased to have a truly circular system that benefits the city and our residents. The city collects the green organics, turns it into compost and uses it in city parks and also provides it free to our residents.”

Tempe City Council has adopted a citywide recycling diversion goal of 25 percent by 2020. To help reach that goal, Tempe’s Solid Waste and Recycling Services Section launched a green organics composting program that coincides with the city’s bulk trash collection. They currently offer a green organics bin pilot program in select Tempe areas. Over 1,800 Tempe residents already participate. City staff will utilize the data collected during the year-long pilot program to gauge community interest levels of participation, to analyze the content of the green bins and material diverted, and to assess the operational needs.

Green recycling is the future,” Quillard says. “It’s taking recycling to the next level and creating a more sustainable community. With advances in technology, Tempe is now able to accept palm fronds and oleanders, which were previously not accepted. As technology advance we anticipate even more participation from the community. We are thrilled to be able to advance our green organics program and increase the amount of compost that is produced.”

Making Headway in New York

While there is no single program for food scrap management at the municipality level in New York State, some municipalities within New York run resource recovery facilities, and these municipalities tend to be the most advanced when it comes to food scrap management programs.

“That being said, the focus is still heavily on the business side of organics management in New York (i.e. collecting and processing food scraps from businesses) and programs for residential pick up or drop off are still very few,” said Ava Labuzetta, pollution prevention engineer at New York State Pollution Prevention Institute at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “There is more and more interest in that regard though. New York City has implemented a pilot program for residential organics collection, and drop- off programs – where residents can drop food scraps off – have been implemented in some areas upstate.
As Labuzetta explained, two of New York State’s biggest challenges are its size, and its landfill pricing. New York is quite large compared to a lot of states and because of the regional differences, what works in one area of the state doesn’t necessarily work in another.

“It also means that transportation of organics gets expensive quickly, since organic waste, especially food scraps, are heavy,” Labuzetta said. “On top of that, tip fees at landfills are quite low in many areas, making it difficult for organics collection to be cost competitive.”

And while Labuzetta can’t speak to any one municipal program specifically, the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute has seen tremendous growth in interest in the topic.

“We have been contacted by municipalities who already have programs collecting food scraps and want to expand as well as municipalities that want to get into the space but haven’t started yet, so we are absolutely seeing growth in interest,” Labuzetta said. New York City has already implemented a food scrap landfill ban and there is proposed legislation in the works to carry that concept state-wide. This has helped to accelerate the conversation around food scrap management. The state has also adopted a number of sustainability goals and therefore has a vested interest in moving initiatives forward that have great social, economic and environmental benefits.

According to Carrie Roble, director of environmental education and stewardship at Hudson River Park, a 550 acre park and estuarine sanctuary on the west side of Manhattan, in 2015, Hudson River Park began composting horticulture waste, including grass clippings and pruned tree material, to help green the Park and support NYC’s zero waste by 2030 goal.

“Our composting efforts not only cut the Park’s carbon emissions because we were no longer trucking tons of horticulture waste to landfills, it also saves the Park money on landscaping materials like mulch,” Roble said. To churn up the most nutrient rich compost, however, the Park continually needs the community’s help. In June 2017 the Park launched its Community Compost Program in partnership with NYC’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY) and Council Member Corey Johnson. Now at seven locations throughout the Park community members can drop off their food scraps from 7am-7pm daily.

“We mix these food scraps with the Park’s horticulture waste to make healthy compost that then enriches our plant beds and trees to help the Park flourish,” Roble said. “Hudson River Park’s Community Compost Program provides great opportunity to decrease waste going to landfills.”

In 2017, Hudson River Park’s program already diverted over 26,000 pounds of food scraps (over 3 times its 2016 total) and 300,000 pounds of horticulture waste from landfills.

Hudson River Park’s Community Compost Program strategically partners with DSNY in effort to align with city-wide compost efforts.

“DSNY is rolling out curbside composting for residents by neighborhoods, however, many people do not yet have convenient options for composting and not all buildings will have curbside composting,” Roble said. “Therefore the Park plays an important role as Hudson River Park has the capacity to collect food scraps year round and also has great use for the finished compost in our garden beds, treescapes and lawns.”

The Park will continue using strategic outreach and education tools to work towards its goal of increasing compost by 50,000 pounds this year.

Hudson River Park and other municipalities can continue making composting accessible, clear, and even fun.

“It can become a no brainer environmental behavior that people do because it easy and we care about the health of our cities,” Roble said. Hudson River Park’s industrial composter is able to process 250,000 pounds annually and therefore, the Park’s compost program can continue to develop.”

Going Green In California

The state of California has long been celebrated for its environmental stewardship. And San Francisco is often seen as leading the helm in organic waste recycling. According to Jack Macy, zero waste senior coordinator, San Francisco Department of Environment, the City and County of San Francisco initiated and expanded its organics collection program due to both a state mandate of 50 percent diversion from disposal by 2000 along with strong local sustainability goals.

San Francisco worked with its exclusive permitted service provider, now the Recology Companies, to start food scrap composting collection as a demonstration program in the commercial sector in 1996 and then began serving the wholesale produce sector and food service establishments, such as restaurants, in 1998.
As Macy explained, the program has continued to expand since to include all types of commercial and institutional generators including schools, colleges, hospitals, office buildings and small businesses with collection offered at least weekly up to daily. Participation was driven by outreach and assistance including providing customers with color coded collection bins, interior sorting containers, signage, program set up, and multilingual training, along with financial incentives of reduced service costs with “pay-as-you-throw” discounts and reduced trash costs.

“Participation in the composting collection program was initially voluntary being rolled out to all single family and a couple of thousand of the nearly 9000 apartment buildings as well as most food establishments and a portion of other sectors,” Macy said. “The program was made mandatory by ordinance in 2009.”
Using the mandatory law of everyone having to separate out food scraps and other compostables as a major outreach tool and a compliance verification process, the City was eventually able to get more than 99 percent of all properties to be compliant in having composting service. That is a large universe, which includes a population of over 850,000 residents and more than 60,000 businesses and institutions.

“This level of program penetration is the most comprehensive in the United States and among the highest in the world,” Macy said.

The Recology companies that collect the compostables also transfer the material to their regional composting facilities that they operate to create an organics market. The compost they produce is then sold primarily to vineyards, fruit and nut orchards and produce growers in the valleys in the north and east of San Francisco. The compost made from food is a nutrient and microflora organic rich compost that has shown great results in increasing soil fertility, reducing use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, and also pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it in the soil as a climate change mitigation. Some of the wine and food grown with the compost come back to feed the city creating a closed-loop nutrient and organic cycle.

“The biggest challenge is changing behavior and overcoming the long time practice of previously throwing food into trash,” Macy said. The challenge, of course, is about changing perceptions and cultural norms both for individuals and businesses. Another challenge is the increasing regulations and cost of composting facilities and difficulties in siting new facilities, as is the case for siting most types of ‘waste’ facilities. Today, we are collecting close to 700 tons of organics in San Francisco every day.”

San Francisco’s composting program has been a model for communities around the globe and for many municipalities in the U.S., especially in California and the west coast. The number of cities starting food composting has been increasing over time and now the state of California has set a strong legislative mandate to get 75 percent of all organics, including food, out of landfills by 2025.

“The state has issued draft regulations for this mandate that is largely modeled after San Francisco’s that will require municipalities to mandate source separated collection of food and other compostable materials for composting,” Macy said. Green recycling initiates like food composting programs or broader zero waste programs are key for long term sustainability.”

Published in the January 2018 Edition of American Recycler News