The rebirth of food

Composting programs can turn dinner scraps into tomorrow’s lunch.

Photo by Mike Ramm

UPDATE: Falls Church has launched a Curbside Food Waste Program that offers weekly pickups of food waste and scraps.

On a sunny Saturday morning at the Old Town Alexandria Farmers Market, manager Joshua Etim stands next to four large green compost bins, armed with a spatula and a smile, as he assists a steady stream of regulars in scraping out their food scraps.

After a brief exchange with Etim, a few patrons take that same bucket 50 feet over to a yellow container marked “free compost” and begin filling it. The germaphobia must have showed on my face because Etim later says, “We have to get people to stop thinking about food waste as trash.”

Compost is nutrient-dense, decomposed organic matter used to enrich soil. When people bring vegetable peels to the farmers market to be composted, it diverts food waste from landfills, where it often gets buried under more trash. When it eventually breaks down, it creates pockets of methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide, according to a 2012 Natural Resources Defense Council report.

“Of all the food that is lost at different stages from farm to fork, only 3 percent is composted,” the report states. “The vast majority ends up in landfills.”

Turning food waste into compost can be done at home, but in urban areas where space is sparse, local governments have come up with other options.

Bringing Less
Resource Recovery Stations at Farmers Markets, Alexandria

Back at the Old Town Farmers Market, Etim says it’s a slower spring morning, despite the fact that two 64-gallon composting bins are full within 40 minutes. By noon this site fills eight bins on average.

For some residents in Alexandria, dropping off compost at the weekend farmers market has become a way of life. Michael Clem, the recycling program analyst, started the first drop-off site in 2014 and has since expanded to four.

It was this level of enthusiasm that prompted Clem to explore a citywide curbside composting program. A three-month pilot program launched last April with weekly pickups. Of the 2,400 residents invited, 405 signed up. The data showed citywide composting would only save four more cars’ worth of emissions than the current waste disposal method, which is burning trash at a waste-to-energy facility. Clem believes after factoring in the emissions from trucking the food waste to the nearest compost facility in Prince George’s County, Maryland, it’s possible any benefit from composting is negated.

Though the farmers market composting program remains popular, Clem wants to shift the focus to preventing food waste in the first place. That same NRDC report finds “American families throw out approximately 25 percent of the food and beverages they buy.”

Clem and his team often see customers bringing whole fruits and vegetables for composting. He wants to educate people to buy less, use more and, ultimately, have less to compost. “People who are coming to compost think they are making a personal sacrifice, are doing a good thing. We want them to know that they can still do a good thing by bringing less.”

Etim agrees, saying change will come from taking the long view with community engagement and education. Of the residents who do bring in extra produce, Etim hopes as he builds relationships with composters, he can suggest ways to use food before dumping it in the bins.

Even in the Depths of Winter
24-Hour Community Composting Program and Food Waste Collection Station at the Farmers Market, Falls Church

“We were blown away by the popularity and positivity from the residents that showed up,” says Chris McGough, the solid waste program manager, of the composting program in Falls Church. “We invited residents to bring their food waste to us for four hours every Saturday morning … and we found that people still participated, even in the depths of winter.” The year-round farmers market in front of City Hall fills an average of two to four 64-gallon bins every week.

When Falls Church remodeled the dumpster enclosure last summer, city planners expanded the project to include the composting program by adding 24-hour compost bins.

McGough credits the success of the program to the momentum-building of his staff. “We’re still out there at the farmers market, high-fiving them, coaching them,” he says. “That year of talking with residents, publicly recognizing their awesomeness, has really paid off, and people have a high degree of stewardship of the program.” He cites the fact that the unstaffed drop-off has “very little contamination” as proof of the project’s success.

In building off that momentum, McGough says the city is taking bids for a citywide curbside compost program where interested residents would pay a subsidized monthly fee. McGough suggests funds from the city’s trash incineration budget—because as more food gets diverted to compost, there would be less trash to incinerate—would help offset the cost.

A Fully Functioning Food Cycle
Balls Ford Road Compost Facility, Prince William County

Imagine dropping off a bag of carrot peels at the local food waste station then buying fresh carrots grown in a greenhouse next door powered by last week’s peels. Prince William County hopes to build that future at Balls Ford Road Compost Facility.

Food waste goes into an anaerobic digester (it looks like a silo) and decomposes inside without air. Methane is the natural byproduct of decomposition without oxygen, but unlike at landfills, where harmful gas releases into the atmosphere, the controlled digester environment allows for gas to be harvested and used for fuel. Gas will funnel to a nearby greenhouse, and fresh food will grow in compost made on site.

This cyclical system would be the first in the mid-Atlantic, says Douglas Ross of Freestate Farms, and he’s “unfamiliar with any comparable facilities elsewhere in the U.S. that combine these two organic waste processing technologies with indoor organic food production,” which cuts a nine- to 12-month composting process down to two months.

Currently Balls Ford is only permitted to take in yard waste and preconsumer food waste, but solid waste engineer Bernard Osilka says applications for postconsumer food waste permits have been submitted. Several large facilities, including the Pentagon, where over 26,000 employees work, are looking into it. Osilka envisions creating a fully functioning food cycle with five years.

(June 2017)