Potato peels and apple cores, egg shells and coffee grounds are as good as gold to L. Lisa Lawrence.
After chopping, slicing and prepping, the Tacoma woman stows food scraps in a covered plastic container under her sink. Once the container is full, she composts the food waste by tossing it into a special bin in her Hilltop yard.
Months later, the mixture becomes fodder for the next generation of vegetables and fruits on her dinner table.
“Composting is a way to take the nutrient value back in food and put it into the soil that grows more food. We call it food-scrap recycling,” said Jetta Antonakos, a senior environmental specialist with the City of Tacoma. “When you put it into the landfill you make it unavailable.”
Composting takes advantage of the natural process of bacteria and other organisms breaking down organic matter into a rich soil amendment, but incorporates a bit of human help to speed up the action.
Ron Jones, a program specialist with the City of Olympia Waste ReSources, says composting food is the next frontier in waste diversion.
He and other public officials offer numerous reasons to compost food scraps, instead of throwing it out with the garbage:
• It takes resources to move trash, starting with the typical petroleum-powered garbage trucks that rumble from house to house, picking up cans. In Tacoma and Pierce County, curbside garbage is trucked to landfills within the county. In Olympia and Thurston County, trash is trucked to a transfer station in Lacey, hauled to Centralia, then shipped 240 miles away by train to a landfill in Eastern Washington, Jones said.
• Consumers can save money by switching to smaller trash cans if they reduce, recycle and compost more of their waste. Under new rates that went into effect on Valentine’s Day in Tacoma, for instance, monthly collection service for a 90-gallon garbage can rose to $90 while a 20-gallon can remained at $25.25.
• The trash in landfills sits atop a sealed liner with an airtight cap that preserves everything inside instead of letting banana peels, carrot tops and other organic matter to return to the earth. “It’s like the tombs in pyramids,” Jones said. “They preserve stuff because there’s no air in those chambers.”
• Food makes up a hefty portion of garbage. An audit of Pierce County garbage, for instance, found food waste made up 28 percent of all trash in the county in 2010.
Food waste, said Steve Wamback, Pierce County’s solid waste administrator, “is the largest single item that’s still out there. We’ve gone after newspapers and pop bottles. By weight, the heaviest portion still in peoples’ garbage can is food. If we can divert a good amount of the food waste, we’ll be well on our way to our goals to reduce disposal.”
Yet public waste collection varies by jurisdiction when it comes to composting food. Some of that has to do with the scarcity of facilities that compost food, and what type of process they use for the job.
Since 2008, Olympia and Thurston County residents who pay extra for the Organics yard waste program have been able to dump food scraps into the same carts for collection and composting. Everything from produce and spaghetti-splattered napkins to pizza boxes and steak bones can go into the carts because their composter, Silver Springs Organics near Rainier, has a process to turn those materials into compost and mulch.
Keith and Melinda Spencer of Olympia say it’s easy to participate in the Organics service. They composted food themselves in their backyard for years, until their dog, Ed, died a couple months ago. Raccoons began ransacking their home compost bins and making a mess, prompting the family to start throwing their food scraps in the Organics cart.
Their sons, Leo, 12, and Rawley, 8, empty the contents of the city-provided kitchen composting pail into the yard waste cart as one of their chores.
“It’s better to use our food waste for a resource,” Melinda said. “And we have a super-tiny (20-gallon) garbage can; it’s the smallest one the City of Olympia offers. It’s usually only half-full by the time the garbage (truck) comes.”
In most of Pierce County outside of Tacoma, food scraps go into regular garbage cans, not yard composting bins. The county is studying how to handle its food waste in an environmentally friendly facility, and whether it’s financially feasible to compost the scraps.
“If it costs more to collect and process food waste without causing an environmental impact, if it costs more than putting it in the landfill, will people do that?” Wamback said. “At minimum, we have to have that conversation.”
In Tacoma, residents have been able to put small amounts of vegetables and fruits in their city-supplied yard waste bin since at least 1995. However, Antonakos said, “Many people don’t know about it. We need to make people aware that this is an option we have available.”
The city is working with its composter, Compost Factory in Puyallup, to expand the types of food scraps that can be collected in keeping with their process and Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department guidelines, Antonakos said.
On Tacoma’s Hilltop, Lawrence could put food waste in her city-supplied yard waste bin, but she finds the compost she makes is too valuable. The produce in her raised garden beds and flowers thrive on the mix.
“I try to make social and environmental responsibility part of my everyday life; these are important values to me,” Lawrence said. “There is also great personal satisfaction in living a sustainable and self sufficient lifestyle.
Debby Abe: 253-597-8694 firstname.lastname@example.org
TIPS FOR COMPOSTING FOOD SCRAPS
Composting in your backyard
• Stick with composting vegetable and fruit scraps and other vegetation.
• Don’t compost meat scraps, animal fat, dairy products or bones. They’re likely to attract rodents.
• Use enclosed composting bins; some rotate and have doors to scoop out the prepared compost. Public utilities often sell them for a discount.
• Composting food involves mixing fresh greens (kitchen scraps and grass), brown vegetation (dead leaves and wood chips), and water, then regularly turning the mix. Since composting food waste is a bit more complicated than composting only yard waste, Ron Jones of Olympia’s waste resources office recommends taking a food composting class or consulting a Master Composter for help.
• It’s better to compost food than grind large amounts in a garbage disposal and send bulky waste to the water treatment plant.
PREPARING FOOD SCRAPS FOR COMPOST COLLECTION
Olympia and Thurston County
• Don’t put plastic bags or containers into the organics bin. Plastic can ruin a batch of compost.
• Remember that products labeled biodegradable are not necessarily compostable.
• Residents pay extra to participate in the “Organics” program that collects food scraps and yard waste for composting. In the City of Olympia, Organics costs $7.72 a month. In Yelm and Rainier, the Organics service costs $11.01 a month; in nearly all other parts of Thurston County the cost is $7.60 a month.
• Food scraps, food-soiled paper and yard waste go into the same cart.
• Acceptable items include all food, bones, baked goods, dairy products, eggshells, fish, meat, pizza boxes, tea bags, waxed paper, coffee grounds and filters, paper cups and plates.
• Unacceptable items include grease, liquids, coffee cup lids, pet waste, plastic cups and utensils, plastic and foil juice pouches, tissue, kitty litter, styrofoam.
• To keep odors and bugs at bay, place food waste in BioBag or EcoSafe brand compostable bags labeled ASTM 6400 or wrap in newspaper.
• Place wrapped meat or fish waste in the refrigerator or freezer until collection day.
• Add shredded paper to Organics cart and kitchen compost pail to reduce moisture and odors.
• Instead of using a compost pail in the kitchen, collect food scraps in empty cracker or cereal boxes and put the filled containers in the Organics cart.
• For more tips to avoid fruit flies, odors and larvae, go to tinyurl.com/thorganics
City of Tacoma
• Residents who pay for garbage collection can receive yard waste bins as part of the service.
• Fruit and vegetable scraps go into the yard waste bins for composting.
• To prevent excessive weight in bins, place no more than two grocery bags’ worth of vegetative food waste in bins.
• One way to reduce messiness is wrap fruit and vegetable scraps in newspaper or brown paper bags before placing in carts.
• Do not put meat, bones, dairy products, cat litter or pizza boxes in bins.
Pierce County, outside the cities of Tacoma and Ruston
• Food scraps go into regular garbage cans. County guidelines call for collecting residential yard waste for composting but do not yet require collecting food scraps for composting. The county is studying how to handle food waste generated by residents and businesses, and should have a plan next year.
Sources: City of Tacoma, Solid Waste Management; Pierce County Solid Waste; City of Olympia Public Works, Waste Resources; Thurston County Solid Waste, LeMay Inc.
Sources: Solid Waste Management; City of Olympia Public Works, Waste Resources; Thurston County Solid Waste, LeMay Inc.
Debby Abe, Staff writer