Thursday, February 26, 2015

Troubling Trend in Food Waste Recycling

By Doug Oakley
OAKLAND -- Something strange has happened inside Alameda County garbage cans, and it has sounded an alarm for those working against climate change. 

Residents apparently hit a wall last year in separating kitchen food scraps from their garbage cans, seriously slowing a yearslong trend that became standard with curbside pickup across the county in 2008. 

It's strange because no one knows the reason the once popular program is wilting. 

"Green waste in garbage cans went up across the board, so we need to find out what caused that and reverse it," said Gary Wolff, executive director of StopWaste in Alameda County, whose organization compiled the data showing the decline in households that separate food scraps from garbage. 

What many residents may not know, recycling advocates say, is that the sometimes-messy task of putting food scraps into a different container and putting it in the green bin helps slow climate change. When separated, that food is sifted and tossed and turned into compost for farmers and gardeners. When people put food in trash cans, it goes to a landfill, where it turns into methane gas, is released into the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. 

The data compiled by workers contracting with StopWaste, who randomly sample 3,000 residential and commercial garbage cans in 15 cities each year, show 2014 was a bad year for recycling food scraps compared with 2013. 

In Oakland, for example, about 16 percent of the trash in 2013 was food scraps. In 2014, that number rose to 38 percent. In eco-friendly Berkeley, those numbers rose from 15 percent in 2013 to 39 percent in 2014. Fremont's percentage went from 21 percent to 43 percent. 

Also in 2014, 47 percent of houses surveyed did not put out their green carts on pickup day, which was up from 28 percent in 2013, "indicating that fewer homes are participating in food scrap and organics recycling," StopWaste spokesman Jeff Becerra said. 

The big picture is a little more encouraging, Wolff said. 

In 2008, about 60 percent of the trash in Alameda County was food scraps, and now those numbers are down to about 45 percent. 

But last year's huge increase from the prior year is troubling, and there are several theories. 

People could simply be tired of doing it because it's too messy, they have forgotten the environmental reasons it's important, their incomes have risen and they are not as concerned about throwing away leftovers, or perhaps they are new to the area and don't know about the program. 

"It could be people are suffering from food waste fatigue," Wolff said. "They may think, 'I've been doing this for a year, it kind of smells, and I'm tired of it.'" 

Rebecca Jewell, recycling program manager at Waste Management's Davis Street Transfer Station in San Leandro, where food and green matter is turned into marketable compost for farmers and gardeners, said food scraps generally take up between 3 percent and 7 percent of the volume of green containers that the company collects. 

One of her theories about the reason the county food scrap recycling program has slowed is because the better economy has brought to the area new residents who are unfamiliar with the program and its importance in fighting climate change. 

"Putting food in a curbside container for pickup is not very common throughout the country, and we here in the Bay Area are ahead of the curve," Jewell said. "When people are transported to the Bay Area from other places, it's not part of the normal move-in message." 

That message, she said, should be that "putting food in the green bin is a very simple way of having your own personal impact on climate change. You don't need to go out and buy a composting toilet -- just put food in your green bin." 

In Berkeley, the city collects 120 tons of food scraps and yard clippings a day and ships it off to a commercial compost-maker. That's about the same amount of trash it collects each day. 

City Recycling Program Manager Andrew Schneider said the recent data compiled by StopWaste was surprising and reason for concern. But like others watching the trend, he couldn't say the reason, for sure, it is happening. 

"We hope all residents make an effort to turn their food scraps into usable compost instead of trash," Schneider said. "When food waste and other organics are put in the trash and landfills, it creates greenhouse gases and climate change." 

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