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Garbage Maven: Must so much food end up in landfills?

November 18, 2011 |  7:07 am

As Americans across the country prep their 20-pound Butterballs for the annual gorge fest of Thanksgiving, I had a flashback to a story I reported earlier this year. An estimated 31% of all turkey purchased in the U.S. is thrown away.

Kitchen Food Scrap PailTranslate that percentage to Thanksgiving specifically, and that means of the 736 million pounds of turkey people intended to gobble down last year at this time, an astounding 228 million pounds ended up in the trash, according to the Meat Eater's Guide produced by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. That's to say nothing of the Brussels sprouts, cranberry relish and mashed potatoes.

Food waste is the largest component of the municipal waste stream in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Annually, that piles up to 33 million tons, or 14%, of the country's solid waste. According to the L.A.'s Bureau of Sanitation, 27% of what's thrown in the black bin here is food. All the resources used to bring that food to the table are wasted with a single scrape of a plate.

Some of the reasons are obvious. Food in the U.S. is fairly inexpensive. Food goes bad. And when it does, the trash can is just so easy to use.

The green bin seems like it should be an option, at least for fruit and vegetable scraps, but Alex Helou, assistant director of L.A.'s Bureau of Sanitation and the guy in charge of the city's solid waste collection, said no.

“The state has weird rules,” Helou said. “If you have an apple that falls from your garden, you can put it in the green bin. If you eat an apple, the state considers that a food scrap and you're not supposed to put it in.”

It seems like a ridiculous distinction: Garden-raised fruit and vegetables are considered plant material and can be processed at green material composting facilities. Store-bought fruit and vegetables are considered food material and can be processed only at facilities permitted to accept food material.

Although no one is policing residents' green bins to find out the origins of an apple thrown in there, the city wants to change the system, Helou said. In 2008, the Bureau of Sanitation even launched a residential food scrap pilot program in 8,700 residences in South L.A. Each house was given a 2-gallon green pail, in which residents could place all types of food waste, including meat, bones, coffee grounds and tea bags, as well as grease-smeared pizza boxes, food-soiled paper plates and used napkins. Residents collected their food scraps in their pails and emptied the pails into the larger yard-trimming bins, which were picked up by a hauler and composted at a permitted facility. That compost was then sold to California farms and nurseries.

The pilot program, which is ongoing, diverts about 460 pounds of food waste per day from landfills. It was supposed to roll out to the rest of the city by now, but only two facilities in the L.A. area could compost residential food waste, and one of those facilities stopped accepting L.A.'s residential food waste because of permitting issues.

“Until we can find locations, we will not be able to expand the program,” Helou said, adding that the city is looking into technologies that could dehydrate food waste, anaerobically digest it or turn it into electricity, all part of the goal for a zero-waste L.A. by 2025. But the city hasn't yet purchased those technologies.

The easiest solution is simply to eat the food you buy. But even then, there's waste. Vegetable and fruit scraps can be composted at home, turning yesterday's uneaten salad into tomorrow's gardener's gold. Even though the Bureau of Sanitation runs free composting workshops and provides composting bins at a reduced cost, only a few thousand of L.A.'s 3.8 million residents have taken the workshop.

I took the workshop about eight years ago and have been happily composting the coffee grounds from my pot-a-day habit, along with kale stems and other waste from home cooking. I also let my son's Dr. Doolittle collection of rabbits and guinea pigs chow down on broccoli stalks and red pepper cores, so I don't need to buy as much pet food.

Still, there are some items with which I'm struggling — mostly animal products, such as chicken bones and kitchen grease. Being vegan would be so much easier, but life isn't worth living without the occasional hamburger.

I was raised by Depression-era parents who taught me to be an empty plater, eating everything I was given, even if I wanted to gag. Leftovers were reheated. It's a practice I continue, minus the gagging.

If my composter were hot enough, I'd attempt to decompose bones and grizzle and browned butter in my backyard composter. But the last time I checked my compost thermometer, it was 85 — far short of the 131 degrees needed to break down the pathogens in meat and dairy products. Plus I worry about rummaging raccoons and possums.

While reporting a story about a zero-waste school in Malibu recently, I met Darren Moore, known as the Eco-MacGyver, so I asked him: What other options do I have for getting rid of meat waste? He suggested asking a local restaurant if they could compost my meat scraps for me.

When I surveyed some of my favorite Highland Park restaurants to learn if they composted food waste and to ask if they would take some greasy chicken carcasses off my hands, I didn't find any takers. Two out of the three didn't know what composting was. The third, Good Girl Dinette, had been giving its vegetable and fruit scraps to the local community garden, but it didn't compost meat and dairy. It recently stopped separating food waste entirely, fearing trouble from the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

The Bureau of Sanitation runs a restaurant food waste recycling program, but none of the restaurants I spoke with had heard of it. More than 60% percent of L.A. restaurant waste is food, according to Helou. He added that just 1,000 of the city's 5,800 restaurants and food service providers participate in the composting program, even though the city offers a subsidy to defray costs.

Appealing as Tofurkey is from a waste reduction point of view, I'm not ready to give up the bird. It's a shame my Butterball bones aren't likely to go anywhere but the trash.

-- Susan Carpenter

Garbage Maven is our column on household trash and recycling. Reach the writer directly at susan.carpenter@latimes.com.

Photo: The kitchen food scrap pail used in a Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation pilot program. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times


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