Talking trash: Farm-to-table has arrived, but where is garbage going?

An aerial view of compost from The Wrecking Bar. / Courtesy of Terry Koval

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An aerial view of compost from The Wrecking Bar. / Courtesy of Terry Koval

Guilt courses through my veins.

That’s probably to be expected considering I am the daughter of a former nun and the product of Catholic education, Jesuit to boot. I’m wracked with conscience-heavy questions, like how to be a better mom, wife or citizen of Atlanta — after all, this city is my new home, and I need to do my part to make it great.

What do I feel bad about lately? Kitchen scraps.

Chuckle all you want, but I feel some serious shame right now, because I’ve got pounds of kitchen scraps and nowhere to go with them. Making use of vegetable peels and egg shells was easy when I had a house with a big compost bin in the backyard and many garden plots to feed on the organic-rich matter. Now that I live in an apartment, it’s so much harder. How can we apartment- and condo-dwellers live sustainably when the only place for our scraps is the garbage disposal?

I’ve been saving spent coffee grounds and scattering them on herbs and hibiscus plants in my patio. That makes me feel halfway OK. But you should see the pile of orange rinds, potato peels and squash skins. They are really adding up, along with the guilt.

So, I’ve been on a hunt for a compact compost bin, something like a Big Green Egg for big green thumbs who live in tiny spaces. Thus far, I’ve made visits to three home and garden stores — Home Depot, Ace Hardware and Pike Nursery. In every instance, I came up short. Worse, I was directed to check out Amazon for options. Shipping from thousands of miles away wasn’t quite what I had in mind.

All that got me thinking that, if I — someone who’s barely cooking for one these days — was having issues with biodegradable trash on a residential level, how are area restaurants dealing with such waste on a massive scale?

My first call was to Chris Hall, chef and partner with Unsukay, the restaurant group behind Local Three, Muss & Turners, Common Quarter and Eleanor’s. I’d heard that the operation at Local Three was pretty sustainable.

“A lot of what we are doing is pre-consumer (waste),” Hall said, mentioning that the restaurant tries to buy eco-friendly supplies for things like disposable containers for carryout orders and leftovers.

“What about kitchen scraps?” I asked.

“We’re not as deeply there as we could be,” he admitted.

I’m not going to judge Hall and his colleagues. I appreciate that he is laboring to make Local Three as sustainable as possible, but also profitable. Before we hung up, Hall graciously gave me the name of an industry cohort: Terry Koval.

Koval is the executive chef at Wrecking Bar Brewpub in Inman Park. He and his culinary team deal with nonprotein waste and egg shells by tossing them in large bins. Some of the scraps, along with spent grain from the brewing operation, gets trucked to a sister facility, a 65-acre working farm in Loganville.

Other of Wrecking Bar’s kitchen waste gets picked up by Tania Herbert, the urban agriculture coordinator at Paideia School in Druid Hills. At Paideia, it gets turned into compost and used for garden beds on campus and in the neighborhood. According to Herbert, last year Paideia School grew 2,200 pounds of food in its vegetable plots; some 1,800 pounds of it went to clients of Atlanta Food Bank.

That is a great example of how the circle of sustainability can be completed in our food community. But it’s an anomaly.

The National Restaurant Association, the leading restaurant industry trade association in the U.S., exists to support restaurants. The NRA has a sustainability program called Conserve. It’s a knowledge portal for owners, operators, chefs and others to learn about environmental sustainability.

Yet, if Georgia restaurants do want to adopt eco-friendly practices, that’s easier said than done when it comes to pre- and post-consumer food waste. Restaurants can make arrangements to get their waste to people like Herbert or to community gardens, but that takes a lot of time to research and coordinate, and it can cost money.

“It’s extremely cost-prohibitive,” said Karen Bremer, CEO of the Georgia Restaurant Association.

Bremer noted that there has been recent progress surrounding waste-to-energy efforts. Two companies, First Generation Energy and M-PASS Environmental, have been working together to bring commercial organic recycling to Georgia with the construction of anaerobic digestion facilities in Conyers and Augusta. That’s great news, but not for restaurants.

“They pre-booked the space to commercial food processing,” said Bremer, a restaurateur for 35 years before she joined the GRA five years ago.

“My industry contributes 40 percent of waste in our country. That’s a proven fact,” she said.

“We need to come up with feasible solutions that are cost-neutral or cost-saving,” she added, calling for a forum that would bring together scientists, legislators and others — including those in the restaurant industry — to solve issues of waste.

Perhaps that conversation also will include City Hall. Earlier this week, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s office announced the appointment of an urban agriculture director, a first for the city. Mario Cambardella, who will take up the post Dec. 3, will be responsible for a wide range of activities related to urban ag, including policy development and facilitating the conversion of brownfields into urban gardens.

The position will help to further the city’s Power to Change initiative, which aims to bring local, healthy food within a half-mile of 75 percent of all residents by 2020.

The big picture is this: We need to recognize that the farm-to-table movement that many people are on board with — or the head-nodding idea of giving residents access to local, healthy food — are facets in a larger food circle. It’s a circle that will be much more complete when we figure out how to better handle all those mucky, inedible and sometimes stinky scraps that you and I can’t put in our bodies, but that are terrific fuel for the soil, instead of landfills and incinerators.

Luckily, it seems there are people in Atlanta who want to see that happen.

As for my seemingly scant bits of kitchen waste, watch out all you Atlanta community garden leaders. I might secretly dump my stuff onto your black gold.