Where compost is king

Atlanta organizations help turn food waste into a resource
Compostwheels picks up food waste from commercial clients — such as hotels and restaurants — and delivers the waste to their commercial composting facility, King of Compost, at the King of Crops location in Winston, Ga.

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Compostwheels picks up food waste from commercial clients — such as hotels and restaurants — and delivers the waste to their commercial composting facility, King of Compost, at the King of Crops location in Winston, Ga.

“It’s second nature at my house,” says Khari Diop of Think Green, a nonprofit focused on environmental education. He’s talking about how his household of seven in Atlanta’s Peoplestown neighborhood accumulates kitchen scraps in the freezer and periodically takes them out to a compost pile, where they mix the scraps with yard waste.

It’s how one household deals with its food waste. But Diop’s family is in a very small minority.

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ReFED, a national nonprofit dedicated to reducing U.S. food waste, reports that more than 52 million tons of food are sent to landfills around the United States each year. They estimate that wasted food consumes 21 percent of all water used in this country, 19 percent of fertilizers used, 18 percent of our cropland, and 21 percent of our landfills.

There is no single solution to reducing the amount of food we waste each year. Reconsidering package sizes and dealing with the losses that occur during transit can help reduce the amount of food that’s discarded. Food that’s not perfect-looking or doesn’t fit a retailer’s desire for specific sizes can be donated instead of thrown away. And food waste can be recognized as a resource instead of considered a problem.

“Just like an aluminum can or a corrugated box, food residuals have value in being returned to the soil. Why throw it away when it has a useful purpose?” asks Gloria Hardegree, executive director of Georgia Recycling Coalition, who believes using the term “food waste” keeps people from thinking of these scraps as a resource and not as trash.

“Using it to create your own compost, or buying locally produced compost, replenishes our soils and supports our local economy and jobs,” she said.

“If your goal is to divert food waste from the landfill, then you’ve got lots of choices,” said Corinne Coe-Law of Terra Nova Compost. “Put some effort into making compost at home, which will give you a soil amendment to use in your home garden, or sign up for a service so someone picks up your food waste and turns it into compost. Some of that compost can come back to you, or it can go to an urban farm.”

Last year, Coe-Law hosted a comprehensive six-day community-scale composting course. Participants are now applying what they learned in community gardens, including the Lake Claire Community Land Trust where the course was held.

The arrangement at Lake Claire includes locked bins (to ensure that only those who know what’s appropriate to include are contributing their food waste) that are periodically emptied into the composting bins. Volunteers manage the bins, making sure there’s an appropriate mix of “green” to “brown” materials, and that the piles are heating to a temperature that will kill off any problems and keep them rodent-free.

Coe-Law's class was held under the auspices of Atlanta's Food Well Alliance. Will Sellers, the group's collaboration program manager, stresses that compost is key to building the health of our soil, not only for home gardeners, but for the growing number of urban farmers in the metro Atlanta area.

“We know that compost is one of the most expensive aspects of urban farming and community gardening. If we can divert food waste from homes and restaurants to produce local compost, we can use it to build healthy soil, which means our urban growers can increase the production of healthy, locally grown food for Atlanta,” said Sellers.

Food Well Alliance is working to support community-based composting through its Compost Design Table, Atlanta Community-Based Composting Council and their report on “Closing the Loop: Food Waste in Atlanta.”

That report identified the elements required to create a robust community composting environment: organizing those who produce the food waste, delivering that food waste to a place where the compost can be produced, and then distributing that compost to urban farms, community gardens and households.

It’s about, as Robert Delbueno of Southern Green says, the full cycle of farm-to-table-to-farm. Southern Green is a commercial composter, moving food waste from clients such as Emory University and Emory Healthcare to a composting facility.

His primary clients are other large institutions, including Georgia Tech, Spelman College, Agnes Scott College and the Georgia World Congress Center. It’s tougher for restaurants, which have to find a place that is sanitary and separate from regular operations to store their food waste before it can be picked up. “Miller Union and Fifth Group Restaurants such as La Tavola and Lure have been early adopters, really leading the way,” said Delbueno.

These clients are trying to close that loop so that farm-to-table-to-farm can become a reality.

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In 2012, David Paull, the self-styled “chief composting officer” for Compostwheels, created a business that would pick up food waste from homes and deliver it to a farm for composting.

“In the first year, we probably composted less than 150,000 pounds of food waste. Fast-forward to this year and we’re on track to compost more than 1 million pounds. We credit much of that growth to the rise of interest in local food, and people’s recognition that without good soil we cannot have a sustainable food system.”

Compostwheels delivers 5-gallon buckets to its clients and then each week returns to pick up that week’s kitchen scraps and deliver a clean bucket. The scraps go to one of their urban farm partners. Customers can receive some of their compost back, or choose to have it all go to a local farm.

They also have a commercial site in Winston, Ga., at the home of King of Crops. They’re calling it King of Compost. That’s where they compost materials from their restaurant, coffee shop and hotel clients. Those scraps include meat and dairy waste. It takes a commercial composting facility to handle those things safely. And that’s also what it takes to compost those clear plastic cups you see that say they’re compostable.

CompostWheels has a crowdfunding site to raise money to help them process even more material (https://igg.me/at/growbettercompostatl).

Hardegree of the Georgia Recycling Coalition hopes the community is finally ready to think about this issue not as waste management, but as resource management. "Landfilling food scraps is poor resource management and creates other issues. Everyone has a use for compost, whether on their own property or in the community. One way or the other, we're going to have to address this. The proactive approach is the better way."

Ready to put your food scraps to work? The Food Well Alliance website lists a dozen organizations that offer compost workshops. The site also offers a resource guide that explains the basics of composting and provides links to other sources, including information on the science behind composting.

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