Reducing food waste called "the next frontier" of recycling

M. Lee Meinicke, of Philly Compost, has more than 40 commercial customers. Her motto: "In soil we trust."
M. Lee Meinicke, of Philly Compost, has more than 40 commercial customers. Her motto: "In soil we trust." (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff)
Posted: October 03, 2012

At Lincoln Financial Field, workers rip open trash bags after Eagles games, on the lookout for wayward pizza crusts and french fries.

At Holmesburg Prison, inmates mix vegetable trimmings and leftover green beans into a large pile of wood chips.

At the Federal Reserve Bank, M. Lee Meinicke drives her truck in to make a withdrawal - of food scraps from the cafeteria.

In the continuing battle to reduce the waste stream - the stuff going to landfills and incinerators, at great expense for businesses and municipalities - food is considered to be "the next frontier" of recycling, said Maurice Sampson II, a solid-waste expert.

Recently, Philadelphia launched its first foray into food-waste recovery, a pilot program to install 200 garbage disposals in residents' kitchen sinks.

The idea is to get the food out of the trash pails and into the sewage-treatment plants, where it will provide fuel for electricity generation and be transformed into fertilizer.

But many thought a better use would be to turn the food scraps into compost.

A national municipal model is San Francisco, where homes have three bins: green for compostables, blue for recyclables, black for the rest. The city aims to be zero-waste by 2020.

Philadelphia officials say they're exploring options. Meanwhile, many are already taking matters into their own hands - and bins.

From a cache of worms in a Kensington kitchen to prep scraps from the University of Pennsylvania cafeterias, from Meenal Raval's Mount Airy backyard to the University City District's "Dirt Factory," projects are proliferating.

As recently as 2008, when Meinicke was seeking a project for a sustainable-business degree, Sampson suggested composting because not much was happening, "and there should be," he told her.

By 2009, she had an Earth Tub - a commercial bin that holds three cubic yards of waste - in a warehouse in Germantown. Also, a pickup truck and a bunch of 20-gallon buckets.

When she outgrew the tub, she took the material to Two Particular Acres, a Royersford farm where former labor lawyer Ned Foley composts in huge windrows with aerating pipes underneath.

When she outgrew him, she turned to the Wilmington Organics Recycling Center, which opened in late 2009.

Now, Meinicke, president of Philly Compost, has more than 40 commercial customers, including the Valley Forge casino, the Four Seasons Hotel, more than a dozen restaurants, and the Comcast Center. Her company motto: "In soil we trust."

The Wilmington center, meanwhile, is nearing its capacity of 650 tons of food waste a day. "Every week, every month, we see more and more coming in," said Nelson Widell, a partner in Peninsula Compost Co. L.L.C., part owner of the facility.

The city's compost landscape begins small, with people like Kensington's Holly Logan, who has two worm composting bins. The critters consume a pound of food waste a week, turning it into a soil amendment that she adds to her plants.

But it ends big, in the bowels of Lincoln Financial Field, where workers sort trash to glean all the compostables.

The Eagles viewed composting as a way to become landfill-free, a goal they met this year.

Leonard Bonacci, vice president of event operation, said the Eagles likely would send 300 tons to Wilmington's composting facility this year. Like many WORC customers, they buy back finished compost and use it for landscaping.

Suddenly, composting is everywhere.

Within the last year, a Kensington group known as Sustainable 19125 - the zip code - set up the Compost Coop using the old Earth Tubs that Meinicke had outgrown.

Now, 80 members pay $25 a year if they work on the project, $50 if they just want to drop off food scraps. The input averages 200 pounds of compostables a week.

In June, the Dirt Factory started up on an empty lot on Market Street, using Earth Tubs that the University of Pennsylvania had outgrown.

Most of the food scraps come from the Pedal Co-Op, which uses bicycles to tow food-scrap bins. But from 5 to 6 p.m. Wednesdays, the place opens to all. Typically, about 10 people show up, and most walk or cycle there.

As for Penn, it replaced the Tubs with a larger, patented BiobiN serving part of its food operation and private restaurants in the Moravian Court area. Its gasket and air filter are designed to eliminate odors and rodents.

In August, the city prison system unveiled a row of concrete-block composting stalls at Holmesburg Prison. It was funded with $15,000 from the EPA, which has started a Food Recovery Challenge.

Every day, low-custody inmates and a security officer drive to Riverside, the women's prison, to pick up about 200 pounds of food waste.

Back at Holmesburg, they mix it into the piles and add wood chips. They plan to use the finished compost on site, give it to employees, and donate it to community gardens.

Previously, food scraps were landfilled at a cost of $77 a ton, said Laura Cassidy, executive assistant to the prison commissioner. Once all city prisons join in - adding the scraps from 23,000 meals a day - officials expect to save $250,000 a year.

A few years ago, Meenal Raval started a Google compost map on www.PhillyCompost.com. By now, it includes commercial operations, community sites, and more than 130 homes.

One of them is Raval's own Mount Airy backyard, where she has three wire-mesh bins. Neighbors contribute their food scraps.

For composters big and small, part of the appeal is that it's all a loop - food to dirt to farm to food.

That's the case for Chris Pieretti, who started Kitchen Harvest, "because I like to grow my own food. And if you ask any farmer or gardener, it's all about the soil."

The Drexel Hill resident's customers - 70 families from Villanova to Folsom - pay $20 a month, and twice a month he picks up their five-gallon buckets of scraps.

He composts it at Elwyn, a Delaware County facility servicing disabled or disadvantaged people.

Customers get "compost cash" to redeem for compost or seedlings that Pieretti grows, or at area businesses, such as the Swarthmore Food Co-Op.

He jokes that his main job is washing buckets so he can return them to customers clean. For more food scraps.

"It's only waste," he said, "if we waste it."


Contact Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @sbauers. Read her blog, "GreenSpace," at www.philly.com/greenspace.

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