Imagine a local food system that produces zero waste. That’s the dream of nonprofit executive David Baker of Green Restaurant Alliance Sacramento, or GRAS. He oversees a nonprofit with the ambitious mission of turning Sacramento into a “ leading sustainable food community” in which restaurants don’t send food waste to landfills.
What began as a project to take unused food from a few restaurants to a farm for composting has turned into something bigger. GRAS calculates that they have diverted 100 tons of material to local farms since they started, and now, with the help of new technology developed locally, they’re expanding the scope and scale of their mission.
The technology is called a “digester,” which is run by the company CleanWorld in Elk Grove just off Fruitridge & Florin Perkins Road. Anyone familiar with backyard compost understands the long-term process of turning food scraps into soil, and the limitations of compost. For instance, you can’t throw chicken bones into compost or you’ll attract varmints. With the digester, bones, meat, kitchen scraps, cardboard packing material and anything organic suddenly becomes fair game – bringing the concept of a zero waste food system closer to reality. Instead of producing soil, the digester produces gas capable of fueling vehicles – yet another step closer to Baker’s dream of a cleaner planet.
FROM PILOT TO PROGRAM
On average, 40 percent of the food we produce goes uneaten. The average American throws 390 dollars into the trash through food waste each year. Last month, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack addressed this growing problem, calling upon the public sector and private industry to reduce food waste. Not only does food waste hurt our wallets, it also swallows a huge amount of water: 80 percent of the nation’s freshwater is used to produce our food.
Baker believes eliminating food waste should be easy, affordable and pervasive.
“There’s a myth around food waste that it’s garbage, yucky and it has to disappear” said Baker. He views food waste differently – as a way to help sustain the health of local farm soil.
“I like to say, ‘the banana is good for your body, the peel is good for your soil,’” Baker said.
In 2009, he began partnering with restaurants, farms and the waste disposal company, Atlas Disposal Industries, to create a pilot project to divert restaurant food scraps from the landfill.
“This is farm to fork and back to farm,” Baker said.
Through the pilot, GRAS collected restaurant “pre-consumer food scraps”, which are food scraps leftover from kitchen prep, such as carrot tops, avocado peels, etc. Among the restaurants participating in the program were Hot Italian, Mulvaney’s and Selland’s. Atlas Disposal made weekly pickups to these restaurants, and when the pilot first began, they brought everything to Del Rio Botanical farm to be turned into compost.
“That we turn food waste into compost for soil mix is admirable,” says Suzanne Peabody Ashworth, owner of Del Rio Botanical.
Today, the pilot has become a successful program. GRAS calculates that they have diverted 100 tons of material to local farms since they started, and they’re now expanding to higher impact projects.
The digester ups the ante— with GRAS’s pilot project, only pre-consumer fruit and vegetable food scraps could be used for farm compost. Now, with the digester, GRAS and its partners can collect additional organic materials, including dairy, meat, cardboard and post-consumer food.
The machine uses bacteria to turn organic materials into methane, which is captured in a gas purification system that condenses and cleans it. The process is complicated, so the company created a flow diagram to help folks understand it.
Environmental engineer Kathryn Oliver works closely with the digester and explained that the bacteria in the machine are similar to those found in our stomachs. First, food waste is broken into carbs, fats and sugars, as our bodies do. As the sugars become gas, the gas is cleaned, or “polished,” for use in vehicles.
The gas is sent to a fueling station used by Atlas Disposal’s vehicles. The company runs 25 percent of their fleet with the fuel created from the project.
“The system is designed to operate at 25 tons per day of organic materials that gets processed,” said Andrea Stephenson, Director of Sustainability at Atlas Disposal Industries. “That 25 tons per day gets converted to a 450-diesel-gallon equivalent of renewable natural gas.”
Meanwhile, the GRAS project continues to provide occasional compost to farms, but the increased capacity of the digester has allowed Baker to dream bigger. He now oversees a zero waste event program. Working with large-scale public events like the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op’s recent 40th Anniversary party, GRAS sets up bins that collect all organic material and recyclables, diverting waste from landfills.
“At the Co-op’s 40th, we had one little bin with landfill material, and the rest was recycled or digested,” Baker said.
GRAS will also be running zero waste events for Soil Born Farms’ Autumn Equinox, which is an event of Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork Week in September. Baker plans to continue expanding the program as event planners become more interested in going green.
Baker also hopes to inspire city officials to create a Zero Waste Zone, a 10-square block of composting and recycling delight where businesses and residents are committed to a higher level of recycling food waste and organic materials. Currently, city recycling and waste programs remove a limited range of material, and food scraps and organic materials are thrown in a landfill.
In Baker’s plan for the zone, GRAS volunteers would use bikes to collect food waste containers filled with compost and deliver it to local community gardens or schools, which would in turn use it to grow more food.
“It would be a high concentration of hotels, restaurants and residents with the capacity to house the infrastructure,” he said. “There would be a zero waste commitment to divert food waste from landfills. We want to aim for 90 percent. That’s doable.”