Why no large-scale recycling of food waste in Cincinnati?

Activists working to bridge that gap

CINCINNATI -- It's enough to make you think twice before you put those moldy strawberries in your garbage can.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than 38 million tons of food waste were created in the United States in 2014, with only 5 percent of it diverted from landfills or incinerators. More food reaches them than any single material in everyday trash -- food comprises about 22 percent of discarded municipal waste.

With so much benefit to be gained from diverting organic waste from landfills, local environmentalists are looking at ways to make that happen in Cincinnati.

Perhaps the Queen City could learn something from Seattle, Washington.

Eat in the food court of the popular Seattle Center Armory there, right next to the Space Needle, and you'll find three bins to fill when you're done eating: one for your trash, one for your recyclables and one for your food scraps.

A few years ago, the city banned putting food scraps in garbage, said Susan Fife-Ferris, the director of solid waste planning and program management for Seattle Public Utilities. 

Table scraps and other organics like yard waste are trucked to two composting facilities, where private contractors process them into compost they sell as a soil supplement.

The city generates about 97,000 tons of organics every year, Fife-Ferris said. That's 97,000 tons of waste it doesn't have to compact and haul to Oregon for disposal in a landfill, which she said makes for substantial savings.

Why doesn't Cincinnati have a similar program for handling food scraps?

The simple answer is that there's nowhere to process them.

"If you're not willing to invest in some kind of facility, it's hard to get an organics program going," Fife-Ferris said.

One reason why Cincinnati doesn't have a processing facility is because of its recent history with Compost Cincy, said Kristin Weiss, executive director of Green Umbrella, a nonprofit that works to create a more sustainable region. 

Environmental advocates had high hopes for Compost Cincy, a business that in August 2012 opened a commercial food waste composting facility in Winton Hills.

But within a few months of its opening, residents began complaining of odor, birds, insects and other vermin. The city of Cincinnati closed the operation in February 2014 and recently agreed on a plan for its cleanup with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. 

That costly experience convinced city officials that composting should be done indoors, preferably in an anaerobic digester that would produce both compost and natural gas. Discussions are ongoing about building such a digester, but city officials have said it's not likely the city would be an active partner in building one.

Along with the Greater Cincinnati Green Business Council, Green Umbrella is facilitating those discussions, Weiss said. There's no reason the city can't learn from its experience with Compost Cincy and have well-operating facilities, she added.

Ideally, such a facility would be located within 20 minutes of downtown to minimize the environmental impact of trucking materials long distances, she said. The problem is, given the city's experience with Compost Cincy, few residents would be willing to have one located in their backyard.

Local laws and regulations can also inhibit efforts to compost food scraps. For example, in Cincinnati there are zoning restrictions that prohibit moving food waste from one site to another for composting, said Michaela Oldfield, director of Green Umbrella's Food Policy Council.

Her group is looking at ways the city can adjust its ordinances to encourage neighbors who share community gardens to do collective composting.

Growing interest in salvaging food

Although no one wants to have a large-scale composting operation like Cincy Compost in their backyard, there seems to be a good deal of interest in backyard composting.

Every spring, the Hamilton County Recycling and Solid Waste District offers a half-dozen seminars on backyard composting that always sell out, said spokeswoman Joy Landry. The smallest venue attracts about 40 people and the largest draws 80 to 90, she said.

A free brochure on how to do backyard composting is available here

Meanwhile, local environmentalists are looking at ways other than composting to deal with surplus food.

"Our focus is really on how we can educate people and businesses to start addressing food waste, and prevent it from happening in the first place," Lauren Campbell, a member of Green Umbrella's Waste Reduction Team, said.

Her team is working on a plan on how to best get that word out. One tactic is to talk with restaurateurs about how they can reuse food or send unused food to a local food bank such as FreeStore Foodbank. It accepts donations of food from canned food drives, government agencies, wholesalers, retailers and produce farmers.

Another option is the restaurant-turned-nonprofit La Soupe, which uses grocery store produce from Kroger, Jungle Jim's and local organic farms that would otherwise be tossed out to make soup for hungry people

Last fall, the Hamilton County Solid Waste District ran a Facebook campaign to spread the word about how to make food last longer in the refrigerator, Landry said. The campaign used free ads supplied by Save the Food, a project of the Ad Council and the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

At Amity Elementary School in Deer Park, a food sharing table has been set up where students can put foods they don't want for other students to eat, Landry said. Whatever's not eaten at the end of the lunch period is collected by a volunteer cafeteria worker and taken to a local food pantry.

On average, the food rescue program, which began during the 2014-15 school year, rescues 27 food items a day from the landfill. Those interested in setting up a food rescue program of their own may contact Cher Mohring, program specialist at the solid waste district, at 513-946-7737.

It's an idea that's catching on nationwide -- and that has the endorsement of the U.S. Department of Agriculture

The government mandates that children be served a certain amount of fruits and vegetables, but children don't always eat them, Oldfield said.

"If the food is unopened and properly controlled, there's no reason it should go in the garbage," she added.

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