Washington Post, February 3, 2013
Roy Derrick maneuvered his forklift with a pallet of neatly boxed expired produce and flowers and dropped it into an industrial compactor at Safeway’s cavernous return center in Upper Marlboro. As the compactor hummed, compressed food and floral scraps spilled through a chute into a 40-foot trailer, one of five that would make the weekly trip to composting centers in Delaware or Virginia.
Employees at 125 Safeway stores along the East Coast ship everything from flowers to coffee grinds and spoiled vegetables to the Maryland return center, which then must transport the waste at least another 100 miles to be recycled into compost.
It illustrates composting’s complicated trajectory in the United States. The movement is inching forward in fits and starts, by entrepreneurs as well as by community activists and civic leaders, but the nation’s trash disposal system lacks the ability to process food waste on a large scale. Food scraps are also heavier than aluminum cans, making them more expensive to transport.
But increasingly, local governments, entrepreneurs and community activists are experimenting with composting.
Last month, District Mayor Vincent C. Gray announced that the city’s Office of Planning was awarded $600,000 in grants to build three to four compost sites for urban farms or community gardens in the city to test composting methods.
Americans generated nearly 35 million tons of food waste in 2010, according to the EPA, 97 percent of which went into landfills. By contrast, more than 60 percent of the nation’s yard trim — which makes up a similar portion of the U.S. waste stream — got recycled.
Putting grass cuttings and leaves out on the curb, of course, is more palatable than depositing rotting fruit, crushed eggshells and vegetable peelings. And compost collectors have a limited number of places to deposit their hauls, especially in dense urban areas with expensive real estate.
Many communities in the areas have contracts with waste incineration sites, making it harder to develop organic recycling sites.
“The interest is growing, but there’s not enough places to take it and put it,” said Brenda Platt, who promotes composting for the D.C.-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance. [emphasis added]
Jack Jacobs, director of distribution of Safeway’s eastern division, said he prefers not to ship it so far away. But it still makes “good business sense” for the company, he said. Safeway pursued composting “because of our environmental sensibility. We knew it was the right thing to do.”
In the past, major trash industry operators such as Waste Management have sometimes fought government requirements to divert waste because they operate landfills, and they get paid according to how much trash they put there. But these same firms are now investing in organic recycling, in part because of customer demand. Waste Management — the nation’s largest waste hauler, disposal and recycling company — operates 36 organic processing facilities across the country and has invested in companies such as Waltham, Mass.-based Harvest Power, which takes solid waste from municipalities in the United States and Canada and converts it into high-quality soils or energy.
“We certainly believe it’s becoming mainstream, and in some parts of the country, it’s been mainstream for a while,” said Waste Management’s director of organic recycling, Eric Myers, whose firm just opened a state-of-the-art composting facility in Orlando.