Recycling Our Food

April 4, 2008

 compostWhat is compost?

Compost is formed when organic matter (material that comes from plants or animals) decomposes aerobically (with oxygen). The resulting nitrogen- and carbon-rich substance can be added to soil to improve its structure, provide and hold soil nutrients, prevent erosion, and encourage beneficial insects and microorganisms.

Why compost?

When compostable food scraps and yard debris are sent to the landfill, not only are their valuable nutrients wasted, but they can actually cause environmental harm. In the landfill, organic materials decompose anaerobically (without oxygen), releasing methane, a greenhouse gas that is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Landfills account for 34% of methane emissions in the United States. Meanwhile, America is losing its soil fertility and topsoil at alarming rates. When food scraps are recycled, either in a backyard compost pile or as part of a municipal composting system, they are turned from waste into a resource and used to enrich gardens and agricultural lands.

In San Francisco, that’s exactly what’s happening when you put your orange peels, biodegradable forks, and coffee cups in the green bin. Every day, the city sends about 300 tons of compostable materials to Jepson Prairie Organics composting facility in Vacaville. The materials are screened to remove contaminants (mainly plastics) and spread out in long windrows. A mere 60 days later, the materials have become compost. This compost is used on productive lands throughout the Bay Area, including some farms that sell at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Capturing the organic resources from the market and redistributing them to farms offers a tidy and elegant solution to the waste problem: your coffee cup could end up becoming part of your tomato!

Composting as part of our Waste Wise Market

At the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, more than 90% of what ends up in our garbage cans is compostable. Those resources, when not captured for composting, are wasted and contribute to greenhouse gases instead of renewing soils. Since April 22, all compostable items are discarded in the green bin at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market before they join the materials of many San Francisco households and restaurants at the Jepson Prairie composting facility. The Waste Wise initiative diverts an estimated 78 tons of compostable materials from the landfill annually!

What you can do

1. Reduce waste. Composting your paper cups is a great idea, but it’s even better to bring your own reusable cup (or plate, napkin, etc.). Each paper cup takes trees and energy to manufacture, so the most sustainable choice is to avoid single-use products whenever possible.

2. Compost at the market. There are Waste Wise stations around the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market that include three bins: green for compost, blue for recycling, and black for garbage. Bins are clearly marked and include information about what belongs in each. Waste Wise stations are also attended by volunteers who are happy to help you choose the right bin!

3. Compost at home. You can check out the links below to find out about composting in your backyard or with a worm bin.

4. Reduce wasted food.  According to a study by the University of Arizona, American households throw out an average of 1.28 pounds of food per day. Annually, this adds up to 467 pounds per year per family. This food loss costs the average family of four at least $589 per year. Keep better track of what’s in your fridge, use leftovers creatively, and learn to use as much of a vegetable or animal as possible.

5. Volunteer to teach others. Waste Wise station monitors are needed to help shoppers sort their discards into the recycling, compost, and garbage bins. Learn more about volunteering with CUESA.

What’s compostable?

Composting is not as hard as you might think. If it is food or a food-related paper product, it can go in the green bin. Plastic straws, cup lids, and other plastics are not compostable, so please take a moment to remove these items from their partner paper products. Breaking up isn’t always easy, but in this case, it is the right thing to do. When the green bin gets contaminated with too much non-compostable plastic, we have to throw the whole thing in the garbage! For your reference, here’s a list of what’s compostable:

All food
fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry, seafood, shellfish, bones, rice, beans, pasta, bread, cheese, and eggshells, oyster shells, burritos (without foil wrappers), etc.

Food-soiled paper
waxed cardboard, napkins, paper towels, paper plates, paper cups (without lids) paper milk cartons, tea bags, coffee grounds/filters

floral trimmings, tree trimmings, leaves, grass, brush, weeds

Biodegradable food serviceware
This includes paper plates, paper coffee cups, and “bio-plastics,” which look like plastic but are made out of corn, soy, potatoes, or other organic materials.

How do you tell the difference between plastic containers and cutlery and the compostable look-alikes?
Many of the new compostable to-go containers in use inside the Ferry Building, at the farmers’ market, and throughout the Bay Area look like plastic, but they are made from corn or other biodegradable materials. The easiest way to tell the difference is to check the bottom of the to-go ware container for labeling. Some are compostable; others go in the recycling bin.

If it is compostable, it will say “Compostable” or “PLA” and you can put these in the green bin. Sometimes these compostable items (such as the cups from Alive! Restaurant) have a green stripe to make them easier to identify.

Disposable cutlery may also be compostable, but unfortunately, forks, spoons and knives are rarely labeled as compostable. If you are unsure, check with the vendor who gave you the cutlery or bring it to a Waste Wise station for assistance.

Effective April 22, all rigid plastics, such as bottles, tubs, and lids, can be recycled in the blue bin in the City of San Francisco. Anything that is not recyclable or compostable goes in the black bin.

Resources for learning more

Recycling and Composting in San Francisco: Learn about the city of San Francisco’s composting and recycling programs »

Jepson Prairie Virtual Tour: See our tour of Jepson Prairie Organics composting facility »

Natural Resources Conservation Service composting page: Learn how to compost in your own backyard, or even in your apartment »