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San Diego Opens Door To Small-Scale Community Composting

A pile of food scraps sits in a compost bin at the UrbanLife Farm in City Heights, Feb. 6, 2018.
Andrew Bowen
A pile of food scraps sits in a compost bin at the UrbanLife Farm in City Heights, Feb. 6, 2018.

Steam rises from piles of compost at UrbanLife Farms in City Heights as three interns shovel brown mulch and food scraps into bins. The natural breakdown of organic matter, which includes squeezed lemons and spent coffee grounds, brings the compost to temperatures of up to 140 degrees.

The interns are part of a community composting program called Food2Soil, which trains volunteers in good composting techniques. It collects vegetative food scraps from local restaurants, composts the scraps at two urban farms in San Diego and sells the finished product to local gardeners looking for high-nutrient soil.

Technically, Food2Soil's activities are illegal.

Waste hauling is tightly regulated in San Diego, and just under two dozen companies have permits to collect all the waste thrown out by residents and businesses. Those haulers are all subsidiaries of three parent companies — EDCO, Republic Services and Waste Management of San Diego.

In late 2016, the City Council created a new class of small-scale haulers that, with a new kind of permit, could collect up to 1,000 tons of recyclable materials per year. Those haulers were forbidden, however, from collecting food scraps.

RELATED: Composting In San Diego Feels Growing Pains

San Diego Opens Door To Small-Scale Community Composting

A group of business owners and nonprofits raised the alarm with city officials, who began working on a solution. Then on Jan. 23, the City Council voted unanimously to legalize Food2Soil's activities by allowing them to apply for small-scale waste collection permits. That application process is expected to reopen sometime this year.

"That's a huge door that's opened up for community-scale composting, because now we can do it legitimately, and we can really bring up these hubs that Food2Soil wants," said Sarah Boltwala-Mesina, executive director of Inika Small Earth, the nonprofit that started Food2Soil.

The changes did prompt some resistance from the city's contracted waste haulers, which stand to lose market share if the new operators grow too fast. Jim Madaffer, a former city councilman and lobbyist for the waste hauling industry, asked the council to impose a cap on the number of permits for small-scale compost and recyclables collectors. The council demurred, but did agree to evaluate the program's results in the fall.

Madaffer also argued the program could slow down the city's Zero Waste goals. Community composting keeps organic material out of the landfill, but it also deprives the city of the fees it charges to its franchised waste haulers. A staff report estimated the community composting business could deprive the city of between $54,000 and $324,000 per year.

That money would otherwise be funding the equipment and infrastructure needed to keep more waste out of the landfills — things like recycling facilities and anaerobic digesters, which can process large amounts of organic waste.

Boltwala-Mesina said composting programs like Food2Soil could coexist with the city's existing waste management system, and will ultimately relieve some pressure on the larger, expensive facilities the city will ultimately have to build.

"We will have to get smarter about the way we handle our waste, and provide solutions that are customized," she said. "Community-scale solutions will not work for everyone. They're not meant to. But they will ... make the community richer."

San Diego Opens Door To Small-Scale Community Composting
Waste hauling is tightly regulated in San Diego, and just under two dozen companies have permits to collect all the waste thrown out by residents and businesses. Those haulers are all subsidiaries of three parent companies — EDCO, Republic Services and Waste Management of San Diego.

>>> San Diego is on a long-term plan to reach zero waste. By 2020, 75% of the trash residence and businesses throw out is supposed to be kept out of the landfill, either recycled or reused in some way. The city has a way to go before reaching that goal. Last month, the City Council gave a boost to the small but growing market of community composting. "Mid-Day" has the -- KPBS Metro reporter Andrew Bowen has the story. >> Reporter: It is just past 9:00 a.m. and this team of composters is busy getting their hands dirty. They are shoveling what brown mulch into a been on a small farm at city Heights. The compost match alternates between layers of mulch and kitchen scratch -- scraps. The compost raises the mixture to upwards of 140 degrees. Steam rises from the piles as this in turn moves the compost batch into a new holding been. >> This particular batch, we are troubleshooting. This did not spike to the temperature we wanted it to which is a normal temperature. >> Look at all of that. >> She uncovers a network of tiny fungal threads. They accelerate the breakdown process. >> Fungal colonies are very delicate. The only come about at certain temperatures. The sign that it is there in the compost is a healthy sign. >> This is the executive director of the nonprofit that started this composting program called, food to soil. The program trains interns using vegetative scraps from a handful of downtown restaurants. >> It consists of firefighters, journalists, former beauticians, engineers does people working in the biochemical industry. Because they want to connect with the soil at a deeper level. >> Until recently, food to soil was operating in a legal gray area. Technically, they were transporting waste without a permit and avoiding city fees for waste collection. At the same time, they were helping the city's zero waste goals by keeping more organic material out of the landfill. Three weeks ago, the City Council voted to legalize food to soil and other community composting projects by opening them up to a special permitting process. >> It is a huge door that has opened up because now we can do it legitimately and bring out these hubs. >> One of the businesses that surprised -- supplies food to soil with food scraps is Achilles coffee. The owner Chad Bell moved here a few years ago from San Francisco where he says composting was easier and more mainstream. It is tougher here. >> We were throwing out so many coffee groundsthat we had trouble getting it out to the trash. I started calling around and looking for a composter. It was more difficult then I thought. I thought I would have somebody to pick it up. >> He pays food to soil a fee to pick up his coffee grounds and food scraps. It is the cost he has taken on voluntarily. But he says putting waste in the landfill carries a hood and cost to the environment. >> Hopefully we just create more awareness and more restaurants in. >> Back at the composting site, they took over the intern's latest batch. They say there is a demand for community skill composting that the city's big waste haulers can never fulfill and the city regulations should support that. >> 50% of the population will be moving into urban areas. We are investing in smart growth. Smart growth is not smart enough if it does not look at the waste stream in a smart way. >> She says that means working to recover value from the waste we throw out. Andrew Bolan, trim -- KPBS news.