Sept. 21, 2017
The Reunity compost pile transforms food scraps from area restaurants.
Elizabeth Miller

‘Closing the Circle’

Restaurants join in compost efforts to move the needle toward a sustainable food system

November 2, 2016, 12:00 am

Avocado pits and lime rinds from the Mexican restaurants. Bone scraps. Meat trimmings. Coffee grinds. Hot dogs from schools. All the spare pieces and parts of what we eat have to end up somewhere, and Reunity Resources has been campaigning to convert that waste to a positive end.

In a landfill, rotting food waste releases methane, a contributor to climate change. At Reunity’s 3-acre facility, food scraps from about 20 Santa Fe restaurants, 14 public schools and four private schools are converted into compost.

Those restaurateurs are small heroes, to hear Tejinder Ciano, executive director of Reunity Resources, tell it. At essentially no benefit to themselves and for no reason other than that it’s the right thing to do, they go this extra step to help the planet.

Unlike your backyard compost pile, Reunity’s heaps can handle biodegradable plastics and meat products. Even bones quickly break down into dark, rich compost that feeds minerals and nutrients back into soils. That compost can then be used in backyard gardens, on the community farm next door, and in other places where depleted topsoil could use a little boost. Bite-sized packages are even available for those with hungry houseplants.

“It’s essentially up-cycling,” says Trevor Ortiz, operations manager for Reunity, who turns the piles with a small backhoe.

Restaurants involved say it simply makes sense.

“It fits with our mission in every way—we want to be a responsible and sustainable business, and we are so careful in our food sourcing. A lot of our food is organic and it breaks my heart to throw it away,” says Soma Franks, co-owner of Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen. “There’s so much effort from the beginning of that beautiful tomato, with the organic farmer, then our chefs and everybody involved, that to throw it in the landfill at the end just feels wrong. So closing the circle feels really good.”

It takes minimal effort on the part of these restaurants to add another bin for compostable waste.

For Verde Juice, which can crank through a thousand pounds of apples at a time to make their freshly squeezed juices, there’s more byproduct than they can creatively come up with ways to handle in-house. But the goal is to run a zero-waste business, says Verde founder Kelly Egolf, and that mandates being able to compost. They ship more than a ton of food waste to Reunity to compost every week, she says.

Veggie leftovers from juice-making at Verde are part of what goes into the pile.
Anson Stevens-Bollen

The compost project was an extension of Reunity’s work collecting used cooking oil and converting it to biofuel, and the option to see fryer oil reused was what first drew Fire & Hops to Reunity’s work. But throughout their restaurant, says co-owner and manager Josh Johns, they’ve tried to reduce their footprint, buying from local purveyors, recycling and minimizing waste. Buying from local ranchers and farmers has cut down on packaging—mushrooms, berries and peaches arrive in boxes the farmers just take back with them. Adding composting was a natural extension of that ethos.

“It has cut down on our waste significantly, so our trash pickup is substantially less now,” Johns says. Yeah, they’ve saved money, but he hasn’t crunched the numbers on how much. That doesn’t really seem to be the point.

What he has taken note of, however, is the perfect circle—that his restaurant sends scraps to Reunity, and then he visits the facility, picks up some compost, and brings it home to his backyard vegetable garden and fruit trees.

“There’s no shortage of a need to improve the soils,” Ciano says. “You can’t make enough compost to heal all our soils.”

Forty percent of the food produced in the US goes uneaten, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. The USDA pegs that number at 31 percent, which only counts grocery stores, restaurants and homes. The NRDC looks further up the supply chain at things like the 16 percent of produce that is discarded for cosmetic reasons.

Businesses participating in ReUnity’s program and responsible for diverting more than 2 million pounds of food scraps:

  • 35° North Coffee
  • Agni Ayurveda
  • Blue Corn Brewery (Southside)
  • Bodega Prime
  • Casa Chimayó
  • Cheesemongers of Santa Fe
  • La Choza
  • Del Charro Saloon
  • Cowgirl BBQ
  • Fire & Hops
  • Iconik Coffee Roasters
  • Joseph’s of Santa Fe
  • L’Olivier
  • Ohori’s (both locations)
  • Restaurant Martín
  • Second Street Brewery
  • The Shed
  • Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen
  • Verde Juice
  • Whole Foods

That waste takes a toll all the way down the farm supply chain—the water, fertilizer, energy and land used to produce that food and move it to markets and restaurants, says JoAnne Berkenkamp, senior advocate with the NRDC. The movement to curtail that waste similarly takes aim first at excess purchases, reminding consumers not to buy more than they can consume.

“You always start with prevention, and that’s the place you get reductions in cost,” Berkenkamp says. After all, wasted food is wasted money, too.

Businesses, nonprofits and government leaders have come together to form the think tank ReFED and create a plan to reduce food waste by 20 percent. It’s not impossible. Americans waste twice as much food now as in the 1970s.

“For most of us, it’s really bound up in good intentions,” Berkenkamp says. “Food waste is tied up with aspirations to eat healthy. No one wants to waste food.”

And yet, the average family of four spends $1,500 per year on food that goes uneaten.

ReFED’s plan has 27 components to deal with preventing waste, redistributing it to those in need and recycling it to better ends. The core components come back to standardized date labeling, consumer education and packaging adjustments. Convincing grocery stores to stock imperfect produce to be sold at a discounted rate also ranks at the top of the list.

Of all that unconsumed food, 95 percent of it ends in landfills, where it biodegrades anaerobically and produces methane.

Moving the needle toward a more sustainable food system in Santa Fe will take input from the city, which doesn’t allow restaurants to donate uneaten food and has no apparent plans to compost more than lawn trimmings. Restaurant owners call on the city to create a municipal compost system, but city staff say that for now they’re focused on converting the curbside recycling program to rollaway carts.

Verde uses compostable to-go containers, but those require an industrial composting operation to break down and not release methane. Egolf works on customer education, encouraging consumers to bring back their garbage, but it’s a tough habit to build.

“That’s really difficult. I wish the city made it a little easier to make composting an option. They don’t do anything to make it viable,” she says. Plenty of other cities have and could function as models. “Even if they just started with the food service industry and required all restaurants to compost food waste, that would be a huge reduction in the city’s carbon footprint.”

A National Press Foundation fellowship supported some of the research for this story.


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