Be a zero—a zero-waste advocate

Sacramentans innovate to divert organic waste from landfills as city plays catch-up

David Baker, co-founder of the Green Restaurants Alliance Sacramento, composts kitchen scraps in Midtown pizza spot Hot Italian’s Earth Tub. GRAS has diverted more than 80 tons from landfills to local gardens.

David Baker, co-founder of the Green Restaurants Alliance Sacramento, composts kitchen scraps in Midtown pizza spot Hot Italian’s Earth Tub. GRAS has diverted more than 80 tons from landfills to local gardens.

Photo By josh bantay

Those of you who’ve worked at a restaurant surely have witnessed this: Pounds of leftovers scraped into trash cans, every day, all year long. This waste represents tons of squandered food—not to mention methane emissions rising from landfills.

But a growing number of Sacramento activists who embrace the philosophy of “zero waste” want to redirect leftovers from the trash to the community garden.

“All discarded materials are resources,” reminded Gary Liss, a local zero-waste consultant and activist. “No resources should be burned or buried.”

Liss says that if you achieve 90-percent diversion from landfills, “then that is in keeping with the zero-waste philosophy, or darn close.”

The city of Sacramento declared a zero-waste goal for 2040. But, unlike other California cities such as Palo Alto, Oakland and San Jose, Sacramento has not yet released a specific zero-waste action plan that details how to reach this goal.

Talk is good, but action plans are an essential next step. “The point of these strategic plans and action plans is to delve more into the details of what can be done” in the community, explained Liss, who says he has advised on zero-waste plans more than anyone in the United States.

This isn’t to say that Sacramento hasn’t come a long way. For more than a decade, the city’s waste was hauled to the outskirts of Reno every day. The 282-mile round-trip was the longest trash trek in the state; the Sacramento City Council terminated its contract last November, and, as of February, its trash is sent to Kiefer Landfill in Sloughhouse Sacramento.

There’s also the Business Recycling Ordinance of 2007, which mandated that Sacramento businesses sort paper, metals and plastic recyclables in labeled bins. That’s a good thing, but organic waste—particularly food waste—gets short shrift in terms of diversion and regulation. There is no municipal composting program or composting mandate in Sacramento.

“The biggest obstacle we have for collecting food waste is that we don’t currently have a local permitted facility to collect it,” explained Steve Harriman, Sacramento’s integrated-waste general manager.

So, in the meantime, locals focus on the micro to curb food waste. For instance, Michael Siminitus, owner of the zero-waste consulting firm Waste Busters and author of the Davis Zero Waste Resolution, consulted with the Davis Farmers Market to adopt a zero-waste policy.

“We took all the discards from that event, sorted them into 11 categories and found that a high percentage were organics,” Siminitus explained. He said the largest amount was food waste, which was “a major recycling missed opportunity.”

“Food waste could be turned into a valuable product instead of a climate and landfill liability,” he added.

The city is hoping that waste-to-energy conversion technology will provide a viable solution for curbing organic waste. “We are working on a grant to build a pilot anaerobic digestion facility in the port of West Sacramento,” Harriman told SN&R.

Anaerobic digestion is a process that reduces the amount of matter wasted in landfills or the sea. Also, due to low-heat requirements, it aligns with the zero-waste philosophy. “[It’s a] kind of technology would be very attractive to us,” Harriman said.

While Sacramento has yet to develop the infrastructure to manage food waste on a municipal level, local businesses can get involved with organizations such as Green Restaurants Alliance Sacramento, which partners with private hauler Atlas Disposal to repurpose commercial food waste.

“We take our kitchen-scrap compost to local farms and to Hot Italian’s Earth Tub, which then get distributed to local community gardens,” explained GRAS co-founder David Baker. “Our fledgling program has diverted over 80 tons from local landfills and into the open arms of local gardens and farms. We have tried to galvanize the food industry to realize that food waste is a resource.”