Saturday, September 26, 2009

Italy I - Val di Fiemme

I recently returned from a trip to northern Italy, where I toured farms, composting and anaerobic digestion (AD) facilities, mountain communities with advanced collection schemes, a zero waste Slow Food event, and more. The food, wine and culture were fabulous, and I will share what I can in this series of postings.

A good place to start is Val di
Fiemme, a valley in the Dolomites (part of the Alps) in northern Italy. In 2008, the valley averaged 82 percent waste diversion, the highest in Italy. Similar to other Italian source separation schemes, each household is given a vented kitchen scrap collector, a small curbside organics bin (brown), and a residual waste cart. Small collection
vehicles are able to
navigate the narrow medieval streets.

A combination of several initiatives have led to the community's success. Residents are given 200 compostable bags per year (made from Mater-Bi), and there is a ban on plastic bags at supermarkets (only reusable bags and compostable bags permitted). Organics are collect is free, whereas trash collection is charged by volume.

One of the interesting facets to Val di Fiemme is that it's a popular tourist destination, both in the winter for skiing and in the summer for hiking. During tho
se times, the year-round population of 20,000 doubles. Tourist are given compostable bags, as well as cardboard boxes for their organic waste -- no collection pail abandoned on the street, when they leave. Tourists are also given pink trash bags, different from typical residents, which are to left on the curb without a bin. Trash on the street in other colored bags is considered litter, to encourage use of the system.

Other campaigns include encouragement of tap water instead of bottles, as well as bulk items at supermarkets to reduce packaging. Bulk dispensing includes typical items such as cereals, but also wine and soap.

Most notable of these bulk dispensers is fresh, raw (unpasteurized) milk available at some stores. One local farmer is assigned to each store, providing fresh milk supplies daily, and customers use refillable glass bottles. The milk quality is controlled at the farm, so there is no need for pasteurization, and the customer knows which farm the milk is coming from.

The largest area of organic waste remaining in the residual stream are baby diapers, so the public company in charge of waste collection now promotes reusable cloth diapers with compostable liners -- families are given an initial set of cloth diapers as a welcoming gift for each newborn!

Val di Fiemme has a strong lumber business, resulting in large quanities of wood waste. There is now a biomass powered boiler facility that provides municipal heat via underground pipes to the ho
uses for the cold winters. Upgrades are underway to make it a combined heat and power facility. There are some PVC solar panels on the roof.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Organic waste collection in North Carolina

Most areas of the U.S. don't have curbside collection of organic waste as part of their municipal service. However, there are innovative haulers all over that are beginning to collect organic waste from businesses. These haulers not only help businesses reduce their waste bills, and give compost facilities necessary feedstocks, but they demonstrate the need for organics collection -- communities want to make more environmentally sound choices, and these haulers are giving more options.

Near Asheville, North Carolina, Danny's Dumpster (left) is offering organics collection to businesses. It began operations in 2007 out of the back of a 1985 Toyota van, serving residents in Madison County as the only trash and recycling hauler in the area. Danny's Dumpster now picks up trash, recyclables and organics from over 40 customers,
including Park Ridge Hospital and the University of North Carolina Asheville

The organics are taken to Crowell Farm, a former dairy farm that accepts
yard trimmings, manure, food scraps (including meat), food soiled paper/cardboard products, and more. Danny's Dumpster was recently featured in a local ABC news video.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

CAFO Composting - Fabric Buildings

CAFOs, or confined animal feeding operations, are increasingly turning to composting for nutrient management programs (voluntarily, or sometimes mandated by the government). Two facilities I've spoken with recently are using fabric buildings to cover their composting operations. Fabric structures are inexpensive, corrosion resistant, and provide natural light and ventilation.

Terra-Gro is a composting operation located at a CAFO in Peach Bottom, Pennsylvania. “We take in starchy potato waste from a nearby potato chip factory, and mix it with manure and crop leftovers,” says Loren Martin of Terra-Gro. “We compost the mixture in 6-foot by 12-foot wide windrows, housed in fabric structures.” Martin has several of these buildings, each 60 by 400 feet long. “Because we compost in the fabric buildings, the product is very consistent and attractive to higher end markets," he says.

Another CAFO using fabric
buildings is Laurelbrook Farm in East Cannan, Connecticut. It currently composts dairy manure from a heard of 830 cows, mixed with crop residues and horse bedding from nearby farms. Laurelbrook has four fabric buildings made by ClearSpan: one for tipping, two for active composting, and one for curing the finished compost. The farmers are looking to accept food wastes, and are also planning a community anaerobic digester with nearby farms to produce renewable energy prior to composting.

Although CAFOs are often unsustainable, these two farms are working hard to improve there environmental footprint.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Local Food Articles

I've across a few articles on local food recently that are a cut above the fray. They touch on issues of climate change and vegetarianism, and reference studies conducted on the impact of our food choices.

From World Watch magazine, "Is Local Food Better?" is a well researched article that explores the meaning of local food, tradeoffs involved with that choice, and the notion that what you eat matters as much as where it comes from (dairy and meat have a larger impact environmentally than veggies).

The ecological harm of raising and consuming meat is given front and center attention in a Washington Post article, "The Meat Of The Problem." It cites hard-hitting reports that are difficult to refute, such as a United Nation's report that attributes 18% of worldwide greenhouse gases (CO2 equivalent) to livestock. But it also has a personal angle, talking about sacrifices that we can all make as part of taking global warming seriously.

Although there are a dozen more articles, the last one for right now is a short and sweet success story. "Produce Truck Encourages Healthy Eating In Detroit," Associated Press, tells of how the Peaches and Greens truck travels the streets of Detroit, selling produce like ice cream. Says author David Runk, "The truck set up like a small market brings affordable produce to families on public assistance, homebound seniors and others who can't reach the well-stocked grocery chains in the suburbs."

Monday, August 17, 2009

Green Colleges

The Princeton Review's 2010 annual guides include green ratings for colleges and universities. It gives green ratings to 697 colleges, a 30% increase in the number of participants from last year. The Princeton Review rates schools on a scale of 60 to 99 in eight categories, including the green rating. This category was developed in 2007 with ecoAmerica, a nonprofit that helped launch the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, among other programs. The criteria cover three broad areas: whether campus quality of life is healthy and sustainable; how well the school prepares students for employment and citizenship in a world with environmental challenges; and the school’s overall commitment to environmental issues.

The Princeton Review also announced the “2010 Green Rating Honor Roll,” of 15 schools that received the highest possible score of 99: Arizona State University at the Tempe campus, Bates College, Binghamton University, College of the Atlantic, Colorado College, Dickinson College, Evergreen State College, Georgia Institute of Technology, Harvard College, Middlebury College, Northeastern University, University of California, University of New Hampshire, University of Washington, and Yale University.

A new section of Princeton Review’s website is dedicated as a resource area for students and others interested in learning about the ratings and benefits of attending a green college. It includes information on colleges with exemplary environmental programs, questions to ask on school visits, and links to organizations that promote higher education and campus sustainability programs. Check it out at

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

More Growing Power Photos

Here are some more photos from my tour of Growing Power in Milwaukee, October 2008.

Below is an old household clothes dryer that Will Allen adapted into a compost screen -- he told us that it's common for the heating element of dryers to burn out, but still have a working motor, making them a common but useful discard.

All vertical space is utilized in the greenhouses.

Some of the hoop houses outside are heated solely by the composting process, with active piles of brewers grains and wood chips in the corners. They provide enough heat throughout the Milwaukee winter to keep the hoop houses above freezing - warm enough to grow hardy greens like spinach and kale.

There is also a productive apiary of bees for urban honey.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Composting Food Waste At Urban Garden

Will Allen, Founder and CEO of Growing Power in Milwaukee, had already been featured in a dozen articles before he was awarded a MacArthur "Genius Grant," and now has even more media attention. Here's only the second working farmer to win a the Genius Grant:

Why am I excited that Growing Power is garnering all of the attention, despite the fact that there are other noteworthy urban gardens? Because it is not your average community garden (not that there really is a typical one). As of last year, when I toured the facility, Growing Power was composting approximately 500 tons/year of organics at the urban center, and another 3,000 tons/year at a 40-acre rural farm it operates.

Growing Power composts brewers grains, wood waste, preconsumer food scraps and coffee grounds, most of which it collects (coffee grounds are delivered). At the rural farm, composting primarily takes place in windrows, with worms added toward the end of the process. At the urban garden, materials are processed in vermicomposting bins, an outdoor windrow and in an anaerobic digester.

One of my favorite aspects of Growing Power is that all of their operations are set up to not only be productive, but as demonstrations -- systems that can be easily replicated in other communities. For instance, they offer training workshops on how to build aquaponic growing systems (left). Auaponics integrate elements of hydroponics and aquaculture, creating a symbiotic system for growing fish and plants where the fish waste becomes nutrients for the plants, which in turn purify the water for the fish.

When I toured the garden last Autumn, Will Allen told me, “As more and more agricultural land is lost, intensive growing will be necessary. We produce about $5/square foot of produce annually in our beds, which translates to more than $200,000/acre. Now that is Growing Power.”

About 100,000 pounds of organic produce are grown annually at the 2-acre garden, and sold at an on-site retail store, through its market basket program, as well as to restaurants and food co-ops. This high production requires a lot of compost to replenish the soils. Growing Power doesn't only get invaluable nutrients by accepting all of those tons of off-site organics, it provides a sustainable solution for the community's waste. Diverting organics from the landfill, and returning it to the soil through composting, is an endeavor that I'd like to see more urban gardens take on. Check out the article I wrote: "Composting And Local Food Meet At Urban Garden."

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Truly Green Restaurants

A new Zagat guide will feature New York City's green restaurants. To be released this month, the guide is printed on 100% postconsumer recycled paper.

What's important is that these 35 green NYC restaurants showcased in Zagat are
truly green, certified by the Green Restaurant Association (GRA). A nonprofit started in 1990, GRA's certification is the real deal, using a point-based system, ranking food service establishments on seven criteria (click to download pdfs with more details):
  1. Water Efficiency
  2. Waste Reduction and Recycling
  3. Sustainable Furnishings and Building Materials
  4. Sustainable Food
  5. Energy
  6. Disposables
  7. Chemical and Pollution Reduction
Yes, composting is listed under Waste Reduction and Recycling. Under the new rating system, dubbed Green Restaurant 4.0, there are three possible rankings for certified restaurants: Two Stars (minimum of 100 points), Three Stars (minimum of 175 points) and Four Stars ("trailblazers" with a minimum of 470 points).

GRA works in four main sectors: Restaurants and other Food Service Facilities; Manufacturers; Consumers; and Distributors. Unlike a lot of "green washing," where companies capitalize on the popularity of sustainability by marketing superficial green aspects of their business, GRA provides valuable tools, and showcases establishments that are making significant environmental choices.

As part of its consumer outreach, GRA has a search engine for finding certified restaurants across the country. Look for a Certified Green Restaurant!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Trash Art

Following the mantra reduce, reuse, recycle, there are plenty of people who reuse trash for practical applications. I find making art out of trash one of the most interesting -- taking discarded objects that have no value to one person, and transforming them into something most people would find beautiful.

A fantastic example is a program actually sponsored by
a garbage company, albeit one of the most progressive in North America. Recology (formerly known as Norcal Waste) is responsible for hauling San Francisco's garbage, recycling and compostables, and has an "Artists In Residence Program" at its transfer station: they provide 24-hour access to a well-equipped studio, a monthly stipend, and an exhibit at the end of their residency. They only stipulation is that the artists use materials gathered from San Francisco's refuse.

One of my favorite artists from the program is Nemo Gould, who was in residence in 2007. His sculpture of HiWheel bicycle (above) is composed of a discarded garlic press, bike brakes, melon scoops, a circular saw blade cover, rivets, a shot glass and fly wheels.

There is also a sculpture garden at the transfer station. Estelle Akamine's Ball Gown is particularly stunning (left). Recology claims this may be the only "art park" at a garbage company. Do you know of any others?

This program has been active for the past
18 years! Check out all of the creativity -- here's a full list of Artists In Residence at the San Francisco dump.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

50-Year Farm Bill

I keep coming back to an Op-Ed piece from the New York Times written by Wes Jackson, who founded the Land Institute, and Wendell Berry, a farmer and writer in Kentucky. These two "practicing environmentalists" are leaders in the field of sustainable agriculture. "A 50-Year Farm Bill" (January 2009), commends the efforts being made by thoughtful farmers and consumers, but also details the environmental severity of America's industrial agriculture. They prescribe stronger government policy with a longer-term vision, one that supports healthy soil and sustainable food production, rather than oil-dependent agribusiness.

Jackson elaborates on these sentiments in an interview with AlterNet, an online news website, titled “Is America on the Brink of a Food Crisis?” (January 29, 2009):

“We live off of what comes out of the soil, not what’s in the bank. If we squander the ecological capital of the soil, the capital on paper won’t much matter… For the past 50 or 60 years, we have followed industrialized agricultural policies that have increased the rate of destruction of productive farmland. For those 50 or 60 years, we have let ourselves believe the absurd notion that as long as we have money we will have food. If we continue our offenses against the land and the labor by which we are fed, the food supply will decline, and we will have a problem far more complex than the failure of our paper economy…

“Support for soil conservation and protecting water resources have to be central. There needs to be funding for research on a different model for agriculture… Either we pay attention or we pay a huge price, not so far down the road. When we face the fact that civilizations have destroyed themselves by destroying their farmland, it’s clear that we don’t really have a choice…

“A 50-year farm bill represents a vision that stresses the need to protect soil from erosion, cut the wastefulness of water, cut fossil-fuel dependence, eliminate toxins in soil and water, manage carefully the nitrogen of the soil, reduce dead zones, restore an agrarian way of life and preserve farmland from development.”

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Introduction to Compostable Products

There's a lot of buzz about compostable products, as companies attempt to become green. These are products, from cups to cutlery to bags, that are designed to biodegrade in a composting environment. This industry is huge -- International Paper just sold its one billionth ecotainer, making it the most common compostable product (right).

It's essentially a paper cup, but is coated with a special plastic made out of corn that is designed to break down in a professionally managed composting environment. In this case, the ecotainer is covered with PLA (polylactic acid) manufactured by NatureWorks, under the brand name Ingeo (left).

In the U.S., the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) approves certifies products that meet ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) standards, and provides a label.

Although the ASTM standards require products to break down in a professional composting facility, there are some products on the market that will biodegrade in your backyard compost bin. When I interviewed Shanon Boase, founder of EarthCycle Packaging, she said, “Our product is also home compostable, along with the film made by Innovia, so it doesn’t rely on a municipal composting system.
EarthCycle products can also be recycled in a paper stream. We advocate the compostability of our product because we support upcycling — the products are made from waste palm fiber, after harvesting the oil, and if composted they are upcycled again by contributing to healthy soil.”

EarthCycle products (above) can be found in
the fresh produce sections of several large retailers, including Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Wegmans, Trader Joes and Publix. For more information on the range of compostable products on the market, check out my article, "Compostable Products Go Mainstream," published in the July 2009 issue of BioCycle magazine.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Renewable Energy From Food Scraps

The Environmental Protection Agency put together a great video on using food scraps to create renewable energy.

This educational video is a great example of successful public outreach -- it is general enough for the public audience to understand the basics of anaerobic digestion, and explains where government funds are being used for renewable energy research (the project was funded by EPA Region 9).

For more information, check out the EPA's webpage on the food waste project.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Mandatory Composting

San Francisco has led the way in the U.S. for curbside collection of organics. In 1999 the City and County of San Francisco rolled out its residential three-stream curbside program as a pilot project. Often referred to as the Fantastic Three, the bins are for trash, commingled recyclables, and compostables (yard trimmings and all food waste, including meat and dairy).
They finished expanding the service citywide to all 150,000 households in 2004 (130,000 single-family and 20,000 buildings with five or fewer units), and now are tackling multi-family apartment buildings.

I wrote an article about how a hauler in San Francisco promotes the program using 3D images on its collection trucks to communicate the value of source separated organics: "Food Waste Diversion Promoted On The Street."

San Francisco recently passed an ordinance making source separation of organic waste and recyclables mandatory. This is groundbreaking! While several other cities require recycling service and participation, San Francisco is the first in the U.S. to require the collection of food scraps and other compostables. This move is in part a response to findings from study conducted by the city's Department of Environment, which found that 36 percent of what San Francisco sends to landfills is still compostable (primarily food scraps), and 31 percent is still recyclable (mostly paper). This new ordinance will help move San Francisco forward to its goal of becoming a Zero Waste city by 2020.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Overview and Purpose

The Compost Pile is a Blog dedicated to news and commentary on issues of sustainability, focusing in particular on composting and organics recycling. Postings will connect organic waste streams to local food production and sustainable agriculture, and will include topics such as climate change, renewable energy, green design, biomass, zero waste, sustainable schools, water quality and curbside recycling.

Intended to be a source of useful information, The Compost Pile will highlight success stories, raise concerns, offer practical advice, review innovative products and sustainable business, and will provide a forum for discussion.