April 17, 2008 | General

Climate Change Connections: Devil In The Details

BioCycle April 2008, Vol. 49, No. 4, p. 19
Sally Brown

When I first moved to Seattle from the East Coast, I scoured the yellow pages in search of a butcher. I am not a vegetarian and I enjoy eating meat. Growing up I was in charge of the grocery shopping and I have very fond memories of going to Vinnie the Butcher in Queens. Vinnie would hand cut the steaks and the pork chops. He let me go into his walk-in refrigerator to see all of the meat hanging. He had one of those thick wooden tables for cutting the meat. After cutting, he would wrap it up in the brown butcher paper and then I’d head to Al’s for vegetables.
Well, I haven’t found a butcher and so now I buy my meat at the supermarket. I usually go to a local chain and they do have beautiful stuff, grass fed and all. Locally raised lamb too. It isn’t cut while I wait anymore though, and in fact, it is all prepackaged, wrapped in clear plastic in those Styrofoam trays with the paper plastic under the meat to absorb the blood. My pleasure in eating meat (steak in particular) has been reduced both by my reading about the greenhouse gas footprint of meat production and by my husband’s elevated cholesterol. It is hard to truly enjoy the steak while he is having a chicken breast. And the knowledge that raising cows has a much greater carbon footprint than pigs or chickens is another. Over the last weekend, the third problem occurred to me: no more brown butcher paper.
On the weekends, we go to our house in the mountains. Don’t get too excited, during the week we live in a very tiny space. We have no trash collection at the house in the mountains and separate the different types of garbage. One bag for dirty paper, one for clean paper. A special drawer for recyclables. The compost bin – but you probably guessed that one. So what is actually left to go in the trash is negligible. And when I give talks about separation of food waste and other putrescibles, one thing that I talk about is how it really doesn’t need to interfere or substantially raise the costs of municipal waste hauling. I think of my own house, and the small volume of conventional trash – once we’ve separated all of the other things out.
All you have to do is increase the frequency of pick ups for putrescibles and decrease the frequency of pick ups for the little that is left in the trash. With all of the putrescibles gone, it doesn’t even stink, you can leave it sitting there for weeks. Then this weekend, I realized that the meat packaging is not compostable or recyclable, and it stinks. This is a problem. And it is remembering details like this and coming up with solutions that may play a part in determining success or failure of diversion programs.
I’m fully convinced that one of the keys to public participation and acceptance of food waste diversion from the solid waste stream is convenience. People are more than happy to do this if it’s easy for them and doesn’t stink up their house or bring rats to their garbage bins. I read about a range of communities in Europe that are working to establish organics diversion/composting programs. There was a pattern. In the case studies in the Northern climates, England and Ireland, weekly pick ups were just fine. As you went further south, the frequency of pick ups of the organics increased. Stuff starts to stink faster in warmer weather.
Here in Seattle, King County has started a food waste diversion program. People can put food waste in their yard waste bins. There are ads that tell you to put in the pizza box. And in fact, I do see pizza boxes, grease and all in the yard waste bin where I live (it is a multiple family building). I went to a local SWANA conference and heard a very sensible speaker from Cedar Grove Compost. They have the contract to compost this mixed food and yard waste and are using a Gore system to do so. Packaging products can only go into their feedstocks if they decompose in their Gore system. Cedar Grove will test packaging for the different manufacturers; if it comes out recognizable, it doesn’t compost. Tully’s coffee cups have passed the test. I am not sure about Starbucks.
At the Compost Council meeting in Oakland, I talked to a manufacturer of compostable plastic sacks. He was working with a municipality that is thinking of starting a food waste diversion program. How handy would that be if you can just put the food waste in a plastic bag and then take the bag from the house to the bin. No muss, no fuss.
To make these diversion programs successful on the collection side, it is key to think of the details and to make this as convenient as possible. It is the little details like the meat packaging that can get you and derail efforts to reduce frequency of noncompostables to once every other week.
It is also important to realize that it is not only important to think of convenience for the homeowner. All parties involved in these new programs will have to be coaxed in and one thing that they won’t want is to have to make a big change in what they do. Cedar Grove cares about compostable food containers not because of smell but because dirty ripped up coffee cups take away from the aesthetic value of their product. If you read the article in the January issue of BioCycle about anaerobic digestion of food waste, you know about what hoops Norcal has had to go through to not rip up the digester. I have a meeting next week with the wastewater treatment people from King County and someone from the University of Washington food service about potential anaerobic digestion of campus food waste. Believe me, those wastewater treatment folks are going to be very nervous about potential interactions between plastic utensils and their pipes, even if food waste codigestion is a good idea.
In our rush to do the right thing, and I firmly believe that landfill diversion is the right thing and a thing that we can start doing now, we have to make sure to think about the details. That is where the devil is after all.
Sally Brown – Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle – is a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board, and is authoring this regular column on the connections of composting, organics recycling and renewable energy to climate change. Email Dr. Brown at

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