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St. Louis’ fight to reduce waste through composting, repurposing food

By Rebecca Koenigh, Sauce Magazine. Apr 16, 2019

You can’t see or smell it, but if you stand close enough, you can feel warm waves of methane roll out of the flare stack and rise into the sky. The lonesome organ stands atop a buried landfill, drawing up greenhouse gas from the garbage below and belching it into the atmosphere.

It’s a monument to the environmental abuse this quiet corner of Belleville has long suffered. Miners once dug coal here. Then came the landfill, which accepted half a million cubic yards of trash the year it closed in 1997.

Thirty to 40 percent of the U.S. food supply is wasted, reports the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Much of it ends up in garbage dumps like this, which emit about one-sixth of the country’s human-produced methane, contributing to climate change. That waste isn’t just bad for the environment. Even as food languishes in landfills, 40 million Americans can’t get enough to eat. Government data shows nearly 12 percent of the country’s households lack food security.

Two decades after the Belleville landfill closed, a veneer of prairie grass belies the land’s contamination. If the plot were still just a landfill, there’d be no more to say.

But beyond the flare stack lie enormous mounds of earth arranged in neat rows like a giant’s garden. These piles have a purpose. Built from waste collected by Total Organics Recycling – manure from Saint Louis Zoo herbivores, beechwood chips from the Anheuser-Busch brewery, overripe produce from Straub’s – they’re evolving into compost, converting trash into gardening treasure.

Grocery stores, restaurants, corporations and nonprofits across St. Louis are working together to reclaim food waste – their leaders determined to protect the planet and feed hungry neighbors. “We see food waste as an opportunity,” said Total Organics Recycling President Patrick Geraty. It’s a mindset that’s transforming a dumping ground into fertile soil for change.

Just past the Schlafly Bottleworks parking lot grows a secret garden. Lettuce, spinach and kale rear their heads in the spring and fall as beets, radishes and turnips grow plump underground. Heirloom tomatoes, peppers and blackberries flourish in the summer.

This bounty bound for the dining room originates in scraps from the kitchen.

The Bottleworks has a closed-loop compost cycle. Discarded onion skins, carrot tops and egg shells from the kitchen end up in a bin mixed with leaves and grass clippings.

Toss a banana peel into a landfill, and it may last decades. Throw it in a well-crafted, hot compost pile, and it will disappear in two weeks. The difference is elemental. Compost piles like Schlafly’s are precisely constructed to admit air and moisture, creating the proper environment for decomposition rarely found in haphazard heaps of trash.

After the concoction stews sufficiently, gardener Ally Conner works the resulting compost into the garden beds, decreasing the need for extra irrigation and synthetic fertilizers. Without that organic matter, crops suffer.

“You can definitely tell the difference,” Conner said. “They’re more susceptible to blights and diseases. They’re not going to be as green and luscious.”

Schlafly sets aside food waste it can’t use for its own garden, like refuse from diners’ plates, for Total Organics Recycling to pick up. Straub’s uses the company too, to collect sweet corn husks and rinds left over from fresh-squeezed orange juice. And three times a week, Total Organics Recycling empties big yellow bins full of food scraps from Nestle Purina’s downtown campus.

Motivations vary among the waste company’s clients. Nestle Purina is working toward a zero-waste goal. Straub’s sells finished compost from Total Organics Recycling’s sister company, St. Louis Composting, to demonstrate the chain’s sustainability efforts.

“We’re one of the players that makes it all happen,” said Straub’s produce category specialist Greg Lehr. “We basically carry it for that purpose – so we can tell the story.”

Though Total Organics Recycling services aren’t free, they do help some businesses reduce their trash bills. But for small companies, involvement is “by no means a cost savings,” Geraty said.

That means finances are not the primary force influencing his clientele. “They’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”

a campus kitchen volunteer organizes food donated to operation food search. // photo by virginia harold

Some food trash is inevitable; we simply don’t eat all fruit peels or animal bones. But perfectly edible fare goes to waste too, like tomatoes that rot on the grocery store shelf and neglected milk that spoils in the fridge.

Meanwhile, 11.6 percent of people in the St. Louis region live in poverty, according to recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. That includes one-fifth of city residents and one-tenth of St. Louis County residents. They’re elderly, young and in between. Many struggle with hunger.

Faced with these twin realities, social service agencies and grocery stores have developed a “symbiotic partnership” designed to convert leftover food into meals for hungry locals, explained Lucinda Perry, director of strategic initiatives at Operation Food Search.

“A lot of people really depend on the food safety net,” she said.

Operation Food Search coordinates food recovery and distribution in rural, suburban and urban areas in 30 counties, plus the city of St. Louis. It partners with 220 soup kitchens, homeless shelters, church pantries and transitional homes to repurpose $30 to $35 million worth of rescued edible goods a year.

“That’s a lot of food that isn’t going to a landfill and is being used for a much higher purpose,” Perry said.

One such organization is the Campus Kitchens Project. Student volunteers collect donated food from cafeterias and grocery stores that would have been destined for the trash despite being in decent condition. They use borrowed kitchen space to transform the recovered ingredients into balanced meals – complete with a protein, starch, vegetable and dessert – ready to deliver to people in need.

Pioneered at Saint Louis University in 2001, the nonprofit now operates at 65 colleges nationwide while sustaining branches at SLU, Washington University and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Thanks to the area’s many food deserts, “there’s a huge need in St. Louis for home-delivered meals,” said Jenny Bird, central regional program specialist for Campus Kitchens Project. “Can you imagine carrying a week’s worth of groceries on the bus?”

a campus kitchen volunteer delivers a meal. // photo by virginia harold

The Campus Kitchen at SLU recovers about 3,000 pounds of food each month, keeping 36,000 pounds out of landfills each year. The Brentwood Trader Joe’s is one of the branch’s reliable food providers. “They’re amazingly generous,” Bird said. The store donates food that is “still perfectly good, but past its sell-by date. They try to preserve it and set it aside for us.”

Recovered ingredients often include chicken, salad, potatoes and raw vegetables. Donated sushi is discarded, while students offer other hard-to-repurpose foods to different agencies around town. “If we get two pallets of leeks, there’s only so much we can do with them,” Bird said.

In an average week, SLU volunteers use their bounty to make 400 meals ranging from stuffed peppers to shish kebabs to stir-fries. Bird said casseroles are surprisingly popular. “We make what they like. Especially for elderly clients, the softer foods are more welcome.”

On delivery days, homebound clients may ask students to help with small chores like taking out the trash, trimming branches and rebooting their computers. Many older recipients welcome conversation as much as meals.

“It’s more than food,” Bird explained. “Students form relationships with the people they deliver to.”

Millions of personal daily decisions compound to form a landfill. No matter how many organizations invest in reclaiming food waste, success ultimately depends on individuals.

That is, on you and me.

Changing our behavior is a challenge. When Total Organics Recycling marketing coordinator Sara Koziatek teaches about proper practices, she encounters some outdated ideas and “a little bit of laziness.

“Some people don’t care,” she said. “Most people want to do the right thing, but they don’t know how.”

In February 2018, Nestle Purina asked workers to start disposing their lunch leftovers in food waste bins. “It was a total shock to people,” said environmental manager Tom Wagner. “A lot of people didn’t really understand what compost was.”

He couldn’t train all 2,500 workers personally, so he appointed one or two recycling marshals per department to teach coworkers and answer their questions. Representatives from Total Organics Recycling came to look in the company cupboards and identify compostable products, and Wagner posted signs explaining how to discard different items. The company has a website detailing its waste-stream systems, and tips frequently go out to employees in staff newsletters.

Ten months after the compost program launch, most employees are supportive, Wagner reported. Some grumble about having to walk farther to the new centralized waste bin locations, and trashcans initially still got plenty of use. But as people adapted, the company’s garbage volume decreased substantially. And its compost hauls are growing.

“We’re getting there,” Wagner said. “We’re not perfect yet, but we’re getting there.”

Want to make a difference?

• Perennial City will pick up food scraps from your house on a weekly or biweekly basis. The scraps are utilized to grow food on urban farms on vacant land purchased from the St. Louis Land Reutilization Authority. Subscriptions come with a 4-gallon collection bucket meant to fit under your kitchen sink and cost as little as $20 per month. This all comes full circle, as the food grown is available for delivery to members when their bucket is swapped.

• St. Louis Composting, the parent company to Total Organics, allows both city and county residents to drop off yard waste for a nominal fee. The company is also running a pilot program in Maryland Heights for curbside food waste collection, which it hopes to expand in the future.

Koenigh, Rebecca. “St. Louis’ fight to reduce waste through composting, repurposing food.” Sauce Magazine. Apr 16, 2019


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