Angelenos throw away almost one million tons of food scraps – over a quarter of the city’s total waste stream – in landfills every year. Food waste that is left to rot in landfills becomes a significant source of methane emissions—a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Food scraps are an important resource for urban farmers and can be used to enhance the soil quality and water retention of our gardens and landscapes while reducing food waste-related emissions from landfills. For its November Network meeting, the LA Food Policy Council hosted a series of conversations to discuss the importance of organics and food scrap recycling in supporting statewide environmental targets and bolstering local recycling industries to ultimately transform our collective relationship with waste.
The meeting kicked off with a ‘visionary dialogue’ conversation with Growing Power’s Will Allen and LAFPC Founder Paula Daniels. Will Allen is founder and CEO of Growing Power, a thriving urban farming operation in Milwaukee, WI and Chicago, IL. Will reflected on the central focus of Growing Power’s 25 diverse farming sites – to cultivate the most fertile soil possible in order to grow healthy food. They do this through a massive composting operation that sources food scraps from municipalities and local businesses. Paula discussed some of her recent research findings on food waste derivatives, including farming black soldier flies as a sustainable and high protein source of fish feed for aquaculture systems. Both Paula and Will highlighted the need for clean streams of food waste in order fully recycle food waste and called on the audience to take up the issue of getting more dollars in the Farm Bill allocated to research and development of sustainable farming systems that include community scale composting and other food waste recycling alternatives.
The second panel featured Karen Coca, Manager of the Bureau of Sanitation’s Solid Resources Citywide Recycling Division at the City of LA, and Jackie Cornejo and John Guevarra of the Don’t Waste LA project at LA Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), a coalition of environmental and worker organizations dedicated to creating a high road waste and recycling system for the City of LA. The Bureau of Sanitation and Don’t Waste LA were responsible for achieving a landmark victory this April, when City Council voted to establish a citywide Exclusive Franchise system for its commercial and large multifamily waste collection. When implemented in 2017, this new system will prioritize strong worker and environmental standards and expand organics recycling for all customers to meet the City’s zero waste goals by 2020. In addition, the City of LA is also looking at local implementation of state bill AB 1826, which requires food waste-generators to subscribe to an organics recycling service to divert food from landfills and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Karen Coca highlighted the lack of existing food waste processing infrastructure and the need to disseminate educational materials about food scraps recycling to the public as well as conduct ongoing training for workers handling food scraps. John Guevarra, the author of the LAANE’s report “From Waste to Resource: Restoring Our Economy with Recycling Careers”, noted the potential for recycling jobs to reduce income inequality and counter the growing threat of climate change. The three panelists were excited about the economic development opportunities that will open up as a result of the two pieces of legislation, in industries such as anaerobic digestion and other food waste processing technologies.
To provide a ‘Spotlight on the Future’, two industry representatives, Michael Martinez and Dan Noble, were invited to say a few words about their work. Martinez, founder and Executive Director of the LA Compost, described his role in closing the loop of our local food economy through his non-profit, a bike-powered composting service that picks up food waste from restaurants and composts it into a high quality, hyper-local finished product. Because state regulations prevented his team from transporting food waste, Martinez has worked to create composting hubs throughout LA County which will offer an educational space for students and on-site composting services. Dan Noble, Executive Director of the Association of Compost Producers, a statewide industry organization, sees the vast potential for composting to help us transition from a disposable economy to a circular economy, where waste is seen as a resource that can be recovered and repurposed.
During a ‘Collective Harvest,’ audience members were encouraged to share thoughts and questions on notecards, which were collected and summarized as either a ‘Policy,’ ‘Innovation,’ or ‘Consideration.’ A few noted the need to update zoning laws to allow for local composting as well as to deepen the connections between composting education and classrooms. Many wanted to see incentives to reduce food waste at the source and business loans to support food scraps recycling entrepreneurs. Some were surprised and excited to learn about the work the City was already doing to increase landfill diversion and food scraps recycling. And one participant shared a vision of Los Angeles as a place where food travels from ‘farm to table to green bin to farm.’
The panels, made up of food system leaders, City officials, worker advocates, and composting practitioners, identified the need for large-scale systemic changes at all levels in order to close the loop in our food system and fully realize the value of what we see as ‘waste.’ However, panelists and attendees walked away optimistic and inspired by the great work already happening at the state and local policy level, as well as on the ground by community organizations to bring our region closer to a new paradigm for zero waste.