City Boasts High Compost Rates

Photo: Berkeley residents can sort their compostables into green bins marked for food scrap recycling. Alameda County hosts one of the nation's largest food scrap recycling programs.
Christopher McDermut/Photo
Berkeley residents can sort their compostables into green bins marked for food scrap recycling. Alameda County hosts one of the nation's largest food scrap recycling programs.

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Apple cores, coffee grounds and even grimy takeout boxes are not just a bunch of garbage. And, with its continuing food scrap recycling program, neither is the city of Berkeley's commitment to reducing waste.

The city recently completed its third year of food scrap recycling, which turns food waste into compost, though challenges remain in increasing the composting participation rate.

Like the city of San Francisco - the first in the nation to outlaw throwing recyclables in the trash in 2009 and a leader in the fight against waste - Berkeley aims to eventually reach "zero waste," so that no waste enters landfills. City and county officials agree that food scrap recycling is necessary for reaching that goal.

"It really reduces that amount of garbage going to a landfill," said city spokesperson Mary Kay Clunies-Ross. "And once people get into it, it's very easy."

The city, which has collected plant debris since 1990, began offering weekly curbside pick-up of food scraps in 2007, about five years after the Castro Valley Sanitary District began composting food scraps and became the first jurisdiction in Alameda County to do so.

Even though Berkeley was one of the "late adopters," the city currently boasts the highest participation rate in the county, according to Robin Plutchok, a program manager at, a regional public agency that oversees recycling throughout the county.

"I think that a lot of the residents of Berkeley are really attuned to doing the right thing - very eco-minded, overall pretty educated," she said. "It's Berkeley; Berkeley is different from other places in the county."

The compostables, which include items like eggshells and used pizza boxes, are picked up from green curbside bins once a week and taken to a composting facility in the Central Valley, run by Recology Grover Environmental Products. Eventually, after a weeks-long process, the material becomes compost and is used throughout the city and distributed free to residents at the Berkeley Marina.

The city saw a 33 percent increase in the amount of green waste collected following the inclusion of food scraps in waste collection in 2007, along with an 11 percent decrease in the amount of refuse entering landfills, according to Plutchok.

Despite the relatively high participation rate, Berkeley still struggles with recycling collection for large apartment buildings, Clunies-Ross said. Students especially are a challenge, as many move every year and are often unsure of where and what to compost.

UC Berkeley sophomore Itria Licitra agrees. Licitra saves food scraps in her apartment and puts them in her apartment building's green bin, but does not know other students who do the same.

"It's an easier way to dispose of things and then they don't go into the landfill, where God only knows what happens," she said.

At the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, members put their food scraps in a 65-gallon composting bin in the kitchen. Senior Jordon Hemingway, who, a few months ago, set up the compost program with junior Brian Manley as sustainability chairs for the fraternity, estimated that the members compost about 80 percent of their food scraps.

Although TKE is the first fraternity to successfully compost their food scraps, many campus sororities already do so or have plans to begin soon.

"As long as we can get all the girls in the house as excited about sustainability as we are ... then composting at Chi Omega will be coming soon!" Mina Azarnoush, UC Berkeley junior and sustainability chair for the sorority, said in an e-mail.

These widespread efforts to reduce waste will help the county - which has one of the largest food scrap recycling programs in the nation and serves over 350,000 single family households - reach its 2020 goal of reducing recyclables in the trash to 10 percent, according to Plutchok.

"We're asking people to do something new and we're really impressed by how quickly people are adopting the program and the enthusiasm with which people are embracing it," she said.


Soumya Karlamangla is the lead environment reporter. Contact her at [email protected]

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