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Combatting Food-Waste-Related Emissions in Santa Cruz


Dimeo Lane Resource Recovery Center is a bustling hub where trash is transformed through a remarkable process. A dedicated team of three navigates the challenges of backing up a trash truck onto the Food Scrap Pre-Processor's narrow ramp. The truck unloads its contents into the processor, initiating a conversion that yields a brown mash resembling a unique blend of applesauce. Leslie O'Malley, the waste reduction program manager for the City of Santa Cruz, humorously explains that mixing all the colors of the rainbow results in brown.

The Food Scraps Recovery Program, operational for nearly a year, is a response to the SB1383 mandate to reduce organic waste by 75% compared to 2014 levels by 2025. This reduction is critical for curbing greenhouse gas emissions, with landfill methane and food scraps being the third-largest contributors.

Every week, an astonishing 33 to 40 tons of raw food scraps arrive at the facility from commercial and residential units in Santa Cruz. After undergoing pre-processing, the material continues its journey in tanks aboard another truck to Sustainable Organic Solutions in Santa Clara, where it is transformed into animal feed. O'Malley clarifies that the waste is not pig slop, but rather processed into pellets for animal consumption, with some portions utilized for biodiesel and fertilizer production.

Unlike nearby Watsonville, which combines food scraps with yard waste and transports it to an industrial composter in Marina, Santa Cruz has chosen a different approach. The city utilizes the food-scrap processor to minimize the carbon footprint associated with transportation. O'Malley explains that commingling yard waste and food scraps would have required seven trucks a day to Marina solely for that purpose, adding the complexity of collecting recycling and garbage. With the current system, Sustainable Organic Solutions collects the waste every ten to fourteen days.

Furthermore, the food scraps processor paves the way for a future transition to a localized solution—digesting the food waste at Santa Cruz's Wastewater Treatment Facility. O'Malley envisions incorporating food waste digestion and energy capture in the city's own "waste-shed," considering the facility's proximity within six to ten miles of the processor.

However, challenges persist. John Lippi, a former sanitation supervisor overseeing operations at the Resource Recovery Center, faces ongoing issues. Plastic bags, both conventional and compostable, frequently entangle the machinery, causing disruptions. Lippi emphasizes the need to avoid their usage to ensure smooth machinery operations. Maintaining the optimal moisture content in the mash also poses a concern, requiring meticulous monitoring and occasional adjustments using agricultural material.

Santa Cruz has implemented an extensive outreach program to educate residents about the system. Last August, single-family homes received postcards explaining food scraps collection, along with six-gallon brown pails for convenient participation. Implementing the program in multi-family residences presents additional complexities. Residents in buildings with five or more units coordinate with property managers, who then arrange for counter-top pail collectors and central food scrap collection containers in collaboration with the city. Additional staff members have been hired to streamline enrollment for over 400 multi-family residences in Santa Cruz.

The success of achieving the 75% reduction goal will be evaluated through a Waste Characterization Study, categorizing and measuring waste in representative trash truck loads by third-party contractors. Despite challenges and occasional reassessment, O'Malley remains optimistic about the dedication and momentum in meeting the SB1383 targets.

While the Food Scraps Recovery Program is a positive step, O'Malley emphasizes prevention as the most effective means of combating food-waste-related greenhouse gas emissions. She urges individuals to reconsider their relationship with food, shifting from reliance on disposal methods to reducing food waste at its source. O'Malley advocates for the three Rs of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle, emphasizing the importance of working together to make a significant impact.

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