Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2009 | Chicken tacos and chili cheese fries are on the menu tonight at Point Loma Nazarene University.

After dinner, the school’s dining staff will scrape every last half-eaten taco and congealed fry into a black bin full of food waste, destined for a small plot in the city-owned Miramar Landfill where compost is made.

Instead of getting buried with the rest of the city of San Diego’s garbage, those table scraps will be rich soil in about 10 weeks, ready for residents to pick up and spread on their gardens at home.

As San Diego residents continue increasing their recycling efforts, the city says programs like Point Loma’s that divert food waste from the landfill will be the next frontier for extending the facility’s life and boosting the city’s recycling rate. The university is one of just seven large local institutions that recycle food waste at the landfill.

Today, San Diegans are keeping an estimated 64 percent of their garbage from winding up in the dump. Mayor Jerry Sanders announced the figure Tuesday from behind a podium surrounded by two blue recycling bins atop the landfill. The recycling rate, up from 55 percent in 2006, estimates how much waste is recycled, reused or diverted from the landfill.

Sanders credited the increase to new city laws that have made recycling mandatory for single-family homes, all special events and most apartment complexes and businesses. Previously, large apartments and office owners didn’t have to provide blue bins.

The mayor, who initially opposed citywide mandatory recycling efforts in 2007, lauded the new laws for making San Diego “one of the nation’s most progressive cities on this important issue.”

San Diego wasn’t a leader in adopting the rules. Most local cities instituted mandatory recycling efforts nearly two decades before San Diego did. And other California cities such as San Francisco, San Jose, Anaheim and Los Angeles allow residents to recycle yogurt cups, plastic utensils and compact disc cases. San Diego doesn’t.

The increased recycling efforts, along with a decrease in dumping associated with the economic downturn and a Marine-approved increase in the landfill’s height limit have combined to extend the landfill’s estimated closure date to 2019, said Chris Gonaver, director of the city’s Environmental Services Department. The city had previously estimated the landfill would close as early as 2012. That would require the city to pay private landfill owners to dump the trash it collects.

San Diego’s recycling rate has steadily increased since the city began tracking the figure. State law requires cities like San Diego to keep at least 50 percent of residents’ waste out of the landfill or face fines. But as the state Legislature weighs laws that could increase that requirement to 75 percent, the city is also looking for ways to continue boosting the figure.

Enter food recycling. City recycling officials say they plan within a year to triple the amount of food waste they can compost at the landfill. The city currently composts about 2,000 tons of food annually.

“For us, it’s the next opportunity,” said Ken Prue, a city recycling specialist.

The city today gets food waste from just seven sources: Point Loma, San Diego State, Petco Park, the Convention Center, the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Del Mar Fairgrounds and Sea World.

SDSU collects food scraps at three sites on campus, including its main cafeteria. Kitchen staffers dump their prep materials (such as orange peels) in composting bins and scrape students’ plates, too.

“We want to be on the cutting edge of sustainability and recycling,” said SDSU spokeswoman Gina Jacobs. “It’s a high priority for us.”

While the city collects 2,000 tons from SDSU and those other large sources, an estimated 140,000 tons of food waste from homes, businesses and other large institutions is dumped in the landfill each year. That’s about 20 percent of the total waste stream.

Students at University of California, San Diego eat 3 million meals on campus annually and create an estimated 5 tons of food scraps daily. The university, which aims to divert 75 percent of its waste from the landfill by 2012, has had separate composting bins at its dining facilities for the last year. But the city’s composting program hasn’t had enough capacity to take UCSD’s scraps, so the school’s food waste gets dumped in the landfill.

Krista Mays, UCSD’s sustainability manager for housing, dining and hospitality, said the composting program launched on campus in anticipation of the city’s expanded capacity for collecting food scraps. She wants to get students in the habit of separating their food from other garbage.

“The minute we can get it into the food scrap composting, we’ll do it,” Mays said. “Food scrap is not an easy catch, but it’s definitely worth the effort.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/robwdavis. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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