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Matt Gordon thought he was doing the right thing.
The chef and restaurant owner bought eco-friendly to-go containers for his restaurants Urban Solace in North Park, and Solace and the Moonlight Lounge in Encinitas. The containers were fully compostable — and pricey.
“It’s just our ethos on things. We try to be a green as possible,” he says.
But Gordon quickly discovered that it didn’t matter whether the containers could fully break down. He wouldn’t be able to send them to the city’s compost facility at Miramar Greenery. The city, he was told, prefers recyclable plastics for to-go containers, rather than compostable materials.
“It’s not compatible with our system of composting,” a spokesperson from the city’s Environmental Services Department told VOSD. “We did a study a few years ago that took a bunch of different brands of supposedly compostable plates and utensils and compared them. Some did decompose quite well. But we really didn’t want to say, ‘take this brand or that brand.’ Instead of contaminating our system, we don’t take them at all.”
The city of San Diego launched a pilot food composting program in 2011. Today, participants include industrial-sized clients like Sea World, San Diego State University and several large hotels. But it’s also starting to attract smaller restaurants like Bombay Exotic Cuisine of India, Snooze, NaPizza, Jimmy’s Famous American Tavern and the Lodge at Torrey Pines.
Gordon said he didn’t even know about the program until a city representative mentioned it at a neighborhood meeting.
“Until this person came, I had no idea,” Gordon said. “I was surprised this was going on for some time. It wasn’t a brand new program. I stay current on events, and I had no knowledge whatsoever.”
[I reached out to the city to find out more details about the food composting initiative, and if other restaurants had expressed interest in joining the program, but was directed to the city’s website and told the interview request was still pending approval at the mayor’s office. I’ll update this post if I get a response.]
Food waste is an issue that’s gaining more nationwide attention. It’s estimated that Americans waste 40 percent of the food we produce. The majority ends up in our nation’s landfills, which is why states like Vermont, Connecticut and Massachusetts are implementing bans on commercial food waste in landfills.
Indeed, when it comes to food composting or recycling things like to-go containers, the process isn’t as simple as you might think.
Take that iconic white Starbucks to-go cup. The coffee giant has set a goal of having 100 percent of its cups reusable or recyclable by 2015, including at its nearly 160 stores in the San Diego area. The cup is initially made from recycled materials, but the polymer-based liner used to keep hot liquid from leaking can be the problem. Many recycling companies can’t separate the paper from the material, nor is there always a resale market for the material post-recycling, like there is for aluminum or cardboard.
“San Diego has been a pretty good success story for us,” said Jim Hanna, Starbucks’ director of environmental impact. “We launched customer facing recycling in that region last year, and have been able to get the cups accepted for recycling in all of those stores where we control the garbage and recycling services.”
Gordon said he’ll likely continue using his compostable containers.
“Even if they don’t go into the compost, at least it will break down in the landfill,” he said.
Clare Leschin-Hoar is a contributor to Voice of San Diego. Follow her on Twitter @c_leschin or email firstname.lastname@example.org.