On the big platter of possibilities being considered to reduce the amount of trash being dumped in Lake County landfills, food scraps could be the main course.
"It's the largest single item in the waste stream to target right now," said Walter Willis, executive director of the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County. "It's approximately 12-13 percent of what we put in our landfills."
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Conserving landfill space is environmentally sound, keeps garbage disposal rates fairly stable and reduces heat-trapping methane, a greenhouse gas. With a mission to slash landfill deposits by a third by 2020, SWALCO considers food scrap collection a promising avenue of pursuit.
"I think attacking the food scraps will be one of the most effective ways of reaching those goals," Willis said.
There is a lot to gather. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates 40 percent of all food in the U.S. goes to waste, and the average American throws away about 20 pounds of food each month.
While some commercial entities are making inroads, food scrap collection is in its infancy in Lake County and surrounding areas. Residential programs are virtually nonexistent.
Willis says a residential test program remains a goal for this year, but it likely will be a while before Lake County residents on a widespread basis are saving dinner plate remnants to be blended into nutrient-rich compost.
"I've got a couple of towns that have expressed some interest, but nobody said, 'Hey, let's do it,'" Willis said.
Those involved in collecting and composting food scraps say public education, plus the involvement of waste haulers and large producers such as grocery stores, will be key.
"We have to get everybody on the same page," said Ted Krueger, president and CEO of Midwest Organics near Wauconda, one of two facilities in Lake County with a state permit to mix food scraps with landscape waste. "There needs to be a lot of training before residential gets started."
Composting food waste wasn't allowed in Illinois until Jan. 1, 2010. The rationale was to make it easier to start large-scale composting operations that would create jobs and build a market for compost.
In 2010, Barrington was the first Illinois town to try a pilot residential collection for food scraps. Only about a third of the 300 targeted households participated, and costs were high, due to a lack of facilities that could accept food scraps. The Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County, which coordinated the pilot, recommended against continuing or expanding it.
To make residential food scrap collection viable, scraps need to be collected from the really big producers: grocery stores, restaurants, institutions and schools, SWANCC reported.
Getting the big generators on board is a challenge, Willis says.
"Some are working better than others, but right now it is fair to say we are in an experimentation period where the industry is trying to find the most cost-effective approach," he said.
Mary Allen, SWANCC's recycling and education coordinator, said the agency continues to consider ways to offer it on a wider scale.
"There are a lot of cities in the U.S. and Europe that have been doing it a very long time," she said. About 150 communities in North America collect scraps.
Among them is San Francisco, which is heading toward a goal of zero waste by 2020. The city created the first large-scale urban food scrap collection and made it mandatory in 2009, meaning that everyone must separate refuse into recyclable materials, compostable material and trash.
Curbside food scrap recycling also is available to 90 percent of the single-family homes in King County, Washington, which includes Seattle, as well as some neighborhoods in Minneapolis. More than 80 percent of food scrap programs are located in just three states -- Washington, Minnesota and California, according to BioCycle magazine.
In Grayslake, about 75 residents at the Prairie Crossing subdivision contribute their scraps each week to the Prairie Crossing Learning Farm.
"Just like recycling so many years ago, people have to learn," said Eric Carlberg, farm manager.
Last winter, food scrap disposal was initiated at Great Lakes Naval Station. Scraps from the mess halls and kitchens are ground and placed into a sealed container that is taken to Midwest Organics, which counts the Chicago Botanic Garden among its big customers for compost.
"We're just looking for ways more and more to reduce our solid waste and recycle as much as we can," said Dave Jensen, recycling program manager.
Next week, Oak Park will begin a voluntary food scrap composting pilot program for about 1,300 homes on one landscape waste route. For $12 a month, participants get a 96-gallon cart for organic materials, including yard waste and food scraps.
"It is the trend of the future," said Karen Rozmus, Oak Park environmental services manager. "We're going to be watching very closely. Is it cost-effective? Is it a measurable diversion rate that we're getting?" Rosmus said other local communities are very interested in seeing what happens.
As the agency that oversees waste disposal and recycling, SWALCO was directed by the Lake County Board to dramatically increase the recycling rate to 60 percent from about 39 percent by 2020.
A "60 Percent Recycling Task Force" met for more than a year and emerged last fall with 36 recommendations for the residential, commercial, and construction and demolition sectors.
Because it is easier to measure how much material goes into landfills than how much is recycled, the goal is to get Lake County residents to throw away less, the agency determined.
Those recommendations range from enhancing existing recycling programs to eventually enacting mandatory measures, including for food scrap collection, if voluntary participation doesn't work.
Based on the knowledge gained from a residential pilot program and the available capacity to dispose of the scraps, officials by the summer of 2013 would decide whether to expand the practice.
So while food scraps may be the low-hanging fruit of the waste diversion stream, efforts to harvest it are evolving. Willis estimated the maturity of the effort at 2 or 3 on a scale of 10.
"It's not going to be tomorrow, but it's moving in that direction," says Joe Zepada, CEO of Nu-Earth Organics in Waukegan, which secured a state permit last summer to compost food scraps with landscape waste into compost.
In its first full season, Nu-Earth has gotten close to 50 tons of foods scraps a week, according to Zepada, all from commercial sources including Costco and Wal-Mart.
But so few composters exist, it's hard to get the program going, Zepada said.
Whole Foods started a program about a year ago that now has been expanded to at least eight Chicago area stores. The practice has lowered the amount of waste taken to landfills from 90 percent to 10 percent, according to the chain.
Jewel-Osco began food scrap recycling last November at three stores in Bloomington-Normal and quickly added 18 more locations, including Lake Forest and Lake Zurich. As of last week, however, the chain announced that five of the programs, including the two in Lake County, were canceled due to "issues" the company declined to discuss.
"We think this whole thing is a challenge," said John Dunsing, who coordinates the program for Jewel-Osco. "It's just so new."