Correctional Facilities a Fit for Composting in Santa Cruz

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — The market for composting programs may be improving, according to officials from the composting program at Santa Cruz County’s four correctional facilities.
The facilities, which vary in security level, require that all food waste be sorted into a compostable pile, and only compostable plates, cups and flatware are used, which includes utensils made of potato starch and sugar beet paper bowls.
All food scrap waste is put into bins and composted by the county and administrated by its Recycling and Solid Waste Services department.
“We’ve cut down to 50 percent less (waste) than we used to have,” said Tim Sanford, food service manager for the county’s jails. “The main impact is that it’s out of the landfill waste stream.”
After a pilot program in the city of Santa Cruz did well, it was instated on a countywide level for facilities in the city that produce a high amount of food waste.
The compost materials at the correctional facilities primarily include leftover food and debris from lettuce leaves and organics.
Sanford said that although a few years ago the cost of compostable dishware was four times as much as foam plates, the price has come down to about twice as much.
“The market has changed,” he said. “Two years ago there weren’t a lot of companies making bio-compostable plates and bowls, but now the cost has come down quite a bit.”
Sanford said the compost program works best at places with large Dumpsters, such as big restaurants.
“I suppose in the future they’ll continue to expand, but you have to make sure there’s a market for the compost, and they have the equipment to do it,” he said. “They’re still developing some of those markets.”
Composting food waste also requires special bio-disposable bags, according to Sanford.
“You don’t just want to throw that (food waste) in, you’ll have animals,” he said. “You have to be willing to buy special bags that look like plastic, but they’re bio-compostable so they will break down like everything else.”
Facilities that compost have to take those extra costs on themselves, including those in Santa Cruz required to do so by law.
The biggest challenges are training people and changing their behavior, Sanford said.
“A lot of people, like the minimum (security level) inmates, derive personal satisfaction that they’re being green,” he said.
Inmates at the minimum-security facilities are typically compliant when asked to separate compostable materials from regular waste, he said.
“As you move to maximum security, you don’t get any compliance at all,” he said. “The challenges are to train people, and to know the limitations of where it’s going to work and where it’s not.”
The department also recycles as much as possible, from tin cans and cardboard boxes to milk cartons and the plastic buckets that eggs come in.
The county also maintains a program to keep the ocean clean, the result of its location on the coast.
“They’re real particular about making sure that wastewater doesn’t get washed down into the storm sewers, at least in the kitchens,” Sanford said.
Anything with grease or debris is washed in a separate area where it can go through grease traps to prevent it from going to storm sewers, he said.