Composting on wheels

Compost Ranger co-founder Nathan Burnell started his grassroots efforts with Cycles Compost, where he and others picked up food waste at local restaurants on bicycles. David Quick/Staff

Three local millennials working in local restaurants in recent years know first-hand about a problem that has been buzzing in recent months: food waste.

The issue is increasingly being recognized as among our nation's most challenging social and environmental issues.

According to government statistics, growing food uses half of America's land space and 80 percent of its fresh water.

Yet more than 40 percent of the food grown in or imported to the United States never makes it to the table. That's 36 million pounds of food worth about $165 billion annually, according to figures in 2012.

For the past two years, Thomas Bowen and Nathan Burnell and, more recently, Whitney Jordan, have been experimenting with one solution to the problem.

Bowen and Burnell, ages 26 and 29, met while working at Bull Street Gourmet a few years ago and have worked in other restaurants, but were recently hired by SMART Recycling, a commercial composting company that started in Charleston and is now based in Cary, N.C. Jordan currently works at The Alley.

The three have been collecting food waste — via bicycle — from restaurants on the Charleston peninsula and were composting the food in bins made out of former shipping pallets at various, often barren, locations around the city.

They also were reusing three-gallon food containers from restaurants, otherwise thrown in recycling containers and “downcycled” to a lesser product, to use the compost to grow food. They call the containers, which are wrapped in burlap, “bonsai buckets.”

Burnell has a virtual cornucopia of foods growing in dozens of bonsai buckets at his apartment on the East Side.

They have named their volunteer project Cycles Compost Charleston and are hoping it will be a model for other communities.

Besides food waste, they see it addressing other sustainability issues, including the disconnected relationship people have with yard waste and the costly, industrialized model of collecting it via trucks and hauling it to a landfill.

Still, as restaurant workers, they have seen how much food from kitchens ends up as garbage and ponder land and water wastes as part of it.

“Food waste, that's a big issue,” says Bowen. “People aren't aware of the systems involved in growing food. Less than 1 percent of the population is growing the food for everyone else. How can that be? They (food producers) do that through huge scale. By doing so, they aren't taking care of the need. They are running a business.”

The issue of food waste first garnered attention with a series of books, including Tristum Stuart's “Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal” in 2009 and Jonathon Bloom's “American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It) in 2011.

In 2012, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Protection Agency issued separate reports on it. The EPA's “Food: Too Good to Waste” featured a “Food Recovery Hierarchy” that prioritized goals in order of preference.

At the top, goals included waste reduction and feeding hungry people. At the bottom, composting and taking food to a landfill or incinerator.

As a result, restaurants, grocery chains, food processing companies, municipalities and the federal government are adopting strategies for reducing food waste.

Recently, New York City announced that it would expand collection of “organic waste” to 70,000 households and turn it into compost or biofuel that it hopes to sell.

While Cycles Compost Charleston saw a niche for a smaller, more community-based approach to the problem that can provide an array of opportunities for urban agriculture, the lure of a more stable opportunity in the same field was understandable.

If someone doesn't step up to take over pick-ups, Cycles Compost Charleston likely will die on the proverbial vine.

Dana Allen, the former dining room manager for FIG and Bowen's girlfriend, was integral in helping Bowen focus his interests and create Cycles Compost. She was hired by SMART Recycling and played a role in getting Bowen and Burnell hired.

“It's been a journey for us. There's been a lot of trial and error,” says Allen of their experiences in approaching the food waste problem.

And while she's excited to see more restaurants address the problem with food waste, the scale that it represents is overwhelming for a few people on bicycles to address.

Allen says dealing with the food waste issue has created job opportunities that also are activist in nature.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.