Food Scraps graphic

You may have followed the city of Madison’s ongoing attempts to collect food scraps. Last fall, 165 households participated in another curbside pickup program.

Although it was technically declared a success, with 4 tons of waste diverted from landfills in just eight weeks, the city learned it wouldn’t make fiscal sense to scale the program. The route took five hours, largely because the garbage collectors had to check all food scraps for contaminants before pickup. They collected only a quarter of the volume normal trash routes can manage.

But there is a silver lining. Madison residents can now bring their own food scraps to three drop-off sites, the city announced in May. The city will continue its partnership with the same Middleton-based anaerobic biodigester, now that both know it can work. It’s a small but meaningful step forward in a regional market many believe is ripe for food waste innovation.

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I never gave much thought to food waste. I’m talking scraps — banana peels, apple cores, that weird vegetable in my Community Supported Agriculture box I pledge to use but never do. I’m a faithful recycler of paper and cans, but I figured my food waste broke down in the garbage and … I don’t know, disappeared naturally.

Well it does, sort of. As organic material decomposes in the landfill, it creates potent harmful methane. Additionally, the Dane County landfill is running out of space, and food waste currently accounts for a quarter of landfill volume — more than any other single material.

Food waste also presents a fiscal opportunity. Scraps can be converted and sold as a finished product, such as compost, or as an alternative fuel. But no large-scale processing facility exists in our region. The only options are Blue Ribbon Organics in Caledonia and the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh. Both would require trucks hauling waste three to four hours round-trip from Madison, canceling out any reduction in our carbon footprint.

Some Wisconsin startups are finding success with food waste. Milwaukee’s Compost Crusader collects food scraps in full-sized trucks and hauls them to nearby Blue Ribbon Organics for composting. In Eau Claire, a family-owned startup called Earthbound Environmental Solutions is doing its own composting on a scale large enough to provide full-service pickup for surrounding area residents and businesses.

Dane County is home to a handful of small companies for hire: Curbside Composter, Rooted Curbside Compost and Earth Stew Compost Services. (The latter is not taking on new clients, according to its website.) Customers throw food scraps in a 5-gallon bucket and put it on the curb. These businesses leave a clean bucket in exchange and turn the food waste into compost at their own farms and community gardens. This helps, because only Madison residents will be able to take advantage of the food scrap drop-off sites.

One potential breakthrough on the horizon: The city and county landed a $39,000 federal feasibility grant to study building a processor at the landfill. Having one could make residential collection programs possible, allow existing businesses to scale or prompt a nimble startup to innovate.

Plenty of people are already working on this problem on the front end. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 30% to 40% of the entire local food supply is wasted. (Check out the Food Waste and Recovery Guide published by the city, University of Wisconsin–Extension and Public Health Madison and Dane County.) They say converting food scraps is a good start, but the last resort before landfilling. The most desirable option is to create less food waste in the first place and then use what’s left to feed hungry people, followed by animals. Only then does it make sense to process food scraps.

Dane County residents have historically demanded sustainability initiatives. Our food advocacy culture is strong and our startup ecosystem is thriving. Waste management is inherently an industry dependent on public-private partnerships — so what are the entrepreneurial opportunities? If we are going to invest in processing, this region seems ready.

Maggie Ginsberg is a monthly columnist and senior contributing writer for Madison Magazine.