University City Food Recycling Project Brings Together Amtrak, EPA, Philabundance
Philadelphia’s University City District (UCD) has long exhibited a commitment to sustainability. But with its new Food Recycling Program, the UCD is thinking outside the blue bin to help reduce its carbon footprint and feed its less fortunate residents.
First came the Dirt Factory, a community composting facility that also functions as an educational center. Its primary mission is to convert fallen leaves (which would otherwise clog streams) and food scraps (which produce greenhouse gases in landfills) to nutrient-rich compost for neighborhood gardens. Over the last four years, the Dirt Factory has delivered some 10-20 tons of organic compost to individual and community gardens per year.
But with a host of new partners, including Philabundance, Philly Compost and Bennett Compost, several businesses from 30th Street Station, and support from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food Recycling Program is taking waste prevention to a whole new level.
“I really have to give most of the credit to the EPA,” UCD Policy and Research Manager Seth Budick said. “They found out about what we were doing with the Dirt Factory and were really interested in how that could be the centerpiece of a larger approach to reducing food waste in a defined geographical area.”ucd-food-recycling-project-web
The traditional method, Budick said, has been to work on reducing waste in a given industry sector. But University City is appealing for a different, geographical approach because it acts as a microcosm, encompassing a wide variety of generators and consumers of food waste.
In addition, the EPA already had a relationship with Philabundance and SHARE Food Program.
Last year, Amtrak reached out to the UCD about using the Dirt Factory as a site for 30th Street Station’s food waste. As it turned out, the Factory didn’t have the capacity to handle that much waste, but the EPA helped come up with other options – local compost haulers that could cart away unusable material, and food pantries in University City happy to accept day-old pastries and other edible goods.
The EPA brought its WasteWise certification to the project, which follows a sort of reverse-pyramid model for food waste. At the top is the preferred method of reducing waste at the source, followed by feeding hungry people, feeding animals, finding industrial uses, composting, and finally incineration or landfill disposal.
The challenge, of course, is motivating individuals and businesses to donate or compost excess food.
“In Philadelphia, there’s no [financial] benefit to composting and no cost to not composting if you’re a resident. So what we’re trying to do is make it as easy as possible for people to compost,” Budick said. The UCD has expanded hours at the Dirt Factory and is working on opening an additional drop-off site to expand its geographic reach.
Budick is confident that good press, tax deductions for donated food and the potential for reduced trash disposal costs will provide enough of a draw for businesses to join the project. In the future, he hopes to aggregate enough demand to allow for discounted compost pickup rates. As the number of corporate participants rises, Budick envisions creating an incentive program in which individual participants receive discounts from partnering stores and services.
Budick keeps track of the volume of material entering and leaving the Dirt Factory. With new technology from the EPA, he said, he’ll be able to translate those measurements into equivalent accomplishments – number of tons of greenhouse gases prevented, or number of cars taken off the road, for example.
“We’re going to try to double total participation in the first year, both business and residential,” Budick said. “And I think we’re well within the range of accomplishing that.”