‘A valuable resource’: Traverse City restaurants aim to reduce food waste, greenhouse gases

‘A valuable resource’: Traverse City restaurants aim to reduce food waste, greenhouse gases
January 2, 2024 Interlochen Public Radio

By Izzy Ross, Interlochen Public Radio

This coverage is made possible through a partnership between IPR and Grist, a nonprofit independent media organization dedicated to telling stories of climate solutions and a just future.

On an early Thursday evening, people are seated around the dining room of Trattoria Stella, an Italian restaurant on the ground floor of the Grand Traverse Commons, just outside the city’s downtown area.

It’s warm and softly lit. Chatter and the clink of cutlery fills the room.

Head back to the kitchen, and it’s bright and loud. Sous-chef Austin Lowe is overseeing cooks preparing oysters, salads, and pizzas.

On the floor next to him is a green bucket.

“We have all these biodegradable bags and usually we have these 22-quart containers set up at all of the stations,” he said.

The restaurant has been composting some of its food waste with the local nonprofit, SEEDS Ecology and Education Centers, for about two years.

They can’t compost oils or most cooked foods, Lowe said.

A compost bucket in Trattoria Stella with unused bread. While there are some restrictions on what SEEDS can compost, sous-chef Austin Lowe said that additional food scraps go to his pigs. Nov. 30, 2023. (Photo: Izzy Ross/IPR News)

But they compost peels, vegetable scraps, old herbs — things people don’t normally eat. The restaurant estimates it composts an average of 100 to 120 pounds a week.

Traverse City will see more efforts like this in 2024. Some restaurants downtown could start composting by this summer, due to a new program sponsored by the city’s Downtown Development Authority.

The goal is to support local businesses and cut down on food waste and greenhouse gases, according to Traverse City’s Downtown District Authority. And it could also build off of other efforts in the region.

Lots to work with

Grand Traverse County generates around 19,000 tons of organic waste annually. When that waste goes to the landfill, it creates a lot of methane; the Environmental Protection Agency says food waste creates over half of a municipal landfill’s methane emissions, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

Composting is one way to reduce those emissions. The process aerates organic waste as it’s decomposing, which means bacteria don’t emit as much methane. That’s because the microbes that produce methane aren’t active when oxygen is present.

The goal is to get 10 to 20 of Traverse City’s downtown restaurants to participate in composting, according to the Downtown District Authority.

In 2023, SEEDS composted over 6,700 pounds of food waste, according to Program Director Jennifer Flynn. Along with Trattoria Stella, SEEDS works with the assisted living community Cordia. It also recently started composting with The Cooks’ House restaurant.

The food scraps go to the composting site at Historic Barns Park.

Those food scraps are used in composting demonstrations, Flynn said. The finished compost produce is applied at SEEDS’ educational farm, which grows food that is donated to the Father Fred Food Pantry.

Flynn said her organization works on educating their partners and the public around Traverse City.

Statewide efforts

The state has increasingly focused on composting as a way to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Michigan sends about 2 billion pounds of food waste to landfills every year. One of the goals in the state’s climate plan is to cut that in half by 2030.

In all, there are 117 registered composters in the state.

Last year, lawmakers changed Michigan’s solid waste law to promote recycling and composting and improve its regulations.

Those changes require counties to come up with new materials management plans that focus on recycling and composting, instead of just sending waste to landfills.

Phil Roos, director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, said in a news release that new materials management plans will be a step toward “changing the mindset from treating our trash as a burden to that of using it as a valuable resource.”

A graph comparing the amount of methane emitted by food waste and all other wastes in municipal solid waste landfills in the U.S. (Graph: Environmental Protection Agency)

Even before that legislation, communities around northern Michigan were working to get composting programs off the ground.

That includes Emmet County, which Flynn calls a “shining example of composting in the region,” and has been recycling since the 1990s.

“We operate a transfer station, recycling center and composting and wood recycling site in Harbor Springs,” said Lindsey Walker, who works with the county’s recycling and public works department. “We have really good policy, in the absence of both state and federal policy, to incentivize recycling and diversion from landfill.”

Basically, they aimed at people’s wallets — in Emmet County, it’s more expensive to throw stuff away than it is to recycle or compost it.

And that system seems to be working. About 40 businesses in Emmet County now compost, Walker said, and most of its residents recycle and compost. Through the county’s system and other recycling programs, more than 40% of its waste was recovered in 2021 — twice the current statewide recycling rate.

Walker is also co-chair of the Michigan Organics Council, which is a chapter of the national U.S. Composting Council.

She said the state’s new materials management initiative is an opportunity for counties to consider how to prevent things from going to the landfill.

Composting can be complicated and hard to scale. But Emmet County was well-positioned when it started handling food scraps in 2015; Walker said the county already controlled how the waste moved, and it had recycling and yard waste programs.

“Our restaurants that were already recycling with us and doing a great job of not sending materials to landfill were looking for that next low hanging fruit — no pun intended,” she said. “Food waste is a really easy, actionable item to move out of the waste stream, and into the circular economy of composting in Michigan.”

Walker said it’s a good sign that Traverse City is investing in composting.

In addition to downtown restaurants, the city is also working on a household composting pilot program, which it plans to roll out this year.

Catch more news at Great Lakes Now: 

Four Michigan tribes receive funding to support recycling initiatives

Documentary explores climate resilience in northern Michigan

Featured image: Sous-chef Austin Lowe prepares dishes in the kitchen of Trattoria Stella in Traverse City. Nov. 30, 2023. (Photo: Izzy Ross/IPR News)

1 Comment

  1. Diana Johnson 7 months ago

    Oh, this article is an absolute gem! As a Traverse City local, I couldn’t be prouder of our restaurants taking a stand against food waste and greenhouse gases. It’s like witnessing the culinary scene evolve into an eco-friendly superhero. Kudos to our chefs for turning leftovers into treasures and making our city greener! Dining out just got a whole lot more delicious and sustainable. https://nearestlandfill.com/org/dale-county-cd-landfill/

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