Welcome to Table Scraps, an intermittent series on the growing problem of food waste and what some eateries, officials, farms, institutes, and everyday people are doing right. This isn’t a guilt trip, just a way to unpack initiatives attempting to reduce kitchen waste and food loss, as more than 40 percent of all food is wasted in the U.S. We’ll explore backyard composting to city programs, restaurant tips to technology, and anything related to this global issue. Heat up those leftovers and settle in.
I get a lot of emails, guys. Some are nice, some not so much, and some (okay, many) spark action.
One in particular was from a reader of this series, a snippet of which states, “I noticed that there is no mention of the only local company that offers food waste pick up for a minimal price to nearly the entirety of Maricopa County.”
This turned out to be Victoria Skye Erran, a food fellow with the Maricopa County Food System Coalition and an Arizona State University student. She says she’s passionate about ending food waste and has been composting out of her apartment for five years now.
Composting out of an apartment. This is something I can’t picture doing in my old college setup (a sweltering third-story two-bedroom in Glendale heavily decorated with my roommate’s Tim Burton posters and furniture, which she got in the divorce). So how does this emailer do it?
“The company that picks up my food waste has a contract with the city of Phoenix to service some of their buildings. The company is Recycled City!” she went on to reveal.
I’ve of course heard of Recycled City, but it lived in my brain as a mental bullet point. Something on a list titled “To Check Out Later.” But I checked them out now. And they’re doing some wild stuff.
Despite the “recycled” part, R. City (now its rebranded name) is all about compost — not, like, your crunched Pamplemousse La Croix cans.
To oversimplify the process, it’s a compostables pickup program, much like your trash and (hopefully) recycling services. Toss your food scraps and compostable items (napkins, paper towels, some disposable dishware) into a five-gallon bucket, which is picked up. What’s done with it? For the most part, the receptacle’s contents are plowed into soil in south Phoenix — a process they call Farmland for the Future. (More on that later.)
But it’s not just for apartments. In fact, most of the food waste collected is from commercial accounts, meaning nonresidential. What I’m trying to say is, it’s for everyone.
“Every single household — single family, multifamily — or commercial business can sign up for our food waste and other compostables collection,” says JD Hill, R. City founder and co-owner.
“Their food waste, and other compostables, is going to be collected by us, it’s going to be composted by us, and it’s going to be used or given back by us.”
By “used,” Hill means tilled at their farm located near 19th Avenue and Baseline Road on 16.5 acres. “We take food waste out of the waste stream and use it to regenerate the soil.” Hill says. Or people can opt to have composted soil returned (not sold) to them for their own use.
R. City first offers a 14-day free trial for pretty much every municipality in metro Phoenix. Avondale to the Ahwatukee area. Queen Creek to Cave Creek. Scottsdale to — surprise — Surprise. And the free trial period is pretty crucial.
“People sign up for their free trial and they come back a week or two later and they’ll go, ‘I had no idea how much food waste I had.’ And then some people just think they’re going to have tons of it, and they really don’t have too much,” Hill says. “So, it seems like people really don't have a grasp on how much food waste they really have.”
The trial period allows people to truly see the amount of food waste is generated at their household level. This helps future customers decide if they need a weekly pickup ($25 a month), or just monthly ($10 a month). Or an extra compost container. Or whatever. And before you even ask, those who sign up get a sanitized bin, a liner, an air-tight lid, and — hello — an odor-preventer. So the little guy doesn’t have to go out on the balcony.
In case you were curious, Hill says on a daily basis, R. City diverts 12,000 to 13,000 pounds of food waste from landfills. About 10,000 pounds is from commercial, 2,000 or 3,000 from residential.
Many of those commercial accounts are from the Valley food and drink world. Some long-term participants include Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co., Four Peaks Brewing Co., Atlasta Catering & Event Concepts, Juice Core, and more. Major Phoenix restaurant scene players are signed up as well, including FnB Restaurant and The Breadfruit & Rum Bar. Pizza People Pub was one of the first restaurants to sign up; Persepshen was one of the latest.
Other commercial accounts include — oh, I don’t know — Phoenix City Hall. R. City is also part of the Re-Imagine Phoenix initiative. Therefore, food waste and compostable receptacles are found throughout the facility.
Hill, a very to-the-point young man originally from Minnesota, established Recycled City, as it was called then, in September 2013. He started in a backyard, graduating to a 2.5-acre plot after partnering with a local farmer. Now, as we already mentioned, it’s up to 16.5 acres.
In September 2015, Hill’s friend from Minnesota, Stan Swenson, moved to the Valley. Hill moved to his couch to let his friend stay. Now, Swenson is a part-owner, and he and Hill have been growing the business together since 2017 along with some investors (though some friends, volunteers, and family members have come in and out of the core team). Now, R. City has 10 people on the payroll.
So, okay, why farmland?
“My goal from day one has been to collect as much food waste as possible and put it back into the ground — you know, Farmland for the Future,” Hill says. “We want to create as much fertile farmland as possible.”
The setup now is on an old cotton farm. R. City is not currently “farming” anything but rebuilding and regenerating the soil with the food waste compost.
The R. City website has a pithy way of explaining what the end game is here.
“We turn what was being sent to a landfill into compost and use it to grow chemical and pesticide-free produce for the local community and you! Parts of Downtown Phoenix are a certified food desert (by the USDA). That means 33% or more of the community lives more than 1 mile away from a grocery store that carries fresh produce. It’s time to change that, so please help us by donating your compost back to our farms so we can build farmland in these communities!”
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As for R. City’s future, Hill hopes to partner with a municipality, or multiple municipalities, to join their food waste pickup service with trash, recycling, yard waste, etc. Hill says there’s a lot of opportunity to save municipalities money by taking food waste, some of the heaviest garbage, out of the waste stream. “We need a partner,” he says.
For now, R. City seems to be growing organically (sorry). Hill says they add one net customer daily. But future customers have to either hear about them (as R. City does not invest in advertising) or try to Google possible food waste services.
“They have to think of it themselves,” Hill says. “They have to think, ‘I wonder if somebody would just come pick this up?’”
So that’s how you can compost in your apartment.