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Lena Firestone: Santa Barbara Should Not Scrap Its Food Scraps Collection Program

Despite tough fiscal times, the value of sustaining it will be worth it in the long run

In a community where we pride ourselves on eco-conscious living and boast Earth Day events that are 40,000-people strong, it seems strange that an important environmental initiative such as the Food Scraps Collection Program should be quietly perched on the verge of disintegration.

Yet, as Santa Barbara’s trash problems have increased beside our city’s dwindling budget, some City Council members have argued to cut the program in an effort to save funds, while many Santa Barbarians have yet to even hear about it.

To fully understand the issues at stake in the Food Scraps debate, we need to look back at the history of the Food Scraps program. In 2009, environmentalist Eric Lohela and a few passionate colleagues created the Food Scraps Collection Program to help offset Santa Barbara’s heaping trash problems. The idea was beautifully simple: Collect food waste from restaurants and schools to be converted to compost rather than dumped in the city’s landfills. In theory, this program would save Santa Barbara money and reduce our carbon footprint at the same time. A true win-win.

Motivated by reduced prices and ethical responsibilities, 130 Santa Barbara businesses signed up for the Food Scraps program. Compost bins in restaurants were priced at about 85 percent less than conventional waste bins, because composting is less expensive than dumping waste landfills, and because restaurants needed additional incentive to sign up.

Arguably, the food scrap rates may have been a little too low and the number of businesses estimated to sign up may have been a little too high, because today the city finds itself $600,000 in the hole from having overestimated the revenue of the Food Scraps program. This debt most likely will mean an increase in trash rates, and some council members are arguing that it is unfair for residents to bear the burden of a commercial issue.

While raising residential trash prices presents a real problem, the solution should not be to scrap the Food Scrap program. After all, we have to think of the long-term and environmental costs of such a short-term solution. Santa Barbara County landfills are filling up fast.

While City Council meetings on this issue have been poorly attended, one local restaurant owner is determined to raise awareness. Robert Perez of Seagrass Restaurant, 30 E. Ortega St., and his family are passionate supporters of the Food Scraps and restaurant recycling programs. Perez understands the current financial shortfalls of the Food Scraps program, but he believes the program can and should be saved.

“There are over 500 restaurants in Santa Barbara,” Perez said, “and yet only 130 have joined the Food Scraps program.”

If more restaurants were to sign up, the individual cost of collecting the food waste would go down substantially, and the program would reach the profit margins that had originally been estimated.

“Managing a city is like running a business,” said Perez, acknowledging that neither is easy in such tough economic times. However, he argues that both should put sustainability first.

“At Seagrass, we pay more for ingredients because sustainability is important to us,” said Perez, implying that the city should do the same.

Regardless of the rate increases, when it comes to the Food Scraps Collection Program, we can’t afford not to do it. With the Tajiguas Landfill set to close in a little more than a decade, the Food Scraps program shouldn’t become another thing we throw in the trash.

Ways to Help Save the Food Scraps Collection Program

» Ask your waiter about the Food Scraps Program when dining out. If local restaurant owners are made aware of this program and its importance to their customers, they will be more inclined to sign up.

» Let your City Council members know how you feel. Email them, call them, pester them at dinner parties.

» Raise awareness by sharing this article with your friends.

— Lena Firestone is a content writer for WinWin Living Santa Barbara.

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