From earth to table and back again
It may come as a surprise to some Chronicle readers that although the city of Austin is committed to residential single-stream recycling, local businesses are not allowed to join in this popular program. This is particularly frustrating for restaurants; estimates hold that 79% of what ends up in a food-service Dumpster is actually recyclable. The sheer volume of wine and beer bottles alone generated in a single evening at a restaurant or bar is astounding; multiply that by the hundreds of bars and restaurants we are blessed with here in Austin, and it paints a dispiriting picture of regrettable and pointless waste. In addition to glass, restaurants generate copious amounts of cardboard, cans, plastic, and preconsumer vegetative waste (onion skins, apple cores, eggshells, orange peels, celery tops, corn husks, etc.).
In fact, food service is the largest single contributor to landfill space nationally, and landfills (not cattle) are the biggest producers of methane gas, a significant contributor to global warming. Methane outgassing in landfills is caused by food wastes decomposing anaerobically, without sufficient oxygen. Methane is a less well-known greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but it's far more potent, having, pound for pound, 21 times the atmosphere-warming impact of CO2.
Chef Jimmy Mitchell, a native Texan, has returned to Austin after a remarkable national career to start a new company whose mission is to help restaurants go "green" and reduce their landfill contributions. Fittingly named Restau-rant Recyclers, it is a service that diverts all recyclable matter – including the food wastes – out of food service Dumpsters and redirects it to better channels. The plastic, cans, glass, and other recyclables are hauled to Ecology Action, and the cardboard and preconsumer vegetative wastes are hauled out to the countryside to be composted at Spicewood Gardens into beneficial humus. Humus is the organic component of soil; compost is the term used for man-made humus. Composting is an aerobic, oxygenating process that does not produce methane.
Mitchell has the expertise to redirect these waste streams in a cost-effective manner, due in large part to his varied background in the food service industry: He has been both chef and master gardener at progressive restaurants and wineries around the country. He became a certified master gardener and composter in 1991 through the Texas A&M Harris County Agricultural Extension and then went on to earn a degree from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in New York City.
He then worked in Northern California with celebrated chef John Ash at the Valley Oaks Food and Wine Center at Fetzer Vineyards, where great emphasis was placed on achieving sustainability. While at Valley Oaks, Mitchell was exposed to cutting-edge, ecologically conscious chefs such as Alice Waters, Charlie Trotter, and Annie Somerville. "In California, we composted everything," remembers Mitchell. "Fetzer Vineyards had the biggest compost pile in Mendocino County; it had to be half an acre."
Mitchell then returned to Texas, where he made a name for himself as executive chef at the Rainbow Lodge and Vallone's steak house in Houston, before taking charge of the Riversong Lodge in Alaska, Gaido's in Galveston, and the Hilltop Herb Farm in Cleveland, Texas. At most of these restaurants, Mitchell used his composting and gardening background to grow spectacular kitchen gardens, thus providing himself with the freshest and choicest of ingredients.
"It's time to get people out of the throwaway habit," says Mitchell. "As a chef, I have always been aware of how much organic waste a kitchen generates. As a gardener, I know how to use that waste to make something worthwhile: compost. With compost to fertilize, organic produce can be grown that has the superior flavor chefs are looking for.
"The ideal touted in California, 'from farm to table,' is really only half of the story," Mitchell avers. "It really ought to be, 'from earth to table and back to the earth.' That's the cycle of life!"
Mitchell makes his compost using the sheet-layering method, where humus is made by layering "green" nitrogen-rich organic matter (fruits, vegetables, grains, grass clippings) with "brown" carbon-rich organic matter (wood chips, cardboard, leaves, or hay) in an open-air environment, regularly turning the pile to allow oxygen to enter. This allows the organic matter to break down aerobically (with oxygen). Nutritionally rich soil is densely packed with humus, because aerobic decomposition is an essential part of replacing nutrients in the soil.
Gardeners tend to be compost fanatics, because compost is the gentlest, most effective fertilizer there is; unlike chemical fertilizers, compost builds up the soil rather than "burning" or sterilizing it. The fact that we haven't been returning organic waste matter into our agricultural areas has accelerated the depletion of our topsoil; it's a terrible shame, because a hundred years ago, our Great Plains had virgin soil of unprecedented fertility, making our "breadbasket" an agricultural marvel. The practice of farming as agribusiness has allowed our seemingly endless supply of topsoil to erode and wash away down the Mississippi River, along with petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers. In addition to decimating the topsoil, this runoff has created an oxygen-deprived "dead zone" the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico.
Compost, on the other hand, does not wash out into rivers and streams, causing imbalances of phosphorus and algae blooms that threaten wildlife and fish populations. Additionally, it encourages the varieties of microbial soil organisms that best nourish plants and adds essential micronutrients to the soil in a way synthetic fertilizers cannot.
It seems like a no-brainer to compost our food wastes rather than dumping them into overcrowded landfills where they release damaging greenhouse gases. By composting these wastes, we can improve our soil and slow down global warming. In municipalities across the United States, progressive cities are starting to adopt composting as a viable alternative to landfilling. New composting facilities experienced a 391% increase between 1997 and 2003, and cities like San Francisco and Seattle are putting mandatory recycling and composting laws on the books.
Restaurant Recyclers is poised to help bring Austin into this wave of the future – helping Austin restaurants that want to run a cleaner, greener ship while simultaneously reducing their Dumpster volume. First, Mitchell personally conducts a waste audit to assess what a restaurant needs in order to effectively redirect its waste stream. Then Restaurant Recyclers provides receptacles and signage for each type of waste and, if needed, can train kitchen staff not only to use the new system but also to prep vegetables and fruits in ways that reduce the amount of waste. "I can show kitchen workers how to cut up peppers so that little more than a tablespoon of it needs to be thrown away and how to slice up a tomato so that 99.9 percent of it is usable," says Mitchell. He creates a schedule for collection of the recyclable materials and kitchen scraps, and Restaurant Recyclers hauls it all away in 55-gallon barrels carried on flatbed trailers. "I have structured this service so that it will not cost restaurants any more than they are already spending," avers Mitchell. "Our fee comes out of the savings that restaurants realize on reduced Dumpster hauling. They can go green without spending an extra dime."
Out at Mitchell's Bee Creek composting site on Highway 71, his original compost pile has grown from 32 cubic yards to 500 cubic yards since the first of March, when Restaurant Recyclers went into operation. When the enormous tarpaulin that holds in necessary moisture is peeled back, it reveals rich, chocolate-brown compost. The crumbling compost exudes a heavenly aroma like that of an old-growth forest floor. I am an avid home composter, and I have to say that the quality of Mitchell's compost, especially after such a relatively short time, is proof positive of his master composter credentials.
When the compost has reached the humus stage, Mitchell will be selling it for $4 for a 40-pound bag under his Chef's Compost label. Unlike other locally available composts, Mitchell's is sold "prescreened" (sifted through hardware cloth) and ready to use. It will also be available for $40 a cubic yard, for those who need large amounts of humus to renew their soil.
Right now, Restaurant Recyclers is working with Newflower Farmers Market and Primizie Osteria; other chef-driven establishments that are already in the organic, local-food mindset are likely to be signing up in the coming weeks. But in this difficult business cycle, Mitchell may need to be able to make his service cheaper than conventional garbage collection before conservative or corporate restaurants decide to make a switch. If the city, in its efforts to promote green policies, were to give area businesses tax credits for recycling, or even admit local restaurants to the single-stream program, it would make a huge difference; decreased landfill usage alone could make such a change feasible. In the meantime, Restaurant Recyclers will be there for those who aren't willing to wait for government to catch up with the people.
Contact Restaurant Recyclers at 466-0575, or see www.restaurantrecyclers.com.