Seagrass restaurant participates in the Food Scraps program, and is advocating for it, but funding for the composting initiative that started two years ago is now on the city's chopping block. The owners and operators of of the family-run Seagrass, from left: Erin Gailsdaughter, Chef Robert Perez, Marianne Perez, and Ruben Perez.

In a town where we pride ourselves on eco-conscious living and boast Earth Days that are 40,000 people strong, it seems strange that an important environmental initiative like 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 for cutting the program in an effort to save funds, while many other Santa Barbarians have yet to even hear about it.

In order to fully understand the issues at stake in the 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 our 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.

Lena Firestone

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 into 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 over-estimated the revenue of the Food Scraps program. This debt will most likely mean an increase in trash rates, and some councilmembers 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 Scraps 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 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, yet believes the program can and should be saved. “There are over 500 restaurants in Santa Barbara,” Perez pointed out, “And yet only 130 have joined the Food Scraps program.” If more restaurants were to sign up, the per-customer cost for collecting 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,” Perez said, acknowledging that neither is easy in such tough economic times. However, he argues that both should put sustainability first.

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 over a decade, the Food Scraps program shouldn’t become another thing we throw in the trash.

To help save the Food Scraps Collection Program, ask your waiter about it when you’re dining out. If 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. And raise awareness by sharing this article with your friends.


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