Santa Barbara’s Compost Gap

Why Are Food Scraps All Dressed Up with Nowhere to Go?

Courtesy Photo

Whenever an environmentally minded friend visits my tiny kitchen, I get the same question: “Um, where’s your compost?” It’s a reasonable inquiry. Carrot tops, corn cobs, and watermelon rinds crowd valuable landfill space, and worse, food scraps release atmosphere-warming methane as they decompose. Composting, on the other hand, boosts soil nutrients and cuts down emissions. But without a residential compost collection program here in Santa Barbara, or home space big enough for a bin, I have to admit, regrettably, that my kitchen waste lands in the trash.

So why doesn’t our proudly green city have compost pickup? If you’re of the mind, as county staff is, that waste should live and die locally, the problem is a dearth of industrial composting facilities, said Leslie Wells, county waste collection manager. The Santa Maria–based Engel & Grey facility processes food waste from UCSB, as well as from nearby North County farms and schools, but other operations have struggled to secure and maintain permits to serve the South Coast.

Engel & Grey used to also handle food scraps that the city collects from more than 200 restaurants, but it stopped after running into contamination issues. When mayonnaise jars and wine bottles wound up in bins, keeping stock clean became too expensive. So the city had to switch to a different processor, Agromin, that works out of Oxnard and Chino. Rene Eyerly, city environmental services manager, said that program keeps 3,200 tons of food waste out of the landfill each year.

Resolving these processing and contamination hurdles for residential collection will have to happen soon ​— ​California has committed to composting and recycling 75 percent of its solid waste by 2020. The county has plans to build a new compost separator and digester at the Tajiguas Landfill, and the city will soon discuss a potential collection program. However, these proposals could take years to implement. In the meantime, here are a few options for taking matters into your own hands:

“Everyone has space for a worm bin,” according to county compost specialist Sam Dickinson, who composted even when he lived in a 600-square-foot studio. Dickinson recommends making your own bin by drilling holes in a lidded plastic tub, buying worms online, and bedding them ​— ​along with your food scraps ​— ​in newspaper. The county’s “Composting ABC’s” pamphlet at has additional instructions. (See for the PDF.)

If worms aren’t your style, the county sells Earth Machine composters for $45 at the South Coast Recycling & Transfer Station (4430 Calle Real). The bin won’t produce the same dark, powdery garden-gold that worms do, but it’s self-contained and designed to prevent rodents from taking up residence.

There are also workshops around town to help. The County of Santa Barbara schedules compost workshops on its website,, and Impact Hub Funk Zone (10 E. Yanonali St.) holds a free Compost & Recycling Program on the first Wednesday of every month.


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