The vertical war on food waste

The month of May played host to International Compost Awareness Week – and if we lived in San Francisco, this would mean a great deal more to us as vertical dwellers.

According to Dr Vivienne Waller from the Centre for Urban Transition, Swinburne University, this is because: “In San Francisco, two thirds of the residents live in apartment buildings and it is illegal for anyone to put food waste into a rubbish bin.”

This means that every San Francisco apartment building must have space for the storage of food scraps and for their collection for off-site composting.

While not (yet) illegal here, there is growing interest in how we as vertical dwellers can deal with our ever growing food waste.

The accepted sustainability mantra is to first reduce, then reuse, and lastly, recycle.

As regards initially reducing our food waste, there are a few technology-based options emerging, such as smart fridges which prompt us to use our food before it expires. But for those of us who do not wish to be nagged by our appliances, there is a raft of apps that can help us be more creative when utilising what we have in our fridges. These include the likes of Mealtime or Supercook where you enter what ingredients you have and are provided with suggested recipes.

Taking some liberties with the “reuse” category, the sharing economy offers a few options for those liking a more social way of using their excess. Referred to as “meal sharing”, there are several different models. Some are based on reciprocity (you cook, then I cook), others ask for a financial contribution towards the cost of the meal and others, such as Neighbour Flavour, are a commercial enterprise, which “enables us to buy home cooking from those around us”.

Finally we return to recycling, turning food waste into something else. While several businesses have gained publicity from how they are reusing their waste (including Moducware™, a fully compostable tableware designed by RMIT’s Green Innovator, Ruby Chan), currently the main option open to vertical dwellers is composting – turning food scraps into “black gold”.

The good news on this front is that vertical dwellers have the options of in-apartment composting and building-based composting.

Regarding in-apartment composting, last year Whirlpool promoted the launch of its Zera Food Recycler (though concerns were raised about its cost, time to compost and the ongoing need for additives). Another option is Smart Cara, which appears to address these challenges. So now we just need a personal account from an early, vertical dwelling, adopter (any volunteers?).

The option of building-based composting is growing in popularity and there are different approaches to this.  As noted by Dr Waller, vertical dwellers in Australia can choose to have a commercial composting company collect their food waste or they can choose to compost their food scraps on-site. This can be done using either worm farms or high-speed, in-vessel composters (which can convert food waste into an immature compost product in as little as 24 hours).

But technology is only part of the approach. To make this initiative work requires end-to-end design.  For example, one Melbourne-based apartment building has chosen a high-speed in-vessel composter and placed this in its basement. In this apartment block, there is a food scrap bucket on each floor for residents to place all of their food scraps, including meat and dairy. The building manager regularly empties these buckets into the composter and the compost output is collected, composted further and blended for sale.

This approach reflects the culture of the building as it relies on the commitment of residents, their acceptance of responsibilities and a pragmatic way of using all this “black gold” (we have only so many balcony plants!).

This is why more insight is needed into apartment composting  - and fortunately this is a challenge accepted by Swinburne University, which is comparing methods of on-site composting with off-site composting in terms of greenhouse gas reduction, people’s engagement with the process and the quality of the product.

If you would like links to the research or organisations mentioned, please visit and like SkyPad Living on Facebook.

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