Austin’s organic waste initiative is part of a universal recycling ordinance aimed at supporting the city’s efforts to have zero waste by 2014, said Natalie Betts, recycling economic development Program Manager with the City of Austin. There have been several elements involved in the program.
Efforts focused on diverting or repurposing organic waste from the landfill were rolled out across a three-year period and call for companies to repurpose organic waste, in part as animal feed ingredients, according to information from the city. Organic waste includes meats, fats, dairy products, vegetables, fruits, grains, some paper products, food-soiled paper and landscape trimmings.
Businesses that have a commercial food service permit also have to have an established organic diversion plan, train employees and display information about what is being done, the city reported.
However, one goal is that not all the waste generated simply be composted, but that some is turned into animal feed or donated for people to use, Betts told us. “We’re trying to be flexible it’s not a composting ordinance … there are other things you can do – the philosophy was it’s about having a diversion plan,” she added.
Organic waste recycling and [RE]verse Pitch
Initially, there was a materials marketplace, Betts said, where businesses could specify that they had materials they no longer wanted or needed to allow other people or companies to make use of those products. “It was really set up making a connection between two parties in Austin that didn’t know the other one existed to make that connection,” she added.
The Re[verse] Pitch competition came out of the initial marketplace idea as a way to support the development of companies to deal with unclaimed materials, she said. Companies present the materials they have, like spent distillers grains, and a ‘pitch’ to develop a way to use the product is made.
“We match entrepreneurs with mentors from the community and they develop ideas … and then finalists are selected representing the strongest idea,” she said. “There is a catch prize and support to launch that business.”
“We raise awareness about the products that have been downcycled or landfilled,” she added.
The distillery Still Austin Whiskey Co. was one of the companies to take part in the program, which raised awareness about the amount and nature of the spent grains it was generating, said Betts. After building initial connections between the distillery and an area livestock producer through the [RE]verse Pitch competition, those interactions have expanded to work with more animal producers and several breweries.
There also is an ongoing effort to develop a resource list for companies that have organic material or food waste that are seeking a farm or livestock producer, she added.
The role of animal feed in recycling efforts
The push for environmental awareness, and business practicalities, drew craft distillery Still Austin to work with the effort through its [RE]verse] Pitch competition, said Chris Seals, co-founder and CEO.
The distillery focuses on work with heritage and locally produced grains and had been working with area grain growers to establish a market for some less common grain crops, he told us. That interaction has now expanded to provide a free source of feed ingredients to livestock producers in the region.
“In places like Kentucky there have been mega distilleries there for 100 years and those massive operations have all manner farms near them that have cattle and pigs and sheep that consume the spent grain after it’s gone through the whiskey making process,” he said. “After that process, it’s very high in protein and it’s very high in fiber and the quality is high.”
The grain used in the distillery is often non-GMO or organic, he said. The distilling process removes much of the starch but leaves a concentrated protein and fiber source that is stored in a spent grain silo that can be used to fill a tank for livestock producers.
“This is high quality, food grade feed that we can hand off to farmers,” said Seals. Without the ability to turn the by-product into an animal feed ingredient, city regulation on organic waste disposal would see it composted.
“It’s pretty expensive to compost the spent grains – for the year it would have been more than $1m to spend on composting food grade protein and fiber,” he said. “It helped us and saved us a lot of money and it’s another link of building a [regional] grain economy – grains that are grown in our region, consumed by livestock in our region to produce milk and cheese and meat we have on the table.”
When the distillery first opened, it could be a challenge to afford fees for composting the amount of grain used and that limited production, he said. However, that has changed as more of the spent grain is provided for use in feed, which cuts down on composting expenses.
The distillery is expected to use about 1m pounds or 500 tons of grain by the end of the year, this year, he said.
Initially, livestock producers were skeptical of the potential feed ingredient, Seals said. “Farmers don’t just feed anything to their animals,” he added.
“The reverse pitch helped in a couple of ways – it helped raise the profile and … part of what it did was draw together farmers who were interested in doing something new,” he said.
Now the spent grains are trucked away by animal producers, predominantly to be used as a feed ingredient on cattle ranches, he said. However, it also is used by area producers of pigs, goats and sheep.
“We can supply a good amount,” he said. “We have a broad variety of farms some with all types of livestock, but the majority is probably consumed by cows,”