SAN FRANCISCO DINERS unknowingly are participating in a closed loop recycling program when they frequent local restaurants. Behind the scenes in numerous commercial kitchens in the city, there is a concerted effort to divert compostables, which average two-thirds, by weight, of a restaurant's waste.

The efforts are part of a formal food scrap compost program initiated by the San Francisco Department of the Environment (DOE) in conjunction with Norcal Waste Systems Inc., San Francisco, to help the city achieve a 75 percent diversion rate by 2010. Norcal owns and operates the composting facility where materials are sent.

A waste characterization study conducted by Norcal in the mid-1990s found that food waste comprised 19 percent of the total waste going to landfills. “We had to come up with a program to capture that as a resource and to turn it into a new product,” says Robert Reed, company director of corporate communications.

The commercial composting program is an extension of a similar residential program nicknamed the “Fantastic Three,” in which residents receive three blue, green and black containers for recyclables, organics and non-recyclables. At restaurants, everything including crab shells, cantaloupe skins, steak bones, soiled napkins and wax-coated fiber packaging is collected in the green containers. “Basically, anything that was alive or growing on a tree is accepted,” says Jack Macy, commercial recycling coordinator for the San Francisco DOE.

Restaurants participating in the program are outfitted with 23-gallon rectangular containers designed to fit in prep areas or dishwashing stations. The food scraps then are transferred into larger 64-gallon wheeled carts or similar large yard debris containers for collection.

Working with Golden Gate Disposal & Recycling Co., a Norcal subsidiary, the San Francisco DOE also provides restaurants with technical assistance, multilingual training and educational materials. Depending on a restaurant's needs, food scraps collection can be provided daily to combat odors and rodents.

Participating restaurants receive a 25 percent reduction in their standard garbage rate, Macy says. A further incentive is the Commercial Recycler of the Year (CORY) Awards Program, which recognizes small, medium and large restaurants and food establishments — in addition to hotels and buildings — whose waste diversion programs are deemed the best in San Francisco.

This year's CORY winner in the “large restaurant” category was Scoma's, which has achieved a 92 percent diversion rate. Food scraps collected from Scoma's and other San Francisco restaurants are transported to Norcal's Jepson Prairie Organics Compost Facility near Vacaville, Calif. The facility produces 150 cubic yards of finished compost per day, Reed says.

The majority of the compost, called Four Course Compost, is marketed to local organic farmers, orchards, nurseries and commercial landscapers. More than 30 vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties also use the compost. Since the pilot began in 1998, approximately 2,000 San Francisco restaurants have voluntarily signed on, diverting an average of 300 tons per day of organic compostables, Macy says.

Waste management officials from New York City, Seattle, Portland and Korea have expressed interest in the program, which is the largest of its kind in the country. Nearby Oakland, Calif., started a commercial food scrap compost program in 2000, and Los Angeles also recently employed Norcal to help implement a similar pilot program in 100 of its estimated 10,000 restaurants, Reed says.

Because the compost is used on produce that is served at several of the same restaurants who provide the feedstock, the recycling chain really comes full circle.