Food accounts for roughly 19% of all the trash thrown out in the county, which lacks a municipal composting facility.
It was barely 7:30 a.m. on a warm summer morning, and Gerry Ross had already heaved 1,500 pounds of food scraps into the trailer hitched to his four-wheeler.
The Maui farmer fired up the engine and rumbled down the dirt road to the sliver of land where he isn’t growing fruit, vegetables, coffee, cacao or herbs. He parked the rig next to a dozen compost piles and then announced: “This is the Department of Organic Alchemy.”
Maui County doesn’t have a government-run composting facility that can take in food scraps from the general public and turn them into soil that can fertilize the earth.
Instead, an estimated 82 million pounds of food waste was dumped in Maui County landfills in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available in the county’s draft solid waste management plan.
Ross is among Maui residents who have taken solving the island’s enormous food waste problem into their own hands.
Over the course of a year, he transforms an estimated 100,000 pounds of leftovers from Pacific Whale Foundation’s on-boat buffets, scraps from two restaurants and waste from a local hot sauce manufacturer into microbe-rich soil that powers his 6-acre organic farm.
In the past, he’s also composted carcasses of invasive axis deer that have overrun his Kula neighborhood. But as much as observing the natural processes of decay fascinates him, there’s only one reason he spends eight hours each week tending to the piles: sheer necessity.
“If there was a municipal facility, I could spend more time farming and less time making compost,” Ross, 67, said.
The amount of food waste dumped at landfills in 2019 accounted for an estimated 19% of everything thrown out in Maui County.
A draft of the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, a federally funded plan to grow the economy, said creating a municipal compost facility should be a top priority to grow Maui’s agricultural industry. Expanding composting could both improve soil health and keep trash out of the landfill that’s already at risk of filling up.
“If we’re going to farm regeneratively, it’s pretty much the top thing to do,” said Mikey Logatto, who runs Mana Microbes, an Upcountry Maui composting company.
Across the U.S., food waste creates more greenhouse gases than the airline industry. But local governments in Hawaii have been slow to adopt curbside programs as a way to combat the climate crisis like those created in other municipalities spanning from Portland to Denver to Arlington County, Virginia. There are even some government agencies in places like Oregon, Washington and New York where composting is more widespread that have tapped the practice to turn roadkill into soil.
In Hawaii, however, lawmakers only last year changed the law to allow commercial composting in agricultural districts, which had served as one of the many barriers to small farmers who might also want to produce compost on their farms. Instead, private companies have largely led the way in championing new composting programs that make it easier for residents to keep their food waste out of the landfill.
But Maui County officials hope the future will be brighter for composting operations in the years to come. Council member Gabe Johnson, who oversees the committee focused on agriculture and environment issues, is planning to tackle the county-level compost barriers in the next few months.
Meanwhile, the county Department of Environmental Management, which oversees waste and the landfill, is planning to establish a new composting facility in the next couple years.
“There’s a huge need for compost on Maui,” said Gretchen Losano, who runs West Maui Green Cycle. “We just have to figure it all out so that people can get the compost they need to be able to grow the food that we need, instead of relying on 90% of our food being imported.”
While the county works on its own facility, Losano is in the midst of running one of her own. It’s the only commercial compost center on Maui currently permitted by the state Department of Health to accept food waste and compostable food service ware like disposable cups, bowls, plates, trays, forks and spoons that are otherwise dumped in the landfill.
Losano partnered with a handful of Maui schools to launch composting programs, with a focus on helping her community’s keiki build the habits they need for a sustainable future – like separating food waste from garbage. By the fall, she hopes to launch a curbside pickup for West Maui residents, which she’ll use to collect data to understand exactly how she could scale up her facility to take on all of the compostable waste from restaurants, hotels, schools, businesses and residents.
“It’s the systems that need to change,” Losano said.
At least five states — California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont — have passed laws to keep food out of landfills, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Vermont, for example, bans people from throwing away food scraps in the trash and instead requires uneaten food to be donated to people in need or used for animal feed, composting or anaerobic digestion.
“It’s all totally doable,” Ross said.
Even as a prolific backyard composter, Ross believes that the most sustainable future is having a government-run compost program that takes the work out of residents’ hands. For a typical farmer, Ross said it’s not possible to juggle tending to crops, dealing with deer, preparing for drought and then also navigating the complicated permitting rules that are set in place at a state level to commercially produce compost that’s safe for the general public.
Creating compost out of food scraps is a delicate science. Ross, worked as a geologist for governments and as a university professor before becoming a farmer, builds each pile carefully by hand, layering coconut husks, dried leaves and food waste in a specific order to ensure there’s just the right amount of moisture and oxygen. Sometimes, he adds leftovers from eco-minded friends visiting Maui who’ve learned to bring him their scraps instead of throwing it out before heading to the airport.
Every so often, he’s also the guy who’s called when someone stumbles on a freshly struck deer along a Kula roadway. Years ago, Ross learned how to turn the dangerous nuisance into a coveted source of nutrients for his crops.
And he isn’t the only one who’s recognized the opportunity: Maui County’s axis deer task force also explored what it might take to mix the carcasses with greenwaste as a way to help local farmers grow more food.
“You know,” Ross said, “roadkill season is just around the corner, right?”
But for now, the farmer has to do all the work himself. After he covers the heap of organic matter under each tarp, it takes several months for the pile to transform into the fertile soil. He already had a plan for the latest batch: mixing it in the earth to grow 300 new heads of lettuce, 100 cabbage starts and two more trellises of cherry tomatoes.
“It’s full of life,” Ross said, while scooping up a handful. “And it used to be on someone’s table.”
Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.
“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.
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