Even in the cold, you can smell the pungent aroma of the bags 10 feet away.
Even in the cold, you can smell the pungent aroma of the bags 10 feet away.
Breath misting around his beard, Mike Minnix wheels a large container and tips it out the back of a white box truck, dumping another batch of small, biodegradable bags onto a bed of wood chips.
He picks one from the pile and holds it up, smiling. It's the expression most people make after opening a birthday present - not while standing in a slight drizzle next to a garbage pile.
But what Minnix is holding depends on your perspective.
To most, it's nothing more than a small pouch of rubbish: egg shells, melon rinds, pineapple tops, half-eaten chicken patties and other detritus from a Columbus cafe. It's what most people normally toss aside, haul to the curb and forget.
To Minnix, it's the future: leftover organic materials that can be transformed into electricity, natural gas or compost. This is why he spent about three years developing Eartha Limited, a comprehensive recycling company based on the Whittier Peninsula.
"We're here for food scraps," Minnix says. "That's why we exist."
If you think he's nuts for chasing food waste, consider this: More than 34 million tons of it are generated each year in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Because there are recycling programs for paper, cardboard, plastics, metals and yard waste, food scraps accounted for more than a third of municipal solid waste in 2009.
So in the mountain of discarded food, Minnix sees a renewable, eco-friendly resource that's been largely ignored. He and a growing number of food-waste recyclers are trying to figure out how to profit from taking food from plate to plot.
One city's trash is another's treasure.
The batch Minnix picked up today will become compost.
It was tossed and collected by kitchen staff at The Market, the main dining facility at Columbus College of Art & Design and site of an Eartha pilot program.
Now it's ready to be loaded into a compost heap at Price Farms Organics, a family-owned business in Delaware County that turns discarded materials into compost, mulch and other soil additives.
"I think most of the students want to do something that's productive for themselves and others," said Hannah McGary, head of landscaping and grounds for CCAD and a point person for the program. "Hopefully, we'll get our wasting down a colossal amount."
Without Minnix, the batch of food waste would've ended up in the Franklin County landfill. Instead, it might return as mulch to the CCAD landscape - a full-circle saunter that would make any ecologist swoon.
"To be able to create something out of nothing is pretty cool," Minnix adds. "In the right hands, this stuff is pretty valuable."
Toss a banana peel or an apple core into the yard, and it'll eventually disappear.
So why not just haul food waste to a landfill and await its return to nature?
First of all, garbage takes up space.
"The Franklin County landfill only has so many years of capacity," said Joe Goicochea, environmental supervisor for the Ohio EPA's division of materials and waste management. "Landfills serve a purpose. But what do you do when it fills up?"
In Ohio alone, a year's food waste would blanket a football field and stand up to 1,450 feet high.
Aside from space concerns, putting and leaving food in giant heaps isn't valuable, said Corey Hawkey, sustainability coordinator at Ohio State University.
"We're able to extract nutrients and energy that's harnessed in those materials, instead of wasting it in the landfill and contributing to greenhouse gases," he said. "In looking at how the Earth functions, it's just the right thing to do."
Since the Ohio EPA launched an initiative for recycling food scraps in 2007, the state has seen an explosion of organizations that can haul, receive and process waste materials, including many around Columbus.
At a composting facility, workers will often mix food scraps with other materials, then store the batch in giant piles to allow it to break down, condense and destroy bacteria. Donations from Eartha to Price Farms eventually will be sold as special compost called Zoo Brew - which includes coffee grounds, food scraps, yard trimmings and manure from the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.
In addition to Price Farms, residents can take food scraps to locations of Ohio Mulch, which processes the waste into retail products at its facility in Delaware.
"We take an unusable product and make a reusable product that can be put back into the landscape," director of sales Ron Frost said. "That product goes into all our Columbus facilities."
In another recycling process, food scraps are taken to what's known as an anaerobic digester. These giant machines look sort of like grain silos and essentially catalyze decomposition - only the process happens much more quickly and efficiently than it would naturally.
Numerous digesters have popped up across the state, including one on the South Side. Spearheaded by Quasar Energy Group of Cleveland and local landscaping company Kurtz Bros., that facility generates 8,760 megawatt hours of electricity each year by processing municipal waste, food waste, oils and grease.
That's enough to power 725 homes annually.
"I think this is a big part of renewable energy, and Ohio can really be at the forefront of that industry," said Caroline Henry, Quasar's vice president of marketing.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced $10 million in funding for new digesters in Ohio.
As this network has grown and stabilized, many large operations have pitched in.
Kroger has diverted 5,800 tons of food scraps since 2008 and plans to boost the number of participating stores to 62 from the current tally of 46. Ohio Sam's Club and Wal-Mart locations also participate in a food-scrap diversion program. And last year, Miami Township, outside Dayton, hired national hauler Waste Management to start a residential organics recycling program.
Meanwhile, Ohio State University this year launched a comprehensive campaign to make the Horseshoe a zero-waste facility. On game days, a group of employees and volunteers ensures that fans place waste in its proper place - gray cans for compost, scarlet bins for everything else. Afterward, materials are collected, sorted and taken to their proper places.
"It's going really well," said Hawkey, who heads the program. "We're happy to report an 82 percent diversion rate at the Michigan State game, the highest ever at Ohio Stadium."
Demand from larger operations is encouraging more places to accept food waste and drawing more haulers to Ohio, including Viridiun, which is based in Georgia but has started transporting food waste throughout the region. This explosion, in turn, is expected to open up opportunities to mom-and-pop restaurants, cafes and caterers looking to pitch in on a scale that once was prohibitively small.
"As awareness grows and more businesses get involved, I think it's just going to become bigger and bigger," Goicochea said.
Case in point: During the next eight days, two conferences will be held in Columbus to inform individuals and businesses about how to begin recycling food scraps.
"Starting now and in the future, we're going to see more programs available to small businesses - and hopefully at a price that opens their eyes," Goicochea said. "There are a lot of avenues for folks that want to participate in these programs."
Next to the giant piles of mulch and soil, Eartha's deposit is humble, a few pebbles next to mountains of earth. This is the grueling early stage of running a small business based on an idea that people are still struggling to understand.
Minnix stows the truck's rear lift, climbs into the cab and prepares for the long drive back Downtown.
"It seems like we've been playing a waiting game," he says. "But that's how it works when you're doing something new."
It wasn't until March that the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio removed special fees and waivers required to haul food scraps to a location other than the county landfill. It was a major barrier removed from what Minnix sees as a next frontier for both environmentalism and sound business.
Many in Columbus are seeing it, too.
"It's got legs," says Tom Price, owner of Price Farms. "Trucking has always been the hold-up. What has held up [food-scrap recycling] in the past was putting together a milk run of deliveries."
Eartha has sold compostable products like plates, containers and utensils to about 30 locations, and Minnix expects the majority of them to solicit hauling services. The company also is close to signing contracts with several large educational institutions and event venues, though Minnix declined to give details because negotiations remain in progress.
"It wasn't cost effective just to go to Betty's twice a week," says Elizabeth Lessner, CEO and president of the Betty's Family of Restaurants and an Eartha partner. "These big accounts will give us the ability to move into smaller places, too."
For many restaurants, food is the missing piece of the zero-waste puzzle, and dealing with scraps would join current programs to responsibly dispose of glass, paper and metal. As much as 90 percent of material tossed by restaurants is food scraps, according to the Ohio EPA.
"We love the big guys, but we're here for the small guys," Minnix says. "It's crazy to think, but there is a new industry happening in Columbus."