Pedal power: How Denver bike crews are rescuing food from landfills one ride at a time

Pedal power: How Denver bike crews are rescuing food from landfills one ride at a time

It’s a steamy Friday morning, and Christi Turner is elbows-deep in compost. Armed with yellow gloves and an equally sunny smile, she is undeterred as flies buzz and a strong stench rises around the Dumpster where she’s tossing animal skins, pizza dough and other heavy-duty food refuse.

Removing straws and recyclables from the fresh pile of waste, Turner cleans her gloves and the newly empty compost bins. Job done, she hops on her bike and sets off for another pick-up point.

This smelly operation is all part of a day’s work for Scraps, a small-scale, bike-based composting company that Turner launched this year. She uses a bike with a trailer to collect compost from restaurants and apartment buildings that otherwise would throw their extra food in the garbage. Multiple times a week, she takes to the side streets and thoroughfares of Denver to wheel organic waste to a container in the heart of downtown.

Then it’s picked up by Alpine Waste & Recycling, which transports the waste to a compost processing facility where it’s turned into hearty soil to be resold. In her first month on the job, Turner composted 3,734 pounds of waste.

“We want to make composting cool and easy,” Turner says while pedaling from RiNo, where she picked up the compost, to the Dumpster just off 16th Street. “We’re a last-mile solution.”

Turner is part of a growing movement to fill the gaps in Denver’s food waste management using bikes. Along with Denver Food Rescue, a nonprofit that saves food that would otherwise be thrown away from grocery stores and takes it directly to communities in need, Scraps offers hyperlocal solutions that the city and others may not provide. Both groups do the bulk of their work from bikes, allowing neighborhood-based programs and immediate deliveries without a middleman.

“I want Scraps to be a model of how bikes can get stuff done,” Turner said. “This is a way of moving ourselves around that shouldn’t be looked at as some sort of passion project. This is a means of mobility that is more sustainable.”

Despite expanding its composting services in recent years, Denver’s waste diversion rate is 20 percent, compared to the national average of 34. Denver composted nearly 6,000 tons of organic material in 2016, and this spring started two new compost pick-up routes. The city will add four more this fall, aiming to service almost all residential homes by the end of 2017. But Denver doesn’t offer composting to multifamily homes with more than seven units, said Charlotte Pitt, who manages recycling for the city.

Turner designed her business to fill this gap. Scraps started collecting compost in June and so far has only four customers — restaurants in the RiNo and Highland. She makes runs four times a week, saving an average of 350 to 425 pounds of compost on each trip. Soon, she’ll start servicing apartment buildings at a price of $10 a month and a $20 start-up fee for each unit.

“I don’t think we were even aware of how much trash we were producing until we started composting,” said Tabatha Knop, a manager at RiNo restaurant Work & Class, Scraps’ first customer. The restaurant has reduced its trash output by 75 percent.

Just a couple of months into business, Turner is inundated with requests for her services. More than a hundred individuals have expressed interest in using Scraps, and the number of restaurants it serves is growing, too.

“I think we’ll begin to see even more businesses utilizing bikes for delivery,” said Dan Grunig, executive director of Bicycle Colorado. “Bikes park right by the front door. Even though point to point, a car may be able to travel a distance faster, when you factor in the whole trip time door to door, bikes are a great option.”

This model has proved true for Denver Food Rescue, a nonprofit that has been operating since 2012. The program coordinates an ever-growing network of volunteers, who pedal between food distributors and neighborhood drop-offs to provide fresh food for underserved communities.

Denver Food Rescue tends to pick up food with a short shelf life, meaning there’s no time for the groceries to sit in a warehouse awaiting distribution. That’s where the bikes come in handy: volunteers wheel trailers packed with produce and other foodstuffs straight from distributors to 14 designated “no-cost grocery programs” throughout the city, located in Montbello, Chaffee Park, Elyria Swansea and elsewhere.

The immediate delivery means produce and other perishable goods are still fresh upon arrival. Turner Wyatt, the Food Rescue’s executive director, said 80 to 90 percent of the food they save is produce. And unlike many food pick-up programs, they don’t have a minimum pick-up requirement.

“We will go to a corner store and pick up one bag of food,” Wyatt said.

The bike-based, hyper-local model has proven so successful that Denver Food Rescue recently partnered with Denver Urban Gardens and Groundwork Denver on a program called Fresh Food Connect, which allows people to donate extra produce grown in home or community gardens. Youth employees use bikes and trailers pick up the food directly from donors’ homes. Starting this week, the produce will be sold at a pay-what-you-can farm stand on East 30th Avenue and Richard Allen Court every Thursday.

Denver Food Rescue saved more than 320,000 pounds of food in 2016 and is on track to rescue 450,000 by the end of this year. Almost all of that weight was hauled by individual volunteers, biking across the city.

“A big truck can pull a lot more than a bike can, but (this) saves a lot of fossil fuels,” said Sam Talarczyk, a first-time volunteer who helped deliver 222 pounds of groceries to the Cope Boys and Girls Club on Inca Street last month.

Passers-by cheered Talarczyk and other volunteers on as they whizzed down side streets from the Sprouts on East Colfax Avenue, trailers packed with food behind them.

“So many of our kids and parents are really into not quality; they’re into quantity,” said Julio Flores, the club’s site director. “They’re not thinking about healthy. They’re thinking about survival. This is giving them an opportunity to start thinking about other habits.”


Residents can sign up for city compost at www.denvergov.org/compostsignup and Scraps at https://scrapsmilehigh.com/join-here-1/. Compost from A1 Organics, which composts for both Scraps and the city, is sold at Pioneer Sand and Gravel.

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I see this business model expanding over the next few years, as it should- the more methods to divert organics, the better.

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