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  1. Pinellas

Local companies that promote composting pick up where Florida governments leave off

Jennifer Pope of BioBag, a Dunedin company, and Paul Rabaut, from Suncoast Compost, are trying to promote a local culture of composting. BioBag sells a bag made of natural corn or grapeseed resins and can deteriorate into nothing, but most of its customers are outside Florida. Suncoast Compost is a private collection service for people dedicated to composting. [Courtesy of Jennifer Pope.]
Published Jul. 8

The Dunedin company BioBag says it's the largest producer of compostable bags in America, but not many of its customers are in Florida.

In the south, throwing food and waste in the landfill is cheap because space is abundant, said Jennifer Pope, vice president of marketing at BioBag.

"I don't think there's a lot of initiative to grow into this recycling organics," she said. "Which is a sad story."

BioBag, which started in Norway and was brought to the United States in 2002 by Floridians, creates bags made to hold and help compost organic waste, Pope said. Unlike a plastic bag made of petroleum, which takes hundreds of years to decompose, BioBags are made out of natural corn or grapeseed resins and can deteriorate into nothing.

The company wants to promote a culture of composting, which keeps waste from landfills and returns nutrients to the environment. But their business is still strongest on the West Coast, in cities like San Francisco with ordinances and established composting programs.

Pope said they've also reached into places like Austin, Tex., Colorado and the Northeast, but Florida cities don't have the infrastructure.

"It's a dirty, complicated business to do it right and turn it into valuable compost," said Hillsborough County Recycling Coordinator Travis Barnes. "Once you start looking at the scale, it's harder."

Barnes said curbside compost pickup is costly. It requires a facility for the compost to properly decompose, bins for every resident, and staff for the routes. It easily costs millions, he said.

Of the 14 percent of food waste that goes to the county landfill, he said they try to give as much of it as possible to the Waste-to-Energy Facility so it can be turned into usable energy. But with the county's population growing, the facility hits its 1,800-ton maximum every day, leaving more waste in the landfill, Barnes said.

"Waste reduction is a big part, because we're never going to recycle our way out of all the waste we generate," he said.

Similarly, Pinellas County, sends 16 percent of its food waste to a waste-to-energy facility, said Stephanie Watson, manager of recycling outreach and programs for the county's solid waste department.

Though neither Pinellas nor Hillsborough offers large-scale composting, both try to provide resources to interested residents. Within the past two weeks, at a resident's suggestion, Pinellas added an at-home composting guide to its online A-Z recycling list.

Hillsborough partners with the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension office to offer "Compost Happens" workshops, where participants pay $5 to learn the basics and get the bins, thermometers and bucket needed to compost. Non-county residents pay about $55, and workshops are held monthly with about 30 participants each time, said Lisa Meredith from the extension office.

Where cities don't have the resources to offer curbside pickup, a local couple is offering a private collection service for people dedicated to composting. After two years of business as Suncoast Compost, owners Paul and Kali Rabaut recently celebrated their 100,000th pound of food waste saved from the landfill, Kali Rabaut said.

She said there's untapped demand in the Tampa Bay area with composting, but the state doesn't promote it with incentives like grants or state funds.

"We're just a drop in the bucket, but there's a lot of potential to make really big changes here," Kali Rabaut said.

BioBag employees appreciate their popularity out west, but wish more of the nation could have access to a streamlined compost system. Pope said only 5 percent of the population lives in a place with city-wide composting.

Still, BioBag founder Dave Williams has seen the demand grow over the nearly two decades the company has existed, and believes composting will only become more popular.

In the beginning, BioBag almost folded, but now they sell their bags at major retailers like Whole Foods, Williams said.

"Everybody will be participating someday."

Contact Romy Ellenbogen at or rellenbogen@tampabay.com. Follow @Romyellenbogen.

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