- 1950 - 
Creating Byproducts from Cannery Waste
in Santa Clara County 

      From 1850 to 1950, Santa Clara County was primarily rural.  Falling into the Central Coast region, the geography was split. The western half included farmlands, orchards, cities, and small creeks.  The Santa Cruz Mountains cover the eastern half.  San Jose was the largest city, and home to many canneries.  Canners dumped their waste on rural land or in creeks, and for the most part, there were no complaints.   

      As more people moved to Santa Clara County after World War II, neighborhoods replaced orchards.  The economy and culture changed, and complaints poured to the health department about the cannery waste.  However, this attracted a lot of pests and county officials were concerned about the spread of disease from the pests.  They ordered Santa Clara canners to dispose of waste in a disposal facility on Newby Island that would be monitored, sprayed for insects, and have the waste diced into the soil.  


     Santa Clara County canners had also tried sending their waste to the local waste disposal facility, but the only facility in the county was already overwhelmed by increased volume from residential sewage.  The thousands of new residents were creating thousands of gallons of waste to be processed. 

     The Santa Clara County canners formed a group to address public health complaints about cannery waste.  Given the extreme difficulty of wet waste disposal in Santa Clara County, an innovative solution emerged. Several Santa Clara County canners invested in a new company, Pacific Biochemical, which promised to make the processing of pear waste into pear syrup for cattle feed profitable. 

      While the theory was sound, there were a number of production and marketing problems with Pacific Biochemical.  After a few years of intermittent operation, the amount of product manufactured proved inadequate to cover operations.  The company ceased operating in 1955 with a $40,000 deficit.

      Another approach was composting cannery waste.  While canneries had disposed of their waste on land for decades, a large-scale composting business had not been tried.  This was partly because industrial composting can be expensive.  It was a complex process requiring consistent maintenance. 

      Canners received help from the Department of Agricultural Engineering at the University of California, Davis.  The research project used food processors’ waste to provide fertilizer or fertilized land for farmers.  Different parts the project were tested at a small scale.  Before committing to a large expensive project, investors needed to know the amount land required for different types and amounts of cannery waste, how much cannery waste would improve soil quality, and the potential for groundwater contamination. The results of the project were useful for businesses who wanted to enter into industrial composting.

      In the 1970s, the Cooperative for Environmental Improvement, CEI, Inc. was created to compost cannery waste.  The composting site was 2,300 acres on land leased near the Santa Clara and San Benito County line.  The company began hauling cannery waste from the 1970 pack to the leased land.  Trucks brought the waste to the property, and bulldozers spread it over the land evenly to dry.  The first thin layer dried for a couple days.  Then, the waste was disked into the soil allowing the microorganisms to break down the waste and create carbon dioxide, water, and humus. 

           The first year, CEI received 67,251 cubic yards of material from the Santa Clara County Canners and the San Benito County Canners.  They were up to processing 98,742 cubic yards a year in two years.  The site also became a place to dispose of surplus or unusable products.  For example, the California Prune Growers Advisory Board dumped 2,585 tons of prunes there in 1970.

      The Public Health Departments of Santa Clara County and San Benito County watched over the process to ensure the CEI management handled the waste properly.  Composting on such a large scale can have dangerous results if it is not done properly.

 The University of California Agricultural Experiment stations also watched the operations and conducted experiments on part of the acreage to see the maximum the earth would bear.  In some of the experiment stations projects, they successfully composted four times as much waste as CEI used large scale. 

     Farmers also had something to gain from composting.  The chosen site’s soil was alkaline, and the waste was mostly acidic.  Experimenters hoped the introduction of waste would create balanced humus and improve the soil for planting.  The first plantings in the soil of the compost experiment grew normally, and in some cases, even better than soil without compost.

California League of Food Processors Papers, University of California - Davis, Shields Library Special Collections

Cooperative for Environmental Improvement, Inc.: A Santa Clara County Canners Food Residuals Disposal Association D-2613.

Helphinstine, William N. "Using Cannery Wastes on Forage Cropland." California Agriculture 30, no. 9 (Sept. 1976): 6-7.

Reed, A. D. and et al. "Soil Recycling of Cannery Wastes." California Agriculture 27, no. 3 (Mar. 1973): 6-9.