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Compost Apocalypse – Is Your Facility Prepared?

Say the words “we’re going to start a food waste composting program” at your facility and you can expect two very different reactions. Some of the more environmentally-minded diners and staff will look at you with excitement as if you have just taken a bold step toward the green utopia of their dreams. Not so green-minded diners and staff will give you a very different look, one that seems as though they have just seen at least two Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride by. It is likely that neither of these prophecies will quite come to pass. With a little planning, you can make a food composting program a success – and something that will be positive for everyone involved.

For the purpose of this post, I am going to focus on the “post-consumer” plate scrapings. I will focus on the behind the scenes kitchen waste in a future post.

A lot of attention has been focused on food waste composting recently and for good reason. In many communities, and at many facilities, food waste is one of the largest segments of the waste stream that remains after recycling programs have been established. In landfills, decomposing food produces methane, a greenhouse gas more than 20 times more potent than CO2. It is also very dense and heavy, so if you pay for trash by the ton, you can realize significant savings by diverting this material.

Before you do anything else though, stop and understand one thing. Food waste is putrescable. That is a big fancy word that essentially means that food waste has the potential to stink real bad and attract pests if not managed correctly. That should never stop you from composting, but it is a consideration that you should always be aware of throughout the process. You definitely want to pick up food waste as frequently as possible. You can’t miss pickups the way you can with paper or cardboard and expect not to have problems. If you are shipping stuff off-site, you want to pick up as frequently as possible. If you are composting on-site, you want to get that material processed as fast as possible (in a traditional aerobic composting process that means mixed with a sufficient amount of carbon-rich material as fast as possible). I have seen some composting programs that look like the scene from an Alfred Hitchcock movie – there are so many birds – all because food was left sitting out without being sufficiently blended with carbon. That is the last thing that you want next to your dining facility.

Another consideration is what you are going to accept as compostable. There are a lot of different potential end-markets for food waste. Depending on which you are working with, what you can collect may be quite variable. To date, there are not clear standardized specifications as there are for other recyclables (i.e. there is no “scrap specifications circular” for compost that is like the one that the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries has for other materials). That means that a list of items that can and cannot be composted is likely to be quite different depending on who you are talking to and what process is being used.

Once you decide what to collect, how do you communicate that to your diners and staff? At the very least you need to label your collection containers. I highly recommend a label with graphics. It may be cliché, but a picture really is worth a thousand words.

So how much compost is there to collect? The answer is that it depends. Any other answer is really bunk. I have seen some samples that show as little as 2oz per meal. I have seen others that show over 8oz. A lot depends on the logistics of your food waste operation.

  • To be blunt, does your menu item look or sound better than it tastes? If so, diners are more likely to take a portion that they do not finish.
  • Is your foodservice-portion controlled or an all-you-can-eat buffet?
  • How big are your portions? If they are too large, you may find that more people leave part of each serving.
  • If you have a food line, does it use trays? If so, diners have a tendency to fill that tray, typically with more than they can eat. Many facilities have found that when they eliminate the tray, food waste decreases significantly.

When the time comes to clear your plate, how will they do it? If diners bring their own plates up to a dish room, will you ask them to scrape their plate themselves? If so, what container will you use? Does it look sufficiently different than the trash bin to ensure that it is used for compost and only compost? Or do you ask them to place everything into the dish room and have someone do it behind the scenes? If diners don’t do it themselves, will they really believe it is being done? If you ask them to do it, and they don’t, what do you do? Do you backstop them and have staff in the dish room scrape any plate that the diners do not?

One last question to consider is how will you get your food waste picked up for composting? Remember that this is heavy dense sloppy stuff. One option is to use a de-watering unit such as those made by Hobart or Somat. They work sort of like a juicer in that they will remove most of the water and leave you with a much drier and lighter product to pick up. Another option is to use smaller containers, such as 5 gallon pails as your collection container. That may not be an option or larger facilities, but at facilities where they can be used, it gives you a collection container that can be lifted and dumped reasonably. Another option is a hydraulic cart dumper. The cost of such equipment is not inexpensive, but it may be significantly less expensive in the long run than the cost of a back injury or other lifting accident.

As you can see, there are a lot of questions that go into planning for food waste composting. You need to find the best answer for your facility and the specifics of your foodservice operation. If you do, you should find yourself with a long and successful composting program.

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Roger Guzowski

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