Composting is not only a growing trend in waste management, but it’s also a national priority and a relatively simple solution that can reap significant environmental rewards. Facilities in every industry—including hospitals, sports arenas, universities, and even municipalities—are redefining their waste streams for both environmental and economic reasons alike.
Composting is the process by which food waste and certain other organic waste, like yard waste, some paper products, packaging, and tableware, is transformed into a soil amendment that can be used in landscaping and agriculture. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the benefits of composting include the reduction of chemical fertilizers, water, and pesticides; higher crop yields; enriched soils; less methane and leachate generation in landfills; pollution prevention; and the extension of landfill life.
Composting—like many sustainability initiatives—can have lasting financial benefits for facilities that offset the upfront cost. Some of the costs associated with composting include purchasing new bins; signage and education campaigns; more expensive compostable liners, packaging, and serviceware; and new contracts with haulers. However, facilities may avoid high per-ton incineration and landfill disposal costs as they begin to divert organic waste from their landfill collections. This amount can become quite significant for facilities that deal with lots of food waste, which is much heavier than other forms of waste because of the large amount of water it contains.
The Impact of Facility Food Waste
Composting brings focus to a facility’s waste management behaviors, and provides an opportunity to better manage what it wastes.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has determined that food waste accounts for about 31 percent, or 133 billion pounds, of the country’s food supply. Food loss and waste make up the largest portion of municipal solid waste in the United States and account for a significant portion of U.S. methane emissions, which has been linked with climate change. Experts have projected reducing food losses by just 15 percent would provide enough food for more than 25 million Americans every year, according the USDA. Restaurants, institutions, and other types of commercial facilities can play a role in that reduction by instituting a composting program.
This past September, the USDA, the U.S. EPA, and the Obama Administration announced an initiative to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2030. Some states, like California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont, even have food waste bans, which prevent institutions with high-waste yields from disposing of commercial organic wastes.
How Facilities Can Make a Difference
Sustainable America is a national environmental nonprofit whose programs are aimed at making the nation’s food and fuel systems more efficient and resilient. They’ve launched public education awareness campaigns around reducing food waste and composting, and provide technical assistance and consulting to make facilities’ food service operations more sustainable.
The organization’s Director of Programs, Katrina Kazda, recalls how a project with NASCAR’s Richmond International Raceway posed an interesting challenge. NASCAR events run for a short amount of time, only a few days per year in most cases, but produce vast quantities of food. With Sustainable America’s help, the Richmond International Raceway implemented a food rescue and donation program in addition to a composting, recycling, and cardboard diversion program for its 2015 events.
“Over the course of two race weekends we helped the raceway divert 11.8 tons of compost and over 2 tons of cardboard from the landfill,” recalls Kazda. They also recovered and donated 3,376 meals, and received a tax benefit for that.
Step No. 1: Finding a Hauler
Before starting a composting program at your facility, you will want to contact your current waste hauler to see if they have composting options. If they do not, you will need to look for not only a new hauler, but a composting facility where you can bring organic waste. Your current waste hauler can be a valuable resource while conducting composting research, as can your local government’s recycling or solid waste management department and the U.S. EPA’s free WasteWise Program.
Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist for the Health Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), recommends that each facility assess the entire program, including bin type and position, alongside its hauler from the very beginning. Composting facilities can tell you which serviceware and packaging items to purchase that will also be compostable, if meat and bones can be included in the composting bins, and whether or not paper towels can be a part of the composting program.
Hoover tells a story about MLB’s Seattle Mariners to illustrate how much influence the composting vendor can have over facility operations. “The Mariners realized most of their food waste was still in a container, but it was also purchased in the stadium,” says Hoover. “If they controlled what they were serving, they could also control [what they were composting].”
The challenge was finding a serviceware vendor that would work for its concessionaire and also its composter. So the Mariners worked as an intermediary between the two entities, managing communications in what Hoover described as a “feedback loop,” until it found a mutually beneficial serviceware provider.
After switching to compostable serviceware products in 2011, the Mariners’ diversion rate grew to more than 70 percent, according to an NRDC case study on how the sports industry is helping with sustainability initiatives. That same year, the Mariners saved US$95,000 in landfill costs.
Managing Contamination with Education
One of the biggest challenges with composting is contamination. “If composting facilities get highly contaminated loads, they can reject it,” Hoover says. Other times, composters may charge hefty fees for contamination above a certain level.
The only way to prevent contamination is with education. For example, if you are starting with a back-of-house composting program that only includes kitchen staff, it is easier to control education and minimize contamination. You can offer in-depth training sessions on how to compost food waste and communicate directly with employees through email and other established lines of communication. If your organization has a high employee turnover, it will become important to repeat training at least annually.
When you’re ready to bring your composting program public, and offer the option for all building occupants, signage becomes a crucial part of education. Clarity is paramount. Combinations of pictures and words are popular, as are signs in multiple languages.
The University of Washington started its food composting program 10 years ago, and today has an award-winning, campus-wide food and restroom-paper-towel composting program.
The school attributes its success to signage and simple logistics. For its restroom-towel composting program, the university converted its existing trash cans into compostable containers, but put engaging signage on them. These bins are located adjacent to the towel dispenser, so it is easy for occupants to dispose of the paper towels.
“We had the phenomenon that people don’t want to touch the doorknob on the way out, so we put a container right there with a big wide opening and signs sometimes on all sides of [the] container,” recalls Gene Woodard, director of the building services department at the University of Washington. “It’s so clear what people are to do. The signage makes them almost excited to be a part of our sustainability efforts.”
Getting Rid of the Myths
Some people think of composting and say, “Yuck!” They may associate composting with a bin or worms, strong odors, or fruit flies. However, most facilities with successful composting programs will tell you that has not been a problem for them.
“The yuck factor is huge,” says Emily Newcomer, assistant director, University of Washington Recycling. “People don’t want to touch it at first. But if you have the conversation, you get them to realize the stuff you were going to put in that container [would instead be put] in another container labelled, ‘trash.’ It’s connecting those dots for people.”
Custodial staff is always told to dispose of food compost on a daily basis, which decreases the likelihood of odor. In the hotter months, Newcomer has her staff clean the containers and pull the liners more often.
In addition, most composting bins have lids. Interestingly, packaging and paper products help to keep fruit flies out. “Packaging is a carbon material in composting terms,” explains Newcomer. “The absorbable stuff is what attracts fruit flies. When you have a balance of this dry carbon material with the organic waste, that keeps the fruit flies away.”
Finding Champions to Drive the Program
Another important part of program success is buy-in. Like any big change to a building’s maintenance plan, support should come from every level. That may include providing a range of resources and initiatives to make executives aware of the benefits of composting. It may also include training for those who will be engaging in it.
Woodard appealed to the administration at the University of Washington by showing them the cost avoidance that can come from a composting program. He also appealed to those in the school community who were concerned about the environment. “Appealing to both audiences is key,” Woodard says. “Then you’ll get champions who will drive the program for you.”
Start With a Waste Audit
A waste audit is a formal, structured process by which an institution sorts and quantifies its waste stream. The results show facility managers what percentage of their waste is recyclable or compostable. The waste audit can also help identify cost-saving measures and highlight inefficiencies in its waste management processes. Here are some tips to help your organization implement a waste audit:
- Waste audits should be carefully planned; safety should be a top concern.
- Reach out to the local government, your waste hauler, and the EPA to find resources to help plan and conduct your waste audit.
- Always conduct sorting in well-ventilated areas.
- Train sorters and ensure they use personal protective equipment, such as gloves, masks, and overalls.
- Don’t allow waste to be handled with bare hands; encourage the use of tongs.
- Always write down the data you gather in your waste audit, use it as a benchmark, and measure against it as you start your composting program.