Restaurants Use Composting for Sustainable Food Waste Removal
December 28, 2018
Plastic straws have been all over the news lately. As the NYT recently wrote, “the ubiquitous plastic straw has suddenly become a pariah for the harm it can do to the environment.”
In the realm of single-use plastics, straws don’t take up much space, but they have become a focal point for environmental activists. Some cities, like Seattle and Malibu, have outright banned straws. Britain has vowed to outlaw the sale of plastic straws before the end of the year.
However, as the NYT puts it, “it’s not government officials or consumers who seem to be leading the shift away from plastic straws. It’s businesses.”
Restaurant businesses are often the ones to make the first move toward sustainability, whether that means pulling straws off the drink counter or changing food sourcing chains. The next biggest trend? It may be restaurant composting.
The Food Waste Problem
In the U.S. at large, the EPA reports, food scraps account for 38 million tons (21.6 percent) of total municipal garbage. Of that, 95 percent is sent to incinerators and landfills, where it rots and releases methane gas.
According to a study done by the Business for Social Responsibility, about 84 percent of restaurant food waste ends up being thrown in the trash. As the National Restaurant Association explains, because food waste is often full of water, it is the “the heaviest and most costly to haul to the landfill,” making food waste disposal the largest part of a restaurant’s waste removal budget.
However, since most food waste is reusable organic material, there is an alternative to sending it to the landfill: composting.
Composting is the process of breaking down organic waste. According to the National Restaurant Association, “non-edible food scraps — plate scrapings, fruit and vegetable peelings, spoiled foods, etc. — can be collected and converted into compost that can be used to fertilize crops, lawns and gardens.”
Compost Service Providers
While the rare restaurant may have the know-how, space, and time to start their own on-site composting program, most urban restaurants find it infeasible. Restaurant owners more often turn to professional composting companies to make the switch from landfill to compost pile.
These compost service providers are the missing piece in the waste stream puzzle for busy chefs and restaurateurs.
CompostNow is a composting company that works with restaurant clients in Raleigh, Durham, and Atlanta. For a service fee, they schedule pick-ups and haul organic waste from restaurants, just like other waste removal services.
The company first sits down with the restaurant to understand their waste stream and how much food waste they produce. “We work with every restaurant individually to see what their needs are,” says Nick Morrow, vice president of growth at CompostNow.
Together, they determine how many “roll carts,” containers similar to rolling trash cans, the restaurant may need for their waste stream. CompostNow advises where the carts can go on the property and how the kitchen can transfer material.
CompostNow also provides on-site training for all employees, showing samples of finished compost and troubleshooting common issues. “It’s very important the leadership in the kitchen is on board, because they provide the drive,” says Morrow. “But the entire team needs to be involved for it to be successful.”
Squeaky Clean Food Waste
What do chefs love most about composting services? No extra mess.
Morrow explains, “I always tell people, the waste was there already. We’re not doing anything new except separating out the food waste so it can be composted.”
CompostNow offers various pickup frequencies, depending on a restaurant’s output and preferences. As Morrow expands, “frequently, we are picking up the food waste before the trash company even would.”
Most of the time, the roll carts for food waste can be housed next to other waste removal receptacles. Every time CompostNow picks up the food waste, they swap out the cart with a cleaned and washed cart to prevent odor. This can leave the compost area smelling even better than most trash and recycling bins.
The company also uses specific rodent proof carts to prevent any pest problems from the consolidated food waste.
Some restaurateurs may encounter resistance from property managers, but according to Morrow, “if the restaurant really is committed to composting, more often than not, there is a way to make it happen.” He says that most property managers will consider the system, even if they are unfamiliar with commercial composting services.
“The composting company will also help in any way they can,” he adds, noting that CompostNow offers educational resources and speaks directly with property managers when restaurants ask.
Municipalities, too, are growing more used to the idea of composting, relaxing regulations or even providing the service themselves. New York City oversees the largest municipal composting program in the U.S., and the service is steadily being expanded from residential locations to restaurants.
The National Restaurant Association advises restaurants to do a “waste-stream audit” to determine the quantity and type of waste generated and the potential areas for reduction or diversion. From there, restaurants can better understand their waste stream spending and see trends over time.
But most chefs want to know: is composting “cost-effective”?
In terms of strict dollars and cents, Morrow says that, for now, “commercial food waste hauling services carry a higher cost than landfill hauling services,” due to the overall lower number of accounts and dispersed customer base.
However, he adds, “We’ll see food waste hauling costs decrease as more businesses begin to compost, more farmers and gardeners buy compost, and landfills run out of space.”
Despite the current cost difference per ton, composting can still cut down your waste removal budget. As Morrow explains, “without food waste in your dumpster or compactor, you may be able to lengthen the amount of time in between getting it emptied, because without that organic matter, it won’t smell as fast.”
Depending on the size of your operation, with food waste separated out, you may be able to renegotiate your waste-hauling contracts and use smaller receptacles or less frequent pickups.
All restaurants can start somewhere though, says Morrow, and some compost is better than no compost. “If you have a specific budget, you can work within that. Maybe you can’t compost all of your food waste right away, but you can start off with a small pickup quantity, celebrate that, and grow over time.”
The PR “ROI”
Most of CompostNow’s customers, however, don’t only consider the cost perspective. The real “return on investment,” according to Morrow, comes from the marketing and PR value to a customer base who cares about food waste issues.
“Composting is good for the environment, and customers like to see that,” says Morrow. “If they see you as part of the sustainable movement, they associate you with high-quality food sourcing.”
CompostNow provides periodic “diversion weights” statistics for restaurants to publicize, cataloging how many pounds of food waste they’ve composted or “diverted” from the landfill waste stream. The company also offers promotional “we’re composting” signage.
Patrick Cuccaro, the General Manager of Atlanta-based Affairs to Remember, emphasizes the importance of sharing the impact of composting. When the catering company celebrated the 300-ton diversion weight milestone, they shared the news with clients, suppliers, and other businesses.
“People need to hear your story, and if this is an important part of your brand, it’s perfect for social media,” Cuccaro told the National Restaurant Association.
How to Choose a Composting Service
If you are interested in composting, the first step is to locate a good composting service. Find a company in your area that is willing to adapt their services and process to your restaurant and team, advises Morrow.
“Ask them what training and support they are willing to provide, from putting systems in place to working with you for the long term,” he says.
The compost company should provide a reliable and clean pickup service and help you design the best system for your kitchen team. Compost companies should also provide diversion tracking to help you measure your impact, as well as details about where the compost goes when it is finished- especially if it goes to local farms.
At the end of the day, according to the National Restaurant Association’s green “Conserve Program,” composting “can lower your hauling costs, remove tons of waste from water treatment plants, and divert reusable, organic matter from landfills”.
As Ginger Pierce, executive chef at NY restaurant Jams, told the NYT, “If you’re going to shop at the market, and you’re supporting farmers, composting seems like an obvious next step, and it just becomes part of your routine.”
With the USDA estimating “food waste in the United States to be about 30 to 40 percent of the food supply,” restaurant owners are starting to take notice of their role — and position of influence.
With advances in composting services, restaurant composting is more viable than ever. After plastic straws, the next step in sustainability may be a rolling cart full of potato peelings.