A good composting system is about much more than image; it's about getting your hands dirty and getting it done right.
Composting takes what used to be simply food waste that would go to the landfill or down the drain and turns it into a valuable resource. But it's far from magic. Saying yes to composting quickly leads to more questions.
Every onsite foodservice operation's situation is different — from resources to location to logistics — and developing a strong composting program can take plenty of trial and error experimentation.
Here are some pertinent questions about composting and how a wide sampling of operators was able to address them.
How does composting work?
The short answer is: decomposition. Composting speeds up the decomposition of organic materials. The end result is a rich soil additive that many refer to as “black gold.” Food waste is no longer “wasted,” but is returned to the soil. In short, composting takes food production full circle.
At Kenyon College in Gambier, OH, compost gets its start in the depths of Peirce Hall, the newly renovated Gothic-revival style dining hall in the center of campus.
Kenyon uses both pre- and post-consumer food waste for compost. That means that kitchen scraps as well as leftover food from the tray line are sorted by staff and then routed through a piece of equipment called a pulper-extractor. The mixture that comes out and into bins is 85 percent moisture-free and odorless. The water is then recirculated.
There are multiple pulpers throughout the building and one collection point for the output, which is then taken to an out-of-the-way area on campus near the lower athletic field where one can see static piles in various stages of compost.
The compost sits for seven months, breaking down and building heat as it decomposes under controlled conditions, reaching 140°F in the center of the piles.
“When we think it's ready to go, we send it to an independent lab to be tested to make sure it's free of bacteria,” says Ed Neal, sustainability director at Kenyon College, an AVI Foodsystems account.
Having the space on campus for compost piles is ideal, if possible, he adds.
“If you have the land, static piles are a lot better, since you don't have to find someone to haul it away and you don't have that cost,” Neal says, adding that there is a beautification process underway in which flowerbeds and a garden will be planted near the compost piles. The compost is used throughout the campus, which is very beautiful indeed.
Composting has made good financial sense at the college. “Our solid waste was reduced by 12 tons per week,” Neal says. “It saves money, because otherwise, we have to pay for the solid waste disposal.”
The finished compost is dry to the touch, almost sandy in texture. Once a month, the EPA does inspections at Kenyon, and the college has never failed, Neal says. The biggest challenge from Neal's standpoint was getting a permit from the EPA. Kenyon has a Class 2 permit, which means the compost can include meat and dairy products.
This is just one example of a successful composting operation that is paying off. But what if you don't have the space for your own piles? Then you must find a partner to take the food waste away.
What if I don't have the space for compost piles?
About 112 miles north of Kenyon, space is limited on a very different campus at Case Western Reserve University. Where Kenyon is all bucolic expanse, Case Western is a dense urban campus on the east side of Cleveland.
Still, sustainability is a big part of the corporate philosophy of Bon Apetit, a longtime leader in green campuses and the provider of Case's dining services. Another part of Bon Appetit's philosophy is scratch cooking, which provides a lot of material to be composted, says Dave Apthorpe, campus executive chef.
“Since the inception of our program in January through the end of March, at our retail outlet, we have composted an estimated total of 5,000 lbs. and 5,000 lbs. at the café,” Apthorpe says.
Striking a partnership with a company that could take the food waste away to become compost was the key to making a composting program happen.
What is realistic for where I am located?
Location is one of the biggest factors when an institution is determining whether or not composting is feasible.
“It was a challenge to get into composting in the heart of Cleveland,” Apthorpe says. But, with a diligent search, Case found Rosby Resource Recycling in nearby Brooklyn Heights, OH.
Rosby has two divisions: construction demolition debris recycling; and the organic division (composting with permits for yard waste and pre-and post-consumer food waste). The company hauls area food waste in trucks seven days a week, says Ian Rosby.
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A good handful of noncommercial and commercial businesses in Cleveland are also working with Rosby, which produces soils, organic humus and compost, and a variety of mulch products which are sold in bulk to landscapers and are used on Rosby's strawberry and raspberry farm.
At NASA Glenn Research Center, food waste is bagged and then picked up by Rosby.
What's the best way to get started?
One step at a time, those with successful composting programs agree. At Iowa State University, the University Compost Facility was built in 2008 to compost waste from the ISU Dairy Farm and quickly began taking waste from additional sources, says Director Nancy Levandowski. Around the same time, an honors class worked with the foodservice department to measure the amount of food waste at the dining centers. (The measurement of food waste is one of the first steps for many successful composting operations.) Another factor was that the city of Ames began charging about $800 to $1200 a month for water treatment due to the use of garbage disposals.
“Once the decision was made, research and planning determined the logistics,” Levandowski says. “We determined which of our locations could handle composting equipment, how often we would need to visit the compost facility, and all of the procedures for properly disposing of various foods and disposable products.”
The operation at Iowa State is now successfully off and running thanks to continued education for staff and students. From August 19 to November 30 last year, more than 120 tons of dining waste was composted there.
How can I plan ahead to minimize the waste from the beginning?
Phillips Academy, a private high school in Andover, MA, included composting as part of many new features in a major renovation last year of its dining hall, Paresky Commons.
Phillips uses a pulper and extractor, and since the reopening of Paresky, an average of about 10 tons a month have been composted at a local farm when school is in session. Phillips also has a single stream compactor that handles paper, plastic, cardboard and anything else that's recyclable.
Using melamine dinnerware and reusable sliverware in the dining halls has eliminated a lot of trash, says Michael Giampa, food service director for Aramark at Phillips Academy Andover.
“What we've learned is that you really have to plan ahead. You can minimize a lot of trash that would go to the landfill in the first place,” Giampa says. “We use wooden stirrers, buy everything in bulk that we can to reduce packaging trash, real silverware, melamine coffee cups, plates, parfait cups, and a 12 oz. plastic tumbler.”
Does composting make good financial sense?
It can. “It should be cost-neutral, if not a savings,” Rosby says.
It certainly is at Phillips. “Right now, it's cheaper for us to send it to the farm than to send it to the incinerator,” Giampa says. “We've gone from a large dumpster that was emptied daily to a small dumpster that's emptied three times a week.”
Russ Meyer, associate director for Housing and Operations and Dining Services at University of Nevada-Reno, counts the hard-to-quantify marketing boost that doing composting right — not just ‘greenwashing’ to look good — can bring.
“It's the right thing to do, because you're limiting what you're putting into a landfill,” Meyer says. “You save money on hauling costs, so economically it does make sense, though it may take about two years to see a payoff. Plus, when students see you trying to do the right thing, that is a very powerful marketing tool.”
Justin Lemnios, general manager, Parkhurst Dining Services at the Maryland Institute College of Art, says “a little bit of money has been saved,” with less waste going to the landfill, but it's not so much about cost savings; “it's more about being proactive and trying to go green.”
Waste Neutral is a provider of collection and compost services for the Maryland Institute College of Art and also for operations of Aramark, Flik, Sodexo, Bon Appetit and Sage.
Keith Losoya, founder of Waste Neutral, says that money is definitely an issue for the operations he works with.
“The big cost issue is ‘now we're paying another hauler,’” Losoya says. “But our tipping fees are lower. In the Mid-Atlantic area, tipping fees are around $55. Our tipping fees are between $30 and $50.”
When Waste Neutral begins a partnership with a facility, they tell them right off the bat to “get rid of one of your solid waste containers,” Losoya says. “If you're using a compactor, we will immediately reduce the amount of smelly, dense, wet stuff, and the costs will wash out. Within a quarter, most of our clients say they've reduced their need for Dumpster service.”
What if I buy the wrong kind of equipment?
“We had some problems,” admits Meyer, referring to the new composting system that turned out to not be a good fit.
Meyer explains that the university purchased a dry composter and had it installed in an indoor area near a loading dock. With no additional ventilation, and this system being the first one the company had installed indoors, “we started getting a fermenting odor.”
“Not a horrible smell, but a sweet fermenting smell like being in a winery,” he says, adding that the room simply didn't have enough ventilation, and it would prove to be “way too complicated to install additional ventilation.”
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The good news is that the company was very good about working with the university and was in the process of exchanging the dry composter for a wet composting system. “It only uses five to ten gallons of water a day, and what comes out goes through a grease interceptor, where all of our waste water goes,” Meyer says.
So, all in all, a good outcome, although Meyer says he is disappointed that there will be no dry compost.
What goals should we have?
Meyer has a goal of eventually composting “virtually everything,” he says. Part of the goal is eventually to have all compostable disposables.
Testing, talking to experts and reaching out to the community are all ways to advance composting to that next stage: truly sustainable, fiscally sound and good for the environment.
What many point to as the next step for a true composting movement is developing an efficient route.
Each route should have an “anchor,” a large operation — such as a hospital or college — that can generate 4 or 5 tons or more a week of food waste, says Michael Manna, managing director of Organic Recycling Solutions, a national resource developer.
Manna has spent more than 20 years developing routes between generators of food waste and compost facilities, helping the compost facilities develop “milk runs” with maybe ten stops.
How do I get customers to use the correct bins?
It can be difficult to expect customers — often harried or just not in-the-know — to place their compostable food waste in one place, their recyclables and reusables in another.
Dan Henroid of the University of California-San Francisco Medical Center, puts it more bluntly: “If you are relying on customers to do the sorting for you, good luck.”
Before composting went into full swing at the medical center about two years ago, Henroid, director of the Department of Nutrition and Medical Services, observed many different operations, including a few different B&I operations, and the university's student union, which is just across the street from the medical center.
“People either don't know, don't care, or they're too hurried,” Henroid says. “There are a million different reasons. The most successful composting operations we saw were ones that did their own sorting.”
Why is sorting so important? “Because our waste hauler doesn't want ‘dirty compost.’ They will stop picking it up if there are too many instances of non-compostable materials getting in,” Henroid says. He even goes so far as to keep the compost bin under lock and key so no one accidentally throws something in that doesn't belong.
The key in “keeping our compost clean,” Henroid says, has been educational programs for staff where they learn — for this particular operation — what is compostable and what isn't.
“The biggest challenge is getting people to put the right stuff in the right bins,” agrees Mark Eggleston, director of hospitality services, Overlake Hospital Medical Center, Bellevue, WA. “So our dish room people sort it, and luckily, we have a program with the Bellevue school district and mentally disabled people volunteer to sort compostable materials for the cafeteria. They do a really good job.”
Overlake Hospital Medical Center composts all kitchen scraps and any compostable disposables. Since they began, King County has mandated composting, and the Seattle-based Starbucks provides the center with compostable cups that also bear the Starbucks logo, “killing two birds with one stone,” Eggleston says.
However, that doesn't mean that customers are completely unable to sort. At Iowa State, Levandowski has found that “students, in particular, are very green-savvy and they typically follow through on their end of the deal and properly dispose of everything on their plate.” Levandowski credits education efforts in the form of posters, tours and student media to get the message out.
How do I let customers and the community know what I'm doing?
Just as untold numbers of customers are starting to demand green practices and transparency (especially on college campuses), many are becoming leery about ‘greenwashing,’ a term used to describe companies that promote themselves as being sustainable mostly for a marketing benefit without being true to the philosophy. Creating a composting system that works should be top-of-mind. Then, marketing and getting the word out can be pursued.
Jeanne Fry, director of foodservices at the University of Georgia, says UGA foodservice is typically very good at telling their story, but had fallen a little bit short when it came to green practices. She was able to turn that around, and was even awarded the title of Green Champion by the Go Green Alliance on campus.
Although UGA dining had been a pioneer in pulping waste, is just starting a new composting program. “We are going to have dedicated bins on the dock at Joe Frank Harris Commons, a building that houses the Village Summit, one of our meal-plan facilities, the commissary kitchen for all retail outlets and also has the Red Clay Café food mart and the Village Market c-store,” Fry says.
The university's physical plant will pick up the food waste three times a week and take it to the university's composting facility, located just outside the city.
Getting all the university departments together was a challenge. “They had the composting, we had the materials,” Fry says. “The Go Green Alliance was formed, and they campaigned to have a student fee that would create the Office of Sustainability a couple years ago. They are addressing all kinds of issues on campus, and composting was definitely one.”
“I helped them out during Earth Week. They wanted to do a catered reception after campus tours that was a totally no-waste, locally grown event,” Fry says. “I jumped through the hoops and found as much local food as I could during a week in April (there wasn't much). We did it all on china, provided a composting bin for scraps and we used compostable napkins.”
Fry says students weren't even aware of many things the campus foodservice department had already been doing — like recycling since the 1970s, pulping, having Second Harvest pick up leftovers for homeless and battered women's shelters, and water conservation.
“My advice to schools is to ask yourself three questions: ‘What are we already doing that our students don't know about?’ ‘What else can we easily do immediately with little or no investment?’ And ‘How can we work green initiatives into our future projects?’ Then make sure your campus and community are aware of your efforts.”
Giampa at Phillips says during big events like commencement and reunions, he strives for a fully sustainable event.
“When we have the opening of school and we have the parent-student welcome, it's 2,000 to 3,000 people. We set up the menu to be a sustainable success. No more bags of chips, no more plastic plates & forks. Once you get used to it, it's pretty easy,” he says, adding that there will be blurbs about sustainability in the commencement packet for parents.