New technology is making it possible for onsite operators to vastly reduce the weight and volume of food waste and in some cases will permit them to recycle that waste so that it can be used directly in landscaping and grounds maintenance operations. “Closing the waste cycle” in this way promises to make for highly visible sustainability initiatives and is generating a great deal of interest among operators, especially in the college and university foodservice market.
Colleges, which are often at the leading edge of sustainability efforts in the institutional arena, have the large food waste volumes that can make such an effort economical. They also harbor a significant amount of grass roots student interest in making the university environment more ecologically responsible; programs that help them do this are very popular among students and also can enhance the school’s public relations efforts, with dining departments benefitting from this attention.
In early March, the dining department at the University of Texas at Austin had a chance for some major media coverage when FOX News featured it in a TV news report (you can view it here).
UT-Austin began testing the new waste dehydration technology in September as part of its broader sustainability programs, according to Associate Director Scott Meyer.
“It is all about the life long learning experience we provide to our students,” says Meyer. “Students really want to improve the environment and the dining programs is a very visible place where they can see they are having an impact.
The “eCorect” waste dehydrator that makes this initiative possible was first introduced to the U.S. last year by Somat, a commercial foodservice equipment supplier. Somat has licensed exclusive U.S. marketing rights to the technology from a South Korean company which owns the patents to it and makes the actual equipment. (Somat already is a leading producer of pulping equipment which is often integrated with warewashing machines to reduce food waste volume).
Commercial food pulpers typically grind up plate scrapings and food and disposable waste, reducing overall volume by as much as 80 percent and weight by about half. The eCorect machines use heat and mechanical agitation to make this pulp waste decompose into a dry, soil-like substance, reducing its volume and weight by an additional 80 percent or more in under 24 hours (click here to see a demonstration).
The end product is sterile and odor-free and can be used as a soil “amendment” in landscaping. (It may also be used as an ingredient in animal feed and may have other similar applications). An added environmental benefit: the process does not create any of the “greenhouse” methane gas that is typically produced when food waste decomposes in an anerobic landfill environment.
“One of our staff members, Rene Rodriguez, saw this equipment at a conference last year and worked out a deal with the manufacturer so we could test it on our campus,” Meyer says. “It’s located in one of our resident dining halls and only handles a portion of the volume there.”
Based on the test, Meyer’s department has agreed to purchase the first unit now and hopes to purchase a second next fall. That will handle the full volume of waste at one dining hall, “but if we wanted to handle all of the food waste on the campus, it would require several more units,” he adds. The output will be used in the campus’ landscaping program.
The dehydrator units come in several sizes (the model used at UT-Austin is capable of processing between 110-220 pounds of food waste a day). They recycle water and heat and do not require water or venting for operation, although a condensate drain is necessary.
The units are not inexpensive—one that size costs between $25-30,000. However, especially in areas with high hauling and landfill tipping fees, paybacks are estimated to occur in four years or less.