The business case for composting from Whole Foods, MGM & BofA

The two biggest challenges to composting programs remain limited infrastructure and cultural habits. Apparently, people still resist scraping and dumping food into separate bins. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, less than 3 percent of food was recovered or recycled in 2010.

That hasn't stopped companies like Whole Foods Markets, MGM Resorts International and Bank of America from trying.

Their main motivation is financial: By cutting back on food waste, companies can reduce waste hauling costs for waste sent to landfill.

In addition, requiring employees to separate food scraps and other compostable materials from their solid waste streams can also force them to think differently about procurement, packaging and production processes -- saving money upstream.

"It serves as an opportunity for resource reduction across the board," said Kathy Loftus, global leader for sustainable engineering & energy management for Whole Foods. Her remarks came during a panel about waste management policies during the Sustainable Operations Summit 2012 in New York.

Even though Whole Foods doesn't yet have a formal composting program, 75 percent of its 300 stores across the United States now have an initiative in place. In New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, the rate is 100 percent. These efforts are being driven at the local level, due to the inconsistent nature of support for composting across the country, she said.

Whole Foods now sends a higher average percentage of its waste for composting than a typical grocery store, about 65 percent of the total waste stream, Loftus said.

"We really need to have coopetition to push the development of this infrastructure," she said. "We need that before we will have consistent acceptance for composting."

Shortly after Bank of America adopted a composting program for its headquarters in New York, the hauler went out of business, said Lisa Shpritz, senior vice president and environmental operations executive, another speaker during this week's summit. The larger challenge for her team, however, has been convincing executives that waste needs to be separated into three different stream: recyclables, compostables and other solid waste.

"It can be very difficult from a cultural standpoint," Shpritz said.

Restaurants, food retailers and hospitality organizations are in an ideal position to encourage development of composting hauling and management infrastructure, said Brad Tomm, director of sustainable operations for Las Vegas-based MGM Resorts, which owns 10 of the world's largest casinos.

MGM turned to composting to help it manage more than 14,000 tons of food scraps, Tomm told summit attendees. "We rely on our financial teams to help create the business case for programs like this," he said.

Composting and recycling made sense for MGM despite the fact that Nevada has a very low average rate of adoption for these practices. MGM boasted a 38.3 percent recycling rate in 2011, compared with 9.6 percent in 2007, Tomm said. The statewide recycling rate in Nevada is 20 percent; in Las Vegas, the average recycling rate is 15 percent, he said.

The environmental case for compositing is clear, said Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator for the Office of Solid Waste & Emergency Management for the U.S. Environment Protection Agency.

Food makes up the single biggest component of waste sent to landfill, Stanislaus said. As of 2012, that was about 34 million tons annually. That is an issue because decomposing food converts into methane, a gas that the EPA said has 21 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide emissions.

Longer term, composting could help slow degradation of agricultural resources, putting nutrients back into the soil used by farmers, Whole Foods' Loftus added.

Composting photo via Shutterstock.