Why companies need composting to meet zero-waste goals

Your organization's best attempts to reduce the amount of food and organic waste it sends to landfill will fall short without proper employee training and highly visual educational signage, according to a panel of organics waste experts.

"This requires training and rethinking, starting in the back hallway," said Scott Maurer, executive sous chef for Peabody Hotels, which initiated its composting program last summer in part because more event planners were requesting it.

Since ramping up its program in January, Peabody Hotels has diverted more than 30 tons of food waste, largely through "pre-consumer" efforts to collect vegetable and food trimmings generated as food is prepared. The organization is now ramping up its "post-consumer" collection and separation initiatives that focus on food left on plates, buffets or banquet tables, Maurer said.

The need for education -- and for highly visual signage making it easy for patrons and employees to figure out how to sort organic waste from other trash or recyclables -- was a recurring theme during "Innovations in Organics Food Waste Recycling," a GreenBiz webcast sponsored by Waste Management this week.

Even though the infrastructure to support composting of food and other organic waste is still limited, the panelists said a growing number of food service and hospitality organizations are seeking more sustainable ways to handle this waste.

The reason is pretty obvious: Organic waste and food are a big part of the 250 million tons of waste generated annually in the United States -- approximately 30 percent, according to Waste Management data.

It's difficult for businesses to reach waste-diversion or zero-landfill goals without including composting as a component of their strategies, Tom Carpenter, director of sustainability services at Waste Management, said during the webcast. In fact, more than half of the businesses that have declared these goals have failed to meet them for that reason, he said.

"You cannot build in engineering controls, as you can with energy, to control behavior habits," Carpenter said.

The Peabody Hotels program, which began in its banquet kitchens, has been successful mainly due to the interest that employees have taken in driving it, Maurer said. The program is expanding this month to include all food, which will require particular attention from the stewards guiding banquet management. "It requires more planning and thought," he said.

The simplicity of composting programs is an important consideration, said Michael Oshman, CEO of the Green Restaurant Association. "If you require consumers to do a lot of sorting, it is much harder," Oshman said.

Pre-consumer and post-consumer organics management are part of the certification process that food service organizations must go through to earn the Green Restaurant designation. In certain cities, composting is a requirement: New York, Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego, Baltimore (metro), Seattle, Philadephia, St. Louis, Mo., Portland, Ore., Greater Boston, and the Washington, D.C., metro area.

Key factors for successful composting programs include signage with both words and obvious visuals, a packaging procurement strategy that matches composting and recycling goals, education, and a process that is simple, Oshman said.

Waste Management executives recommend several approaches for reducing organics sent to landfill, depending on local regulations:

  • Source reduction, including portion control, which will cut back on the amount of food waste created in the first place (this will require an upfront assessment of your company's habits)
  • Donations to food banks, soup kitchens and shelters
  • Sending food scraps to farmers
  • Collecting and providing fats for rendering or use in various alternative energy generation approaches
  • Recycle scraps into nutrients that can be added back into the soil

Waste Management processes more than 2.5 million tons of organics into "beneficial uses" at 36 organics facilities in North America, Carpenter said. The organization is also working closely with companies offering new technologies for handling organics, including Harvest Power, which operates the largest food and yard waste recovery site in North America, and Terrabon, which develops waste-to-fuel technology.

Increased participation by food service organizations and other businesses will help inspire development of more processing infrastructure for composting and organics waste management, the panelists believe.

Food composting is now a core strategy for Restaurant Associates, which operates the dining halls at more than 100 prestigious museums and performing centers, Oshman said. (Restaurant Associates is a division of foodservice giant Compass Group.) In addition, a growing number of Aramark food service locations are also taking up the composting mantle.

"This is one of the largest areas of growth," Oshman said.

Food waste image via Shutterstock.