To compost or not to compost? If you manage a restaurant or operate any type of food venue, you already know that “to compost or not” is no longer the question. While composting may have once been optional, taking care of food waste is now the golden standard in the foodservice industry. In fact, depending where your business is located, it may even be illegal for you not to compost.
The good news is that the new standard has ushered in a rich menu of composting alternatives for restaurants and catering services. This includes old and familiar composting methods along with new and innovative techniques, technologies, and equipment.
Composting Guide for Food Industry Professionals
This composting guide for food industry professionals is designed to lighten your waste load by give you updated info on the latest tricks of the trade and on how your food and beverage business can adopt sustainable practices that satisfy public demand for ‘green’ goods and services, conserve the environment, and in the process – actually save your business money.
Eco-Friendly Trends Transforming Foodservice
The facts are in: “Eco-friendly” is the buzz word in the biz and food establishments are responding by filling their plates and their customers’ palates with green practices, green products, and increasingly green menus offering nutritious, wholesome, whole-grain, organic, vegetarian, and locally grown foods.
Improving recycling efficiency is another way food chains, catering companies, takeout services, concession stands, and party event planners are meeting global demand for a smaller carbon footprint. Similarly, replacing plastics with biodegradable utensils, plates, platters, cups, bowls, and serving dishes is another environmentally sound way to cut back on fossil fuel emissions. Lastly, responding to the urgent call to reduce trash and fight food waste is on the rise.
Updates from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Reports published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirm that food scraps are the leading material filling landfills, rotting alongside tons of garbage which are generating unprecedented emissions of greenhouse gases. In light of this dismal news, returning food to the soil by means of composting has become a priority for anyone working in the food industry. Moreover, since foodservices naturally spend large amounts of money on disposal fees (based on weight or number of bags thrown out), reducing food wastage via composting automatically lowers expenses while saving the environment.
Combat Food Waste in your Restaurant: Compost!
Did you know that composting is nature’s own way of recycling? Around the world, in woodlands and other natural soils, an active organic process is continually occurring – turning waste matter into a rich degraded matter known as “humus”. Composting aims to mimic this same natural cycle of life and decay, keeping organic waste out of landfills and returning it as valuable fertilizer to the earth.
If your eatery isn’t already begun composting its food scraps, now is the time to start. According to the EPA, 60-80% of garbage produced by restaurants is really food waste. In another disturbing statistic published by Feeding America, up to 40% of ‘good’ food produced in the US doesn’t make it to people’s plates. To combat this, not only do they recommend donating leftovers to local food pantries and shelters, enhancing recycling success by adding more bins – they also strongly advocate for composting.
How Composting Works
Compost bins use microorganisms naturally found in the soil to break down organic material from kitchen scraps and garbage waste. While full decomposition can take years in the natural world, a well-managed composting system can get the job done in only weeks or months. Your business can reduce the time factor involved in composting by providing the right conditions for composting.
How to Compost
The ideal compost takes into account the following:
Moisture: Compost piles should be damp (like a squeezed sponge) but not wet. Too much water can kill the microorganisms and wash away valuable nutrients, while too little water makes the pile dry and brittle, significantly slowing down the process. Your compost container should have a lid to keep snow, rain, and excess liquid out, and some bins even come equipped with a drain.
Oxygen/Air Flow: Compost containers should be well aerated and designed to maximize air flow and circulation. Oxygen prevents odor from anaerobic bacteria and is also fuel for the microbes breaking down the trash into a finished compost. Air flow can also be improved by using a special compost-turning tool.
Correct Mixture of Ingredients: The ingredients of your compost are pivotal. The rule of thumb, according to the EPA, is an equal amount of browns to greens and alternate layers of organic materials of different-size particles.
“Browns” refers to materials such as shredded newspaper, paper towels, shredded cardboard, leaves, and dried grass. And “greens” refers to matter such as fruit rinds, vegetable peels, and coffee grounds. In composting lingo, these are also refereed to as cellulose-rich carbon matter and nitrogen-rich scraps. Ideally, it is best to use several different types of materials mixed together.
Logistics to Consider in Restaurant Composting
Some logistics to keep in mind when planning your composting program are:
Space: Space for composting equipment can be an issue, especially for smaller restaurants. Keep in mind that whether your food waste is being hauled away or composted on site, you will require space for several roll carts or containers.
Permit: Look up your municipality’s regulations to determine if you require a permit for on-site composting.
Weather/Region: Do your composting research before you begin to determine which composting systems work best in your particular climate. For example, compost worms cannot survive extreme cold or hot weather conditions.
Be Diligent About Cleanliness: Where there is food waste, there are bound to be odors and pests. Invest in containers with tight-fitting lids, schedule regular garbage pickups, and clean composting containers and the general area regularly.
Beware of Overfilling Containers: Composting drums and roll carts easily fill up with hundred of pounds of material, making them difficult to transfer, move, and empty. Err on the side of caution and do not overfill or even fill to capacity.
Check Out Local Commercial Composting Facilities: The simplest solution for restaurateurs is to hire a composting collection service. All that you would then need to do is to separate organic material from the rest of the garbage (in the same manner as materials are separated for the recycle bin) and the scraps will be picked up and hauled away. If your business is located in the U.S. or Canada, you can access the database of composting facilities maintained by BioCycle magazine at findacomposter.com.
Don’t get squirmy but a popular choice for restaurant owners is on-site vermicomposting, also known as worm composting. An effective means of reducing food wastage requiring only an initial investment and some minimal labor, vermicomposting involves feeding vegetable scraps to worms which break down the material into nutrient-rich soil. This system turns food scraps into usable compost in a matter of weeks and is designed to control odor, temperature, aeration, and moisture. The two most common types of worms for composting are Red Wrigglers (Eisenia foetida) and Red Earthworms (Lumbricus rubellus), also known as manure worms. For more about vermicomposting, check out Mother Earth News step-by-step composting guide.
Creative Ways to Tackle Restaurant Composting
For the most up-to-date information regarding food waste management protocols and practices, visit the EPA’s food wastage site. If you are hungry for some innovative ideas on how to tackle composting in your restaurant business, here are some recent success stories that may just whet your appetite….
Stephan Banchero, whose family runs a waste management service, came up with the idea of starting a ‘waste conversion program,’ wherein discarded food scraps are collected from local restaurants and the resulting compost is used to grow new produce for those very same restaurants. In his own words: “We rehabilitate food waste that contains nutrient value into growing food again.” To date, his farm is highly successful as he partners with local restaurants to create individualized programs while offering reduced rates for garbage pick-up.
Taking composting creativity to new heights is Christi Turner from Denver who in 2017 founded Scraps, a food waste pick-up service using bikes, to make composting more accessible for local small businesses and residents. In less than one month, her innovation kept over 2,000 pounds of compostable waste out of landfills and the company helped its first restaurant partner reduce its number of weekly garbage bags from 20-30 to about 3! This up-and-coming green initiative also helps restaurants overcome typical composing logistical challenges, such as waste storage and transportation.
Now that you understand the logistics of composting and are considering making a commitment to join the fight against food wastage, your food venue has a unique opportunity to create a positive end for food waste and restore the earth’s natural resources. So, put your thinking caps on… what creative, eco-friendly uses of modern technology can your foodservice harness to compost? The results will be a ‘win’ for the environment, a ‘win’ in customer approval, and a ‘win’ for your business!