Taking preventative action marks the first step in cutting down on waste, per the Environmental Protection Agency. Source reduction remains at the top of the EPA’s Waste Management hierarchy. Recovery and redistribution through donations and food banks comes next.
After that, composting and recycling represent the next best ways to divert waste from landfills. Recycling minimizes waste by transforming it into a renewable resource. Diverting material from landfills cuts down on environmentally harmful methane emissions and can reduce a foodservice operator’s waste-hauling fees. Nearly two-thirds of restaurants recycle cardboard and paper or fats, oil and grease, according to the National Restaurant Association (NRA). Table-service restaurant operators report somewhat higher rates of recycling than operators of limited-service restaurants, and independently owned restaurants report higher recycling rates than chain/franchisee-owned restaurants, the report also found.
Composting diverts food waste, and organic matter in particular, from landfills. More than one in ten operators, roughly 14 percent, say they compost some type of food waste, according to the NRA’s 2018 The State of Restaurant Sustainability report. Of the operators who do not currently compost food waste, nearly 4 in 10 cite the lack of a nearby composting facility as a barrier.
Still, although it seems simple, the act of composting, and even recycling, is not easy for everyone.
“In many parts of the country, the greatest barrier to widespread composting is the lack of composting facilities and organics collection/transportation infrastructure,” says Chris Cochran, executive director of ReFED, a collaboration of more than 80 business, nonprofit, foundation, and government leaders committed to reducing food waste in the United States. “However, states and municipalities are increasingly enacting organic waste recycling plans, which prevent food waste and other organics from being disposed of in landfills and are often paired with public grant programs to spur investment in infrastructure. This helps promote the development of composting infrastructure while also incentivizing food waste prevention and food recovery, and simultaneously creating new jobs and economic benefits.”
Some of the barriers include lack of composting facilities, insufficient space, transportation constraints, lack of information about how to get started, management or building constraints, and local ordinances and regulations. In some cases, processors cannot compost certain food scraps such as orange peels, egg shells and animal bones. ReFED reports it takes an investment of nearly $3 billion for recycling infrastructure throughout the country, mainly for compost and anaerobic digestion processing and collection. That alone is barrier enough.
In order to help pave the way for more extensive composting and recycling nationwide, ReFED — in a partnership with the Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA) and its members —launched several data-driven guides intended for foodservice operators and other players in the food industry. One suggestion in the report titled A Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent, is for municipalities to include nonfinancial job and environmental benefits into the cost-benefit analysis when making the case for larger recycling and composting projects and infrastructure development.
ReFED sees a need for policy adjustment at state and local levels, with the end goal being more comprehensive federal legislation. This would help remove barriers for wider scale infrastructure development, the report said. Innovation is important too, in the form of key technology and business-model innovations that leverage value-added compost products and distributed recycling. Campaigns to raise food waste awareness among consumers can also help attract the additional funding necessary for recycling and composting infrastructure development, according to the report.
Chaz Miller, the former director of policy and advocacy for the National Waste & Recycling Association in Washington, D.C., notes recent legislation in the state of Maryland specifically points to the need to expand infrastructure. “It’s not unusual to see some composting facilities located at local landfills because those facilities are already operating and are cited for materials, so there is nothing new about the trucks coming to them,” Miller says. “The biggest challenge is having the space at local landfill facilities or in the community in order to build new facilities. It’s tougher in densely populated areas. And then when you do have a new composting facility the two biggest hurdles are a potential for odor and trucks — many people don’t want extra trucks going up and down their street.”
Other infrastructure barriers to composting come into play at the restaurant or foodservice operator level. “You need to have adequate space in or outside the restaurant for all of the composting containers, and then you need to train the work staff and then retrain when there is turnover,” Miller says. “Simply getting a hauler to pick up the composting or finding a place to take it can be an issue.”
Change won’t happen overnight, Miller says, but the number of composting facilities continues to grow nationwide as interest grows.
There are various methods of composting, the ReFED report points out. The most common include Centralized Anaerobic Digestion (AD), in which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen, resulting in wet and dry soil amendment and animal feeding byproducts.
In-vessel composting happens on a smaller scale. Communities transport food from homes and other outlets by truck, car or bicycle to area compost facilities. A growing number of organizations across the U.S. now collect compost from consumers and businesses when no commercialized compost pickup or related infrastructure exists. ReFED estimates that 2,500 tons of food waste each year gets composted in this manner. This is where restaurants and other operators not able to compost on a large scale could get into the game.
On-Site Composting Equipment
Miller says he’s seeing more equipment in the form of anaerobic digesters, pulpers, dehydrators and other on-site systems that turn food waste into slurries or pellets for natural soil amendments, animal feed and even pet food.
Still, operators investing in this equipment need to have a compost facility or waste hauler in the area that will collect the composted material for redistribution. Again, it all comes back to infrastructure.
There is a robust market for discarded restaurant oil that can convert to fuel. According to NRA research, 74 percent of restaurateurs surveyed recycle their fats, oils and greases (FOG).
If not properly disposed of, FOG can clog sewer pipes and even lead to fines for improper cleanup. The NRA encourages its members to contact the local municipality’s water department for proper handling instructions and for an approved list of FOG service providers.
Biofuel refineries are still more common on the West Coast and in the Mid-Atlantic, where waste hauling costs tend to run higher, Miller says. “That’s not to say the interest in biofuel doesn’t continue to grow in other areas every year.”
The Impact of Legislation
Regulatory drivers, often on the municipal level, continue to push more players along the path of waste management, particularly when it comes to recyclables, biodegradables and compostables.
Some municipalities have started to reject certain biodegradable packaging claiming to be compostable. Alameda County, Calif., has banned restaurants from doling out single-use plastic bags. Various other bills on the docket this year in California legislature are geared toward waste management.
One bill would require CalRecycle to establish minimum recycled content standards for beverage containers to cut down on the amount of waste that gets exported overseas for recycling. Another bill seeks to address the need for more organics recycling infrastructure in order to meet the 75 percent organic waste diversion mandate set by the Short Lived Climate Pollutant law, SB 1383. This could help draw more funding to infrastructure development.
Last year, a Recycled Content Claims bill was signed into California law requiring manufacturers or suppliers of plastic products making claims related to the recycled content of a plastic product to maintain information and documentation to support that claim. Calling a product simply “green” or “biodegradable” won’t cut it anymore in California.
Another bill signed into law authorizes the creation of five pilot project bottle recycling centers. A bill banning Styrofoam food takeout containers statewide, however, was struck down.
Miller doesn’t foresee any federal regulation around waste management, recycling and composting. The priorities of certain federal departments, however, can have a stronger impact on recycling and composting legislation. “For instance, there are regulations in Maryland governed by the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act because of a rogue waste facility in that state [that] caused water issues,” he says. “There are now requirements for pads and drainage systems because of runoff issues associated with food waste composting.”