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Composting for Foodservice

Planning, developing and implementing composting programs continues to get easier for foodservice operators because more operators are electing to take these environmentally friendly steps. As role models for their peers, they help both commercial and noncommercial operators follow in that path.

The most successful composting programs in restaurants and foodservice operations seem to be ones where that culture of composting is really ingrained in the staff and management.

The idea of composting not being glamorous is pervasive among foodservice operators in general, points out Dr. Robert Young, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon and cofounder of the University of Oregon Sustainable Cities Initiative. But that might be about to change.

"When we started doing foodservice waste composting in New Jersey one of the first things people said was the people who work in back rooms of restaurants, like the dishwashers and prep cooks, are too stupid and too disinterested to care and they're not going to separate the waste," Young says. "There has always been this classist way of addressing restaurant workers. But what we found when we started working with restaurants was exactly the opposite. By giving those with relatively dull jobs something they could do that gave them real meaning, they became much more meticulous about proper sorting than management. It's important to not underestimate the enthusiasm and intelligence and desire of the people who would be doing the separating, even on the very low rungs of the hierarchy. If you set up great systems, 99 percent of the time, they're really excellent at it."

Elizabeth Meltz, director of food safety and sustainability for Batali/Bastianich Hospitality Group, knows all about this. "I had a chef tell me "I can barely get the staff to not throw away the silverware, how am I going to get them to separate the organic matter?" But there's something very intuitive about this challenge," she says.

Meltz should know because her experience includes serving as chef de partie and kitchen manager at Del Posto in New York City. "Basically if you can eat it, it goes in the compost bin, and because Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich's restaurants try to use as little disposable products as possible, it makes it easier to figure out what to do with paper and compostable disposable products.

"All of the chefs thought composting would be much more complicated than it turns out to be," Meltz adds. "We just set up these totes next to where we're prepping vegetables and when they're done they take a little individual container they've had next to them to hold the scraps and walk it over to the tote when they're done." The post-consumer waste bin sits next to the dishwasher and staff fill it when cleaning the plates.

The restaurant group then works with off-site composting facilities to pick up the bins on a regular basis. It's all about setting up the kitchen for composting success, not failure, including analyzing how much movement and effort composting correctly requires, Meltz says.

The foodservice staff at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C., does not view composting as a chore, either. As one of about seven work schools in the state, the college requires students to complete 15 hours of on-campus work each semester. And, with a list of more "work crews" from which to choose, one of the most popular activities is, believe it or not, the composting/recycling crew, according to Brian O'Loughlin, general manager for Sodexo, which runs the college's dining program.

"We were very into sustainability on campus well before it was ever popular, and have been recycling, composting and buying local foods for a long time," O'Loughlin says. Still, the campus works regularly to reinforce enthusiasm for its composting program.

Being able to drive around on golf carts to pick up the trash helps for one, O'Loughlin says. So does allowing the students complete creative reign with the composting shed that is used to shelter the massive green drums the campus uses to conduct some of its onsite composting. "The students built this hut by hand made with straw and mud, and then found two windows from elsewhere on campus and installed those," O'Loughlin says. "They also took green and blue and different colored bottles and put those in the walls and created shelves and even built a green roof using the expertise of an engineer on campus."

Each day, students collect the food waste from the composting bins at different points in the dining halls and transfer the waste to the drums, which use heat, wood chips (carbon) and constant rotation to digest the waste and create the start of a soil amendment that falls out the back end. From there, the students sift out any undigested wood chips, tossing them back into the front of the bins and setting the finished compost out to age under tarps for another week or so. The resulting product is used for the college's on-site gardens and hoop house to grow more food for the campus, thereby "closing the loop," O'Loughlin says.

On-Site Vs. Off-Site

Choosing to compost on-site or selecting off-site facilities is an important part of the equation to make a composting program affordable, successful and meaningful in a sustainable way, both O'Loughlin and Meltz say. Warren Wilson College chose the on-site method because the space was available, it could be an educational lesson for the students and because the labor and financial resources were available.

At the same time, even if financial resources don't seem like they would be available, committing to composting means finding a way to make this happen. "You have to commit some resources to composting, or divert others that are already there," O'Loughlin says.

With Warren Wilson's green drums costing upwards of $20,000 each, the program represents a giant financial commitment for the college. New composting equipment on the market can also be pricey, but worth it for larger operators with the space and lack of area composting facilities.

Still, when choosing a composting facility, if there is much of a choice to be made, think wisely. "One thing we looked at was how far away the composting facility is located," Meltz says. The extra trucking required to pick up the composting can be just as damaging on the environment in terms of carbon footprint and global warming impact, and this is another reason Warren Wilson decided to avoid the trucks and compost on campus.

"We looked into a facility in Delaware that was 300 miles away and the fuel efficiency was actually better than a rocky road a truck would take to get to a closer facility in Connecticut," says Meltz. "You have to look at all the angles and decide what's important to you."

In Las Vegas where there's quite a bit more space than other markets, like New York City, on-site dehydrator equipment appeared to be a great fit to help B&B Restorante reduce some of the waste hauled away. Of course, that was on paper. In practice, however, this was not such a great fit. "With the flat fees for waste hauling regardless of load, there was no incentive to take those 800 pounds of trash and make it two pounds because we still have to pay the same amount," Meltz says. "For a $15,000 machine, there would be little return on investment there."

Reducing From the Start

Even before selecting a composting facility or on-site program, reducing waste in the first place is a priority for the Batali/Bastianich Hospitality Group. Culinary staff use scraps to make stocks for soups and sauces. Staff also creatively use other odds and ends in appetizers and other small bites.

"At Carnevino Italian Steakhouse in Las Vegas we age our own beef and the steak gets this crusty texture," Meltz says. "We make pastrami and corned beef out of it, and we try to use as much as we can for family meals."

Meltz even found a local gourmet pet food company to use some of the odds and ends. "They pick it up for free. It's a mutually beneficial relationship, and we're eventually looking to co-brand with them."

The restaurant group also sends off its grease to a small maker of glycerin soap in the area.

Affairs to Remember, a well-known Atlanta-based catering company, announced that its Legacy Green program diverted 200 tons from landfills since its inception in 2008, when the city lost a major convention contract because there was no citywide focus on green initiatives, says Travis Taylor, a spokesperson for the caterer. The company measured how much per month it sent to landfills compared to the company's composting program to come up with that figure.

"For us, composting completes the circle. Knowing that all of our organic materials will eventually become fertile soil fits well with our idea of giving back to our community and to our environment," adds Patrick Cuccaro, general manager for Affairs to Remember and chair of the Georgia Restaurant Association. The company also uses that soil to fertilize its chef's garden to further close the loop.

The catering company also sends its grease off for conversion to diesel fuel and makes regular donations to the Atlanta community food bank. Serving more in bulk and cutting down on disposables at events has also helped Affairs to Remember cut down on its waste in general, Taylor says.

Being a catering company, though, comes with unique composting challenges; namely, training a constantly rotating and temporary staff. Again, setting up a kitchen or event for success is the key: clear labeling and using colored composting bins with clear signage about what can go in and what can't helps with this, Taylor says. The company also switched to completely compostable disposables for its box lunch program. And it has revamped its training program to emphasize composting and the Legacy Green program and sustainability in general.

In Meltz's view, composting is one of the easier green things to do. And it should be that way. "More than 70 percent of a restaurant's waste stream comes from food," she says. "We owe it to the environment to dispose of it properly."

Ways to Go

Despite these successful examples, implementing composting programs could be easier for foodservice operators from all segments. The United States is still a ways away from nationwide composting reform and facility growth, and this starts at the public policy level, according to Young.

Part of the slow growth of composting nationwide, Young says, is a lack of capacity. "But one of the main reasons for that lack of capacity comes from a lack of interest or desire in composting," he says.

"Good things happen when you get a good enough coalition together, just look at the National Wildlife Federation or bird preserves," Young says. "We need the same thing in foodservice; not just a few composters, but also foodservice operators, haulers, and large-scale generators to get together as a group and get in touch with their state governments. This is a huge piece of our supply chain and a big part of our environmental sustainability."