Coffee grounds, trimmings from kitchen prep, partially eaten meals, and leftovers from catering – how much food is thrown in the trash at your facility?
According to the USDA, “31%, or 133 billion pounds, of the available food supply in the U.S. goes uneaten.” Food waste is second only to paper products in waste production, accounting for 14.5% of the 251 million tons of trash generated in 2012. Due to low recovery rates, only 2% of these organic materials are diverted from landfills, notes the EPA.
A combination of more effective use and diversion of food waste can make a major impact on the reduction of methane gas emissions produced by food decomposing in landfills. Given that commercial facilities produce more waste than a single-family home, owners and operators are in a position to make a significant difference by managing food waste.
Use these five tips to capture food scraps, reduce your tipping fees, and green your operations.
Overcome Barriers to Food Recovery
Recovering organic waste can be a challenge for commercial buildings, particularly as the infrastructure needed for composting lags behind other recycling options. For facility managers, the biggest internal barriers to beginning a food diversion program are both cultural and behavioral change. Building operators must gain consensus from all stakeholders in the process from leadership down to the individuals who will physically separate the food into each of its diversion streams. Typically a single facility will select two or three waste streams (such as food donation, composting, and landfill).
The time and energy it takes to sort the waste into the right stream are frequently a struggle. The best practice is to sort the food material at the source, usually in the kitchen. This reduces double handling and increases the efficiency, but also requires building operators to engage occupants directly and educate them on what can and cannot be composted. In Seattle, the public utility company offers free signage and education materials to remind occupants what materials can go into each waste stream.
Another common issue with food recovery programs is space. You need floor space in the source area for sorting in addition to an area for waste container storage. Composting bins can also be an odor issue if they are not removed on a regular basis. In most cases, two or three days is the longest you will want to leave food waste at your facility waiting for transport.
Document Your Recycling Efforts
When starting a composting program, you will be most successful if you start with an audit of your garbage. Often your waste hauler can perform this service for you through visual analysis and estimation at their facility, though this is not as accurate as completing a full audit.
With a full audit, start by assembling your team. You will want someone representing each of your major departments. These may include maintenance/engineering, housekeeping, mailroom, purchasing, product line, operations, and management.
To fully understand the creation of waste in your building, conduct a walkthrough. Establish where materials are received and follow their lifecycle all the way through to the disposal location. Note what sort of waste is generated from receiving areas, stockrooms, dining areas, and kitchens.
Your team will need to take a hands-on approach and complete a trash sorting and audit exercise. Schedule this for the end of the day or shift. You should also do two or three inspections over the course of a few weeks to make sure you avoid any anomalous days. Make sure everyone brings work clothes and that you provide protective gear such as gloves for everyone participating.
At the end of the sort, weigh the materials and calculate what percentage of organic materials could be captured with food recovery. By establishing a baseline for your waste streams, you can more effectively target reduction and diversion strategies.
When you compost food products you often reduce your tipping fee, which can add up quite a bit for a large facility. Work with your waste hauler to complete a cost benefit analysis. In the final analysis, every pound of waste that you divert from your garbage will reduce your tipping costs at the landfill.
You can also consider joining the EPA’s WasteWise program as a partner and agree to reduce or recycle municipal solid waste throughout your waste stream. This free challenge is similar to ENERGY STAR’s Portfolio Manager – building owners track their waste generation and work toward a specific benchmark to improve diversion rates.
5 Best Practices to Divert Organic Waste
Look at waste food as a resource instead of something to throw away. You need to find partners who see scraps and trimmings as a commodity rather than refuse. Here are five options to rescue food waste from your trash bins.
1) Think about food waste before it even hits the table. Smart use of food is critical no matter the size of your operations. Purchase and prepare only what you need, which is easier said than done. Work with colleagues across your organization in dining services to document how food needs are anticipated and brainstorm ways to make preparation more efficient. For example, Wartburg College in Waverly, IA, switched to trayless dining in its cafeterias. Students had to be more selective about how much food they took, which ultimately reduced the amount of scraps thrown away.
2) Pre-consumer food that is left over should be donated to food banks, such as Feeding America. These organizations can pick up items at your facility in many cases. While there can be concern about the liability of donating food if someone gets sick, the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act was created to encourage the donation of food and grocery products to 501(c)3 certified non-profit organizations. As long as the donor has not acted with negligence or intentional misconduct, the company is not liable for damage incurred as the result of illness.
3) Waste food can be used for livestock, so consider donating or selling the material to a farm or animal feed producer. In Bartow, FL, a company called Organic Matters takes in food waste from both high-volume waste producers and smaller companies. They convert scraps into feed for chickens and cattle through a dehydration process.
4) One of the best options for organic waste is anaerobic digestion, which produces energy from food waste. “If 50% of the food waste generated each year in the U.S. was anaerobically digested, enough electricity would be generated to power 2.5 million homes for a year,” notes the EPA. “By anaerobically digesting food waste, two valuable products – renewable energy and soil amendment – can be generated.” See if your municipal solid waste or wastewater treatment plant offers this option.
5) Composting is what many first think of when they consider food waste diversion. There are a number of composting types: on-site composting, vermicomposting, aerated composting, and in-vessel composting. Vermicomposting is an interesting solution and is becoming commercially viable. This option uses red worms (not nightcrawlers or field worms found in gardens) that are placed in bins with organic matter in order to break it down into a high-value compost called castings.
Only as a last resort should food be sent to the landfill or incinerators to dispose of it. There are too many other opportunities to create a closed loop lifecycle for food waste.
Dina Belon is the director of the Seattle office at Paladino and Company, a sustainability consulting firm. She is a LEED Accredited Professional with an Interior Design & Construction specialty. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.