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The basics of composting

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Question:

How do I get started with composting? My waste company won’t handle it. 

– Chef, Philadelphia, Pa.

Answer:

There are many benefits to composting organic matter rather than throwing it in the dumpster:

  • Reduced carting expenses
  • Source of rich soil
  • Lower environmental impact than landfill
  • Positive PR/marketing perception among guests

There are also some hurdles, especially for restaurants in urban areas:

  • Lack of space or carting expenses to an off-site location
  • Health department regulations regarding storage of food to be composted
  • Storage space for food waste
  • Zoning challenges in some cases
  • Training staff to separate waste types
  • Fear of vermin/public perception of improper waste disposal if composting on-site

The first big distinction when you talk composting is pre- or post-consumer. Post-consumer composting of items like plate waste and compostable packaging requires a municipal program or specialized vendor and specialized equipment for sanitation and odor control. When independent restaurants talk about composting, they typically are thinking preconsumer composting of items like fruit and vegetable scraps, egg shells, and coffee grounds and filters.

Preconsumer composting can be done nearly anywhere space and volume allow. It can be as elaborate as a piece of equipment that chops and tumbles food scraps, or as simple as a hole in the ground or wire trash receptacle. For urban restaurants without much space, I recommend partnering with a local carting company that specializes in organics that will take compostables off-site. In rural areas, where space allows, a consultant can set up a composting system sized to your restaurant that you can operate on your own if time, resources and interest allow.

As sustainability and food waste management become more prominent issues, I think we will see a continued swell in both consumer interest in how operations handle their waste, and vendors with expertise in this area specifically interested in working with restaurants. Many municipalities already allow—or in some cases require—restaurants to compost through the municipal waste system. In other locations it remains a challenge for the operator to solve on her/his own if of interest. Some operators find organics haulers that can reduce their overall carting expenses, and for others it’s an added expense that they justify as part of an overall commitment to sustainability or strong marketing concept.

If you have questions about composting, your peers likely do too. Start with a resource like your local restaurant association to see how the local regulations apply and what others are doing. More on restaurant composting here

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