Please Don’t Feed the Landfills: Food Composting on a Commercial Scale

By Matt Baker

Reducing the amount of food we send to landfills can have significant financial and environmental benefits. One method for dealing with our leftovers is composting. But can it scale up to a commercial scale where those benefits could be maximized?

compostIn the U.S., organic material (wood, landscape trimmings and food) makes up a third of municipal solid waste that goes into landfills and incinerators. According to National Resource Defense Council estimates, as much as 40% of the food supply in this country goes uneaten.

Food waste not only accounts for a major percentage of a landfill’s content, but food that lingers and rots there produces methane—a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. Landfills account for one fifth of all methane emissions, representing a huge potential for curbing the harmful gas. The byproduct of composting is a nutrient-rich fertilizer that can be used for further farming, bringing the entire system full circle.

But while composting is a technology as old as agriculture itself, financial, legislative and societal roadblocks have largely prevented its industrial viability. One major hindrance is smell. Without careful oversight, composting food waste can be quite noisome, even compared to other waste streams. Highland Park launched a curbside composting program for its residents in 2012. The suburb was forced to shut it down the following year when the facility they had contracted with stopped accepting food scraps after numerous odor-related violations. This becomes a non-issue, however, with better controls in place.

Legislation is another obstacle to commercial composting. The Chicago Zoning Ordinance was amended in 2011 to refine the definitions and allowed uses of community and urban farms. Community farms are small, ad-hoc organizations limited to 25,000 square feet, or about a third of a standard city block. Urban farms can be much larger but are regulated as businesses. Neither are allowed to accept food waste or to compost materials generated off-site.

State regulations have slowly improved the prospects for commercial composting in Illinois. A 1990 law banned the landfilling of landscape waste, though food waste remains a controlled substance in the world of waste management. However, the requirements to obtain a commercial food scrap composting permit were loosened in 2009 and again in 2013.

In response, the private sector has begun to act. Over the last year, Roy Strom Company, a Maywood-based waste hauler, quietly began collecting food waste for the purposes of composting. A state grant from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity led to the purchase of equipment; months later, they have a roster of clients and a steady route.

Among those clients are grade schools, colleges and manufacturing facilities. The company has also signed on a notable skyscraper in downtown Chicago. “They have a kitchen for everybody, a big office cafeteria,” said George Strom, Vice President of Roy Strom Company. “That’s really what’s driving it.”

For any sustainably minded organization with an on-site cafeteria, the program makes sense. Instead of bringing in a dump truck, Strom Company does a container exchange program. Customers can opt for as many containers as they need, in a number of sizes, which are swapped out for new ones on a weekly basis, or more frequently if needed. This cuts down on the odor problem, as the food waste is always quarantined. This method also allows Strom Company to provide an accurate waste diversion report to clients for their LEED or Energy Star reporting.

This program has just begun and until the economies of scale help it to improve, it remains a value-added benefit for those who are interested. As food and landscaping waste have to be handled separately, and are permitted differently by the state, there is an extra burden to diverting food scraps.

Strom Company has a permit to hold large amounts of food waste on site until it is economically feasible to transfer it to a facility for composting. “I think that’s what holds back a lot of people from getting involved with this,” Strom said. “The biggest holdup in food waste in general is a lack of density.” Since it is so novel, the food waste collection program is still a small part of their business. “I see it as a huge growth potential,” Strom said. With scaling, it can become more than a value-added perk and just another aspect of how we handle our waste.

Elsewhere, municipalities are regulating compostables in other ways, such as New York City’s Commercial Organics Law which goes into effect on July 1, 2015. Under this mandate, large-scale generators of food waste—wholesalers, hospitals, hotels, food chains and others—must responsibly handle their scraps. This means either sending the material to a composting facility or using a digester on-site. Similar legislation has or will take effect in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont.

One key aspect of the New York law is that the Department of Sanitation will conduct annual audits to determine if there exists organic waste processing capacity within 100 miles the city and that the cost to compost food waste remains competitive with landfilling or incineration. This could provide an out if the actual practice of hauling and composting commercial food scraps becomes too costly. Hopefully the opposite would occur: a dearth of food-handling options in the waste stream could create demand for those facilities and the practice would only grow stronger.

Image: Maria Marquez

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