Composting Restaurant Food Waste

Composting can be a great way to reduce a large amount of waste, cut waste hauling fees and potentially help local farmers or gardeners. Most composting systems recommend composting only vegetable trimming and to avoid dairy products, meat, fish and oils. Table scraps are also usually not accepted because of issues of bacteria, the unwanted meats, dairy etc. and also issues of foreign objects like straws getting in with the organic material.

The easiest option for composting is using a local waste collector's composting services. These systems simply involve source separating organic material from garbage in your facility as you would recyclables. Even with the cost of compost collection, this can greatly reduce your waste hauling costs. Unfortunately, commercial composting facilities are few and far between, yet quietly developing around the country. Check with your local waste hauler for these services and what they will accept in the organic materials collection. Some facilities are designed to compost meats, dairy, fish and oil while others are not. BioCycle magazine maintains, which contains a database of companies and municipalities around the United States and Canada with composting facilities.

Vermicomposting and On-Site Composting

Other food waste reduction options are on-site composting and vermicomposting. Vermicomposting is a process of feeding vegetable scraps to worms that breakdown the material to a natural soil conditioner high in nutrients. Vermicomposting can be very easy and will process a large amount of organic material.

Several companies have started producing on-site or in-vessel systems for composting or vermicomposting food scraps. These systems vary in size and can control temperature, odor, moisture and aeration and will turn food scraps into usable compost in a few weeks. In-vessel compost systems can usually process meats, dairy and oils while it is not recommended in vermicomposting systems, but follow manufactures recommendations on acceptable materials. In both cases it is important to mix the food scraps with some "brown matter" such as newspaper, used paper towels from your kitchen, the shredded computer paper you normally pay to have hauled away or shredded cardboard. The "brown matter" helps prevent the vegetable matter from turning into a sloppy mess and prevent odors which are minimal with in-vessel systems. Both systems will produce great compost that can be used for on-site landscaping or given to employees or customers. They are also nice because they only involve the initial investment and a little bit of labor.

The state of California has compiled a list of companies manufacturing and selling small to industrial sized in-vessel compost and vermicomposting systems.

A few things to keep in mind in order to develop a composting program:

Space: Whether you are having it hauled away or composted on site, space can be an issue. In-vessel composters run anywhere from a couple feet wide to behemoths that process over a ton of material a day. Collection services provide roll carts or some sort of containers but even small restaurants may need six or more roll carts to keep up with demand.

Region and Weather: Research different systems and how they work in your particular climate. Worms don't like extreme heat nor can they survive in the bitter cold.

Regulation: Some municipalities require a permit for on-site composting. There are no known regulations regarding collection services.

Pests and Odor: If you are having food waste hauled off-site, odors and pests can be a problem while the scraps sit before a pick-up date. Basically being diligent with cleanliness of the area, regular pick-ups and cleaning of the containers and tightly sealed containers will take care of most of these problems. Neglect will cause problems. In-vessel systems have little to no problems with pests and odors as long as they are properly maintained.

Containers: 55-gallon drums or 90 gallon roll carts work great, but be careful not to overfill or even fill them. These containers will easily collect a few hundred pounds of scraps, making them impossible to move, dump, transfer, etc. Also use containers with tight fitting lids to help deter pests.

Both the EPA and Califonia Integrated Waste Management have web sites dealing with food scraps and composting. Both these sites are great resources for those looking for more in-depth information on food donation, feeding animals with food waste (see below) and composting.

Animal and Worm Feed

One, often preferable, alternative to composting or vermicomposting is feeding stock animals food scraps. Local pig and cattle farmers often collect food scraps to feed their animals at no or nominal cost. In working with this sort of set-up it is important to make sure the farmer can use the amount of feed your facility produces and will collect it on a regular, timely basis. Over-flowing bins of rotting vegetables cause problems quite quickly for a neighborhood restaurant.

Along the lines of the pig and cattle farmers are commercial vermicomposters (worm farmers.) They collect vegetable trimming for the same reason the animal farmers do. Worms will ingest an amazing amount of scraps in a very short time and commercial farms often work with foodservice operations to feed their worms. Of course there are not too many worm farmers out there, but they are great people to work with if you get the chance.

Locating a Farmer : Check with your local ag extention office, farmers markets or large animal vetrenarians to find farmers already collecting or willing to collect your scraps.

Regulation : Any regulations regarding feeding food scraps to animals fall on the shoulders of the farmers who are required to have a permit to accept food scraps. Any organic material containing meats must be heated according to federal regulation, (again this is usually the farmers responsibility) while state laws vary on regulations for heating vegetable scraps.

Other Things to Keep in Mind : Coffee grounds and very salty foods are not good for animals and should be discarded or composted. Employees must do a good a job of separating organic material from trash and recyclables. Plastic discarded in the food scrap bucket then ate by an animal can be very harmful to the animal. Diligence and a dedicated, educated staff are the keys to success.

Additional Food Waste Resources:

California Integrated Waste Management
State of California site dedicated to waste reduction and uses for food scraps. The site is specific for California but useful for anyone looking for information, links and resources on composting, feeding animals with food scraps and vermicomposting.

Environmental Protection Agency food waste site. Contains food waste mangagement practices, FAQs, success stories, guides and additional resources.

City of Eugene
Waste management page for the City of Eugene, Oregon detailing practices and procedures for composting and vermicomposting. Note the Earth Tub Commercial Composting PDF in the lower right of the page that offers a case study with best practices of an in-vessel system. It is a very large, but informational file.

Earthworm Digest
"The #1 earthworm information website in the world..." Articles, forums, tutorials and links.

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