Composting, or turning food waste into nutrient soil, has become so accepted as a sustainable business practice in the last few years that many of Cleveland’s biggest institutions are doing it, despite the fact that it costs much more than dumping waste in a landfill.
“It’s cheaper to put stuff in a landfill in Northeast Ohio, unfortunately,” says Doreen Schreiber, Business Recycling Specialist with the Cuyahoga County Solid Waste Management District.
In 2013, the District estimates, 5096.75 tons of food was composted by commercial enterprises like restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals and museums in Cuyahoga County.
Why, when some of these same entities are pushing for unsustainable new roads like Opportunity Corridor or not offering incentives to employees who might take transit or bike to work, does the costly but green alternative to waste pass muster?
“It’s very labor and cost intensive to compost,” Schreiber says. The U.S. has minimal landfill space, but that's not the case in Ohio where municipal waste is trucked all over the state. "It’s hard to convince people when it costs $33 a ton to dump versus a fortune to compost.”
Operating a profitable compost facility is difficult, she says. It requires government funding as well as “the odor issue is a big problem when doing windrows.”
Windrows are giant, outdoor piles of decomposing food, leaves, and grass clippings. The smell and the space is part of the reason why one of the area’s largest compost operators, Brooklyn Heights-based Rosby Resource Recycling, ran afoul of Ohio EPA regulations and had its license to operate a (Class II-composting) facility in Northeast Ohio suspended. Rosby suspended all remaining composting operations in March. Their client list at one point included Bon Appetite—the operator of Case and Botanical Garden’s cafes—Heinen’s, Eaton and Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
The Cleveland Browns, for one, moved away from standard composting when it purchased a “grind-to-energy” system (InSink-Erator grinders make a food waste slurry. The Browns contract with quasar energy group to truck it to Sheffield Village where a giant anaerobic biodigester turns it into electricity, natural gas and soil for farms).
quasar’s client list includes PIerre’s Ice Cream Company and the City of Columbus. The West Side Market is seriously considering a grind-to-energy solution, Schreiber says.
WSM and others are following an industry trend. “The windrow system is kind of outdated. People are looking to in-vessel systems like what quasar has.”
Rosby’s troubles opened the door for other compost operators to enter the Northeast Ohio market. Future Organics, Inc. came in with a contract to handle Wal-Mart’s food waste. The company was recently purchased by Organix Recycling, LLC, an Illinois-based food waste operator whose focus is converting it into animal feed.
There’s Groundz Recycling, a small but growing compost operator in Cleveland. The non-profit operation's model is to fly just below the radar of EPA’s Class Four facility regulations by composting in multiple 300x300 sq. ft. plots. It has lead to a community-based approach which makes Groundz attractive to smaller clients like McGregor House and the bike composting operation, Rust Belt Riders who, for the past six months, transported 35,000 pounds of compost on bikes and distributed some of that for Groundz at community gardens on Cleveland’s West side. Schreiber also mentions the Rid All Green Partnership, the giant urban farm on Kinsman, and its compost operation which includes clients like Progressive Insurance as another community-based solution.
The low cost of landfills in Ohio is holding back more businesses and municipalities from investing in composting, Schreiber says. While the County Solid Waste District would consider partnering with a composting center, Northeast Ohio first needs to have a discussion of what’s holding it back, and how it can move forward.
The leader in municipal waste reduction is probably San Francisco whose Zero Waste by 2020 plan calls for all waste to either be recycled back into the industrial resources pool or into the soil. As of 2014, they’ve achieved 80% of their target by taking actions like offering curbside composting and banning plastic bottles.
Perhaps if all of us were willing to pay the true cost of capturing the externalities of waste, like the tons of methane released from landfills from food, we could set our minds to the task. After all, waste is a resource wasted in a landfill.
The first step in reducing food waste is getting more of it donated. Schreiber likes what Orange County, California did—mapping food pantries and linking it to a campaign for health professionals who now ask patients questions to see if they are food insufficient. “The most food insufficient population is college students,” she notes. “That could be a project for someone in Northeast Ohio.”
For individuals considering composting, she talks up the environmental benefits. “If you want to be more sustainable, keep it out of the garbage disposal. Those microorganisms can cause algae blooms in the lake.”