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Taking composting to scale

Marc Lefkowitz  |  05/01/09 @ 3:40pm

Don Johnson remembers a time-two decades ago to be exact-when grocery stores routinely tossed tons of cardboard packaging into the dumpster. Johnson, a waste hauler, delivered that paper waste for a fee to a landfill which charged another fee to the grocer. Today, most big food chains have systems in place to sort cardboard, and waste haulers have containers exclusively for recyclables. Helping them turn the corner was a combination of citizens and media discovering cardboard was contributing to denuding the world's rainforests, which led to a new market for recyclables.

"The next frontier in waste is composting," says Beau Daane, who consults businesses on waste reduction for the Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District. "In a typical office waste audit, fifty percent is food waste."

But, while awareness of composting as an option not just for gardeners but for offices and schools with commissaries is rising, the system-from collecting food scraps to hauling and finding a facility that accepts it ? is in its infancy. The Solid Waste District and E4S hosted a meeting with haulers and grocers, restaurateurs, and big food distributors yesterday to 'connect, learn and do' more composting.

"It took years to develop cardboard (pickup) routes," Johnson says. "Now we do 75 pickups a day."

Johnson estimates it would take 10 tons of food waste per trip-which could include multiple pickups for a grocery chain or a district-to break even. The major institutions in University Circle and downtown have been considering their food waste as a district issue. In Northeast Ohio, Sagamore Soils in Hudson and Rosby in Valley View are currently the only regulated as Class II landfills-you can pay them around $20-30 per ton for them to take your food waste and turn it into compost, which they sell to landscapers. Barnes Nursery in Huron was the first Class II landfill in Northern Ohio to accept food scraps for composting. They count Whole Foods, and the city of Huron-which became the first city in the Ohio to establish a curbside food waste pickup in March, 2009-as customers.

Huron joins the ranks of progressive cities like Seattle, Boulder, Austin, Portland, Berkeley and Toronto-cities which have signed on to a 'zero waste' initiative-to offer their residents curbside food scrap pickup for composting. "Some of these cities are reporting a thirty to sixty percent reduction in their (regular) waste," an attendee stated.

Composting on a large scale has come in fits and starts. An effort in Hamilton County fell through in 2008 not because there wasn't interest from grocers, colleges and hospitals, but because not enough waste haulers and facilities to compost food waste signed on. Meanwhile, the Ohio Composters Association and ODNR helped Kroger set up a pilot composting program in the Columbus area. For the last eight months, twenty five Kroger stores in the Columbus area sent 1,270 tons of organic waste to composting facilities (for more information about Kroger's composting program, contact Marne Fuller at marne.fuller@kroger.com or 614/898-3363).

The good news is many of the large grocery chains are already set up with the proper, contained dumpsters to start composting. The Ohio Grocer's Association is trying to encourage more grocers to initiate a composting program and has produced a nice resource guide (log on here and search for Composting and Diversion Guide).

Doug Paige, the head of industrial design at Cleveland Institute of Art thinks commissaries and grocers need help designing a system that makes composting easy. Other hurdles for grocers include staff training, finding a hauler willing to work with their waste system, or finding room for a second dumpster.

Considering the cost to landfill trash is double the fee for food waste, and as long as the other issues are worked out, grocers should save money or at least break even.

The more economical approach for mid-sized institutions like the Cleveland Botanical Garden, Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland Museum of Art may be composting on site, Daane said. Also, on site composting provides public education value if located in a highly visible location. Costs for on site enclosed composting vessels can run as high as $10,000, so if one vessel can be shared and food waste collected and deposited by a small vehicle within the district, it becomes more attractive.

For large scale operations in urban centers ? such as the downtown group that formed a network at the meeting-a 'milk run' linking a number of pickups could reach the economies of scale to make transporting it off site viable.

Next steps may include creating a flow chart to help businesses figure out the composting solution that fits their needs/situation (for instance, it may start by asking, What quantity do you expect to compost with options for differing quantities and citing concerns, including methods-with worms, passive, trench or pit composting? A matrix provides a direction and resources on handling hurdles).

The first of its kind composting meeting drew plenty of interest, signaling businesses are recognizing the value-from marketing their sustainability program to saving money on trash hauling-of turning waste into food (for our soil and gardens).

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