This Great Forest guide to composting was first published in Environmental Leader, November 7, 2013. Composting is just one approach to dealing with food and organic waste. Great Forest’s organics program is customized to work with each client’s individual needs, and may include composting, as well as anaerobic and aerobic digestion.
While the recycling of paper, plastic and glass is common across the country, composting remains the final frontier of recycling, especially in dense East Coast cities. But recent citywide composting efforts launched in Boston and New York are showing that it can be done, even in the most challenging urban environments with tight space constraints. Since 30% of waste generated in the US is made up of organic and food waste, many organizations are starting to realize that composting might be one of the few ways left to improve corporate sustainability goals or to achieve zero-waste ambitions.
But how do you know if you are ready to conquer the final frontier of recycling? Here is a quick guide to help you decide:
1) Is your organization a good candidate for composting?
Composting may have a greater impact on your bottom line and recycling diversion ratio if your organization has employee cafeterias, or if your business is part of the hotel and food industry, which generates a large amount of food waste. If your company does not produce a lot of food or organic waste, you can try to pool resources with like-minded enterprises nearby to share composting efforts and costs. If you work in a small office, encourage your colleagues to try composting by installing countertop composting pails in the pantry and arranging for food scraps collected to go to a community garden.
2) What are the costs?
Composting can be surprisingly low cost to implement. In many cases, there is no need for new purchases. An organization’s existing waste bins can simply be repurposed or repositioned for use with a new composting program. For example, your sustainability officer can designate some of your existing bins for compost by labeling them and moving them next to cutting stations in the kitchen or next to coffee machines in the pantry to ensure that coffee grounds and other food waste do not end up in the trash. New and optional costs might include the purchase of compostable bags to line compost bins, and items like compostable napkins, cups, trays and utensils that make composting easier (and potentially more successful) because they can be thrown into the compost bins along with food waste. These cost may be offset by savings in waste removal costs as well.
3) How much time and training is involved?
Installing a composting program does require a little education but this can be accomplished quickly and easily with short training sessions, supplemented with occasional reminders. Raising staff awareness about the benefits of composting will motivate them to comply as well as build support for the company’s sustainability efforts. Don’t forget that your cleaning and maintenance crews will also need to be trained so that the separated food waste is properly stored and collected. In addition, signs and clear instructions should be posted near all composting bins to ensure proper composting.
4) What about space constraints and smells?
These are two of the biggest fears related to composting in an urban environment. But remember, since the volume of waste and recycling generated will not change (you are simply separating out material for composting), additional space may not even be necessary; and there won’t be any new smells since what you have separated out for composting was previously part of your trash. Frequent pickups will help cut down on existing smells, as will having a cold, refrigerated room in which to store compost. Smells will also not be a problem if your cleaning and janitorial staff are properly trained to keep the bins clean.
If you decide to try composting, here are a few more tips to ensure success:
1) Install a pilot composting program
Every building and business has a different set-up and requires a composting program designed to fit its needs. Testing the program will allow you to make changes that will lead to success, or save you from investing in a program that may not work for reasons that may not be in your control.
2) Back-of-house or front-of-house composting?
Many buildings and businesses begin composting with “back-of-house” (“pre-consumer”) operations, which focus composting efforts in the kitchen and prep areas, where the majority of food waste is generated. This requires education and training of food prep workers and cleaning/janitorial staff so that food waste is correctly separated out and deposited into the right bins, and then collected and stored property before being picked up by a waste removal vendor, who then takes it to a specialized compost facility.
On the other hand, “front-of-house” (“post-consumer”) composting, is source separating food waste from more public areas like cafeterias and office pantries. This requires more education and monitoring because it involves participation from all employees, not just those who work in the kitchen or in janitorial. Often, businesses try “back-of-house”composting before expanding it to “front-of-house.”
Finally, as with all other sustainability efforts, maintenance is crucial. Once your composting program is up and running, your sustainability consultant or officer should check on its progress to ensure continued success and suggest changes, if necessary, to improve efficiency.