Commercial Food Waste Composting
By: Sam H. Black, attorney and past chairman of the Washington, D.C., Smart Growth Alliance
Developers, property owners and tenants are becoming more sophisticated about waste disposal. No longer content to simply recycle, many are exploring and implementing new ways to reduce the amount of waste they send to landfills. It is becoming apparent that composting is a viable way to enhance a company culture of reuse, reduce waste hauling costs and attain higher LEED scores. Some jurisdictions, such as Massachusetts and New York City, have been in the news recently with composting programs.
Offices and Hotels
CBRE and Marriott International provide excellent examples of office composting programs. CBRE’s 67,000-square-foot office in Dallas features an approximately 2,500- square-foot employee cafe and numerous coffee service areas. As part of a plan to reduce its conventional solid waste stream with a composting program, CBRE has replaced all cups, flatware and plates with com-postable products, installed waste containers at coffee stations for all food-related waste, and developed a training program to help employees understand the new approach. The cleaning staff empties the contents of the waste containers into a loading dock dumpster provided by a compost hauler, Community Waste Disposal, which picks up the waste about once a month. The office now composts 240,000 pounds of food waste each year.
Compostable waste goes from separate containers in the lunch room and each coffee service area to a container on the loading dock every day, enabling a single CBRE office in Dallas to compost 240,000 pounds of food waste annually.
Susan Mehlenbacher, senior office operations manager for the office, said that CBRE implemented the program because it wanted to “walk the walk” on sustainability. She explained that the costs of composting are comparable to conventional waste hauling and are coming down. According to Mehlenbacher, the cleaning crew power washes the dumpster frequently to make sure that unattractive odors don’t develop during Dallas’ hot summers. She added that Dallas developers are “definitely taking composting into account” for LEED certification.
Marriott International has launched a composting program at its 3,000-employee headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland. The company uses china and metal tableware to reduce nonrecyclable waste. Employees “bus” their own food waste from their desks to bus carts and self-closing wastebaskets at coffee stations. Lunchrooms and kitchens feature “pulpers,” sealed bins that shred, compress and dry all food waste, including wood stirrer sticks and paper napkins, reducing waste volume by 75 percent. Cleaning and kitchen staff transfer the waste to the pulpers, then to a container on a loading dock. A composting farm contractor empties the container every two days. Marriott saves money in the process.
Jim Young, vice president, corporate facilities and real estate for Marriott, confirmed that this is a good way for new facilities to get LEED points. “Office space architects are definitely taking composting into consideration,” said Young, by specifying the necessary equipment and providing space for it, “but it’s not a juggernaut issue yet.” Young added that while many Marriott hotels and restaurants use composting, not all markets have compost farm contractors.
A different approach to food waste recycling involves grinding waste ingredients, scraps and uneaten food in large disposals, piping the liquefied waste to a tank on a loading dock and pumping it into a truck bound for an off-site biofuel facility. The Blackwell Hotel on the Ohio State University campus in Columbus uses this approach. The hotel generates about 20 tons of food waste each month. Food service workers send all food waste through a heavy-duty disposal, which grinds the waste into an organic slurry. The disposal is connected to a storage tank. A truck arrives about twice a month to empty the slurry tank and take the slurry to a Quasar Energy Group facility, where Quasar uses anaerobic digesters to convert the waste into electricity, methane and fertilizer. The hotel now diverts approximately 80 to 85 percent of its organic waste away from the landfill, has economized on the labor involved in handling the waste, has reduced odor problems and is saving money.
Mixed-Use and Retail Property Approaches
In another Ohio city, a mixed-use complex provides yet another example of using food waste to create energy. Cleveland’s downtown Tower City complex, managed by Forest City Enterprises, includes office, hotel, retail and restaurant tenants; a food court; and a transit center along with the well-known Terminal Tower office building. Forest City has established a compost collection arrangement with Tower City tenants that, like the Blackwell Hotel, transfers food waste to a Quasar Energy Group waste-to-energy facility. (Forest City has partnered with Quasar on five anaerobic digester projects, and owns the property on which one of them is located; Forest City is the majority owner while Quasar is a minority partner as well as the contractor, builder and operator.) Forest City also has created a Terminal Tower rooftop garden, where some office food waste is composted in tumblers and then used to feed plants growing in repurposed file cabinets.
The grocery wholesale and retail industries now divert approximately 56 percent of their food waste from landfills or incinerators. Companies in these industries report that the barriers to even more composting include limited numbers of composting farms or facilities in the region, not enough waste-to-energy facilities, concern that the logistics of composting are complicated and a lack of confidence that composting will reduce costs. Many grocery operators, including Kroger (Ralphs), SuperValu and Wegmans now have composting, food donation, waste reduction and/or waste-to-energy programs, some of which incorporate the food waste slurry method described above. Many more such initiatives can be found among other retailers.
As of October 1, 2014, Massachusetts will require commercial and institutional facilities that produce 1 ton or more of organic waste per week to donate, repurpose or compost the waste, or send it to a waste-to-energy contractor. New York City has announced a composting program that has received a lot of publicity, but the city is only encouraging, not requiring, composting at this time.
Companies that have developed composting programs as sustainability initiatives for commercial real estate properties point out several lessons they have learned:
- Reduce the waste stream. Begin by systematically analyzing what you can do to reduce food waste in the first place.
- Make the waste collection process easy for customers, employees and tenants. Make it simple for people to put food waste into containers or appliances for composting Educate customers and employees. Marriott’s Jim Young explained that open-plan office interiors make it more likely that employees will hold meetings in common spaces, where it’s easy to place a self-closing, airtight can for food and related waste next to a regular trash can.
- Re-examine the logistics of handling food waste. Use available technology to streamline the way food waste can get to the loading dock for composting or waste-to-energy uses instead of hauling it to the landfill.
- Identify compost and waste-to-energy facilities in your region. These are growing industries, and there may be new companies nearby that can help your firm implement a composting program.
The financial bottom line is simple:
- Reduce costs by reducing waste in the first place;
- Reduce net solid waste disposal costs; and
- Enhance a company culture of sustainability, cost efficiency and reuse.