Three questions you need to ask in order to jumpstart your organics recycling program

America has a food waste problem. ReFED reports that 63 million tons of food waste per year is generated in the US and only 5 percent of all that waste was diverted from landfills and incinerators. In fact, the EPA estimates that more food reaches landfills and incinerators than any other single material in our everyday trash.

You might be wondering why that matters. Doesn’t food just decompose anyway?

Well, sort of. But it’s not quite that simple.

Landfills are exposed to a whole different cast of microbial and bacterial characters that break down the waste material. This creates methane – a source of fuel (natural gas), but also a harmful greenhouse gas that, when uncontrolled, leaks into the environment. The economic impact of all that waste food is also estimated to be between $165 to $218 billion per year.

There are a lot of reasons to consider an organics recycling or composting program, not least of which being environmental or economic concerns. But as a business owner, you’re likely also tuned into shifting consumer priorities and legislative changes.

Take New York City for example. “Organics” (food scraps and the like) make up about a third of the waste generated by businesses. The city is cracking down. Beginning in 2016, big businesses that generate a lot of food waste were required to separate their organic waste for composting or other approved processing. Those businesses include hotels, stadiums, food manufacturers and wholesalers. And they’re not alone. New York joined the ranks of San Francisco and Seattle in the war against food waste, and others are likely to follow suit.

Basically anywhere food is, there’s the potential for a food scrap recycling program. Businesses, institutions, and organizations that are particularly sensitive to this issue are the ones listed above (hotels and resorts, entertainment venues, and food manufacturers and distributors), but also restaurants, caterers, hospitals, schools, correctional facilities, cafeterias, and even break rooms.

Whether you’re looking to stay ahead of the regulatory curve, want to appeal to consumer demand, or simply want to do the right thing – there are several things you should keep in mind when approaching an organics recycling program.

First, ask yourself the three questions of food waste: What type is it? Where is it? How much is there?

What type of food waste is it?

Composting 101 Business Rubicon Food Waste

There are many variations of food waste. Think about a bakery versus a butcher. The bakery will have lots of dough, icing, and processed water they are rinsing out their containers. And maybe they’ve got expired bread, or stale bread that’s in packaging. Generally, all that can go to an animal feed program. Now if it’s a butcher in a small butcher shop, and almost everything they’re producing is meat and fat and bone, that can go to a program called rendering. The waste material is rendered down to be used in pet food or industrial products.

In the examples above, if the food is still edible, it should go to donation. Feeding people in need is the highest use for edible food from any business. It can be a challenge to find the right partner, but umbrella organizations like Feeding America and Food Donation Connection can help. More to come on this subject in future blogs.

Some types of food waste are pretty easy to find a home for, like produce. You can generally find a hauler that sends produce waste to nearby farms. In fact, you’ll hear people talk about how 40 years ago, when they were growing up, they had a little bucket out back where they’d put all of their food waste. Then the local pig farmer would come and pick it up. Sometimes the farmers themselves still collect food waste. More on the intricacies of animal feed programs to come as well.

Once you start talking about mixed, inedible food waste, now you’re getting into what a lot of people would refer to as a “composting” program. Mixed food waste could include plate scrapings or prepared foods with a combination of meat, vegetables, dairy and so on (meat is generally not included in animal feed programs). You might also have napkins, paper plates, or compostable food service ware. More on compostable foodservice ware to come in future blogs. The food waste or “organics” that you produce has a large impact on the type of recycling program you can put in place.

Where can I find food waste programs?

Your food waste program also largely depends on where you and your food are located. Once you’ve determined what type of organics you’re producing, the next step is to find out what service providers are in your area.

Animal feed programs have really been around for quite a while, whereas commercial mixed food waste “composting” programs are a newer thing. There has to be a composting or anaerobic digestion facility (that’s another way to process food scraps, which turns it into methane to be used as a fuel) nearby. That type of infrastructure is still being built out in the US and there are many gaps.

So again, whether it’s donating, rendering, sending to animal feed, or recycling through composting, anaerobic digestion, or other methods, you have to find out who are the service providers in your area. And then you’ll need to know what type of service they offer based on the local infrastructure. A lot of that comes into play once you take a look at your quantity.

How much food waste do I have?

Volume is really going to determine what kind of program and equipment you need. Some big food scrap producers may want to look into a compactor or large front-load container, while smaller producers may just need a 5-gallon bucket. Rolling carts like the ones used to collect trash and recycling on the curbside are very common in the collection of organics.

Depending on how much waste you’re producing, there are even economic benefits at play. Think about the bakery and butcher example again. If you’ve got a high volume of rendering materials like meat and fat and bone, there might be an opportunity to get paid for the material, or a “rebate.” If you’ve got a really high volume of bakery items, which can be processed into animal feed, there is a potential for a rebate there as well (especially depending on the current price of corn).

Even for mixed food waste, if you need a seven-day pickup of 100 tons per week, you’re looking at some significant economic advantages. Think about the weight that’s coming off your weekly trash pickup, for one thing. If you are an office space and only produce a couple pounds every week, it gets a little trickier – but there are some innovative solutions in place today. In many cities, entrepreneurs are even developing composting programs that will come pick up your food scraps by bike.

Composting 2.0

Composting 101 Rubicon Food Waste

Embracing a food waste program is the right thing to do – no matter how much your business produces or where it is located. Depending on what, where and how much food waste you produce, costs and/or rebates are going to differ. And while the infrastructure is still developing, Rubicon has built out a national network of haulers and processing facilities that can help you get in front of the food waste reduction revolution.

Once you’ve asked yourself these three questions, it’s time to move into the implementation stage. When you’re ready to get started, check out the  RUBICONMethod for tips on how to implement a successful organics recycling or composting program.