Waste Not: PA's Food Recovery Programs Spare Trash, Expense
Americans put 250 million tons of trash on the curb in 2010; 20 million tons of it went into Pennsylvania's landfills and incinerators. By weight, America's trash is mainly paper and paperboard, 1.25 pounds per person per day, or 28.5% of all municipal solid waste. (Industrial waste, counted separately, runs into billions of tons.) Food waste comes next at 13.9% and then yard trimmings at 13.4%. Fortunately, we now recycle about twice as much paper as we discard, and we compost about as much yard waste as we landfill or burn. In contrast, we compost only 2.8% of food waste.
Organizations around Pennsylvania have noticed this discrepancy and have learned to generate money by keeping food out of the dump.
Since much food waste is simply food that wasn't used before it spoiled, the easiest way to reduce waste is to use food more efficiently. Brown's Super Stores
has begun to do just this. It operates 10 ShopRite grocery stores near Philadelphia and began this year to donate food that has not yet expired but that the store will not put out to try to sell in time. Through this program, Philabundance
and other local food agencies as of May 31 received 55 tons of food that would have otherwise gone to waste. That food equates to about 110,000 meals. What can't be donated--another 250 tons so far--has been composted, also new this year.
Brown's Director of Sustainability David Deets says donations and composting benefit the company beyond building community support.
"For the first three months of the year, we saved about $20,000 in trash costs. The other benefit is we've actually reduced our (inventory) shrink because guys are really paying attention now."
Since department managers every day look for items to donate, they know their own inventory better and order more accurately. Moreover, employees have become more eager to look for other ways to serve the community and save money.
Although Brown's Super Stores pays a third party to remove and compost food waste, other organizations do it themselves. The State Correctional Institution in Dallas, Luzerne County, for instance, has 700 employees and 2,000 inmates who annually generate about 1.2 million pounds of food waste that is collected and composted on site.
Mike Truchon, director of maintenance, notes, "We pay $350 every time we pull a dumpster. We used to pull the dumpster three to four times a week. Now we pull a dumpster twice a week" because of composting. That reduction saved the state about $8,000 last quarter, while the finished compost is used around the grounds in flowerbeds and the greenhouse, saving additional money.
Collecting residential food waste cost-effectively can be more difficult, but even here, Pennsylvania has made strides. Bennett Compost
in Philadelphia collects residential food waste from subscribers, one of the few private companies anywhere to do so. Local garden clubs use the finished compost, and any excess compost can go back to subscribers.
State College Borough, meanwhile, is poised to become the first municipality east of the Mississippi River to offer curbside food waste compost collection to all of its residents. Ed Holmes, the borough's public services manager, concedes that at 3,600 homes, State College is smaller than some pilot programs, such as one in Maryland that includes 5,000 homes. Nonetheless, State College learned from its own recent pilot program how to make curbside collection economically feasible. By combining food waste with yard trimmings in designated containers and automating collection, "we're saving as much on the labor side as on the tipping [fee] side," Holmes explains, which means the program will break even if it can keep 1,000 tons of food waste annually out of the landfill. Holmes expects to reach that number, and "it's not out of the realm of possibility that we'd double that."
While many companies see composting as part of waste removal, others such as Waste Oil Recyclers
see their business as providing a finished product. Indeed, trash simply remains too cheap for most places to turn a profit on reducing trash alone, and although composting food waste contributes to global warming far less than landfilling it, there is yet no widespread price on greenhouse gases.
Waste Oil Recyclers collects vegetable frying oil from restaurants and cafeterias in southeastern Pennsylvania and refashions it into fuel for diesel engines and furnaces. Similarly, AgRecycle makes "100% of our profit on selling high quality, finished compost," according to President Carla Castagnero.
"Everything about AgRecycle that we do is to rejuvenate soils."
Castagnero got into the compost business after seeing how organic material remediated soils at former steel mills. AgRecycle, based in Pittsburgh, has collected compostable material since 1991, making it one of the oldest composters in the country. Since 1998, it has also collected food waste from sports stadiums, restaurants, and other commercial food preparers. Avoiding contamination from non-compostable material, like foil hot dog wrappers, is Castagnero's biggest hassle. Yet she welcomes the increased interest in composting.
"People really think, 'Why throw this away if it can be reused?'"
With that thought, food recovery begins.
MARK MEIER is a writer, independent consultant, and part-time professor who lives in Dunmore and plants butterfly gardens in Scranton (which is his back yard). Send feedback here.
Steam billows from wind rows of compost as they are turned and aerated.
Bob George holds up different filter grids that are used to separate compost.
A new load of rotting vegetables is ready to be composted.
Wind rows of compost are turned and aerated
This machine filters compost into different grades from mulch to garden compost.
All photographs by RENEE ROSENSTEEL