Straub’s Fine Grocers and St. Louis Composting Work Together To Divert 50,000 Tons of Food Waste Since 2010

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that about 40 percent of the food produced in America never gets eaten. Supermarkets and restaurants discard much of it, with more than 30 million tons of food and organic waste ending up in landfills each year.

Fortunately, environmentally sound change is afoot. In October, 2014, Massachusetts began enforcing new legislation prohibiting any entity that produces more than one ton of food waste a month from sending it to a landfill. Newly passed laws in Rhode Island and California will have those states enforcing a similar ban in 2016.

As the Washington Post detailed earlier this month (“Supermarkets take up composting but waste delivery system lags” Nov. 3, 2014) food waste composting remains cumbersome. For example, Safeway stores on the East Coast first ship collected compostable organics to a return center in Maryland where it is pooled before being trucked another 100 miles to a compost facility.

In contrast, St. Louis is blessed with an efficient and expanding food waste recycling network with more than 200 participants. The initiative – which recently crossed the 50,000-ton-mark in measured organic waste diverted from local landfills – owes much of its success to the decision of Straub’s in 2010 to become a charter member with program sponsor, St. Louis Composting.

“They were hungry for our ‘green’ waste and diverting our organics to them enabled us to reduce the waste we were sending to landfills,” recalls Greg Lehr, a 15-year Straub’s employee and the grocer’s chief produce buyer. “We also hoped to save on trash hauling fees, but that hasn’t turned out to be a significant factor.”

What has proved significant is the amount of organic waste the grocer’s four stores have diverted from landfills – more than 150 tons in a handful of years. Orange rinds, lettuce churnings, melon rinds and corn husks lead the recyclables list, says Lehr. “We squeeze 33 tons of oranges a year. That makes a lot of rinds.”

Composting is easy, notes Lehr. “Employees simply load roll-away totes with organics. The totes are collected twice a week. A chart tells new employees what is compostable and what isn’t.”

Every spring, when Straub’s stocks one-cubic-yard bags of compost, Lehr lets customers know the role the grocer had in making it. “People feel good about it when they know. At the Clayton store, we sold about 200 bags this spring. Composting fills a community need.”

In addition to fruits and vegetables, items being composted are breads and cereal; dairy; coffee grounds, filters and tea bags; compostable service ware and some soiled paper goods. Upon entering the composting stream the food waste is mixed with other organic material, primarily yard trimmings. Six months later – following precisely timed manipulation – it is transformed into lawn-and garden-ready compost.