Earthworms’ Castings

With Jean Ponzi

Avoid a Food Waste SNAFU

The idea of composting food waste has a huge appeal.

Not surprising since we humans have lived in Nature’s expert systems for all time, observing (first-hand, until this industrial age) how anything that once lived is literally decomposed and returned to Earth in a cycle of truly ZERO waste.

We are, happily, seeing efforts Toward Zero Waste at festivals and Green Dining Alliance Certified restaurants all over town – even at Cardinals games! In Recycling On The Go systems set up and run by the folks at Earth Day 365, volunteer person-power makes composting as well as recycling visible and workable at events of all kinds.

So also not surprising that many Green-hearted people want to compost, not landfill, the leavings from meals at their school, workplace, personal party, or house of worship.
But think about that waste stream: it’s not just food! Single-use serving ware and packaging of all kinds mingle with edible scraps from every meal. Unless ALL of this starts out compostable, or people pull ALL flotsam from the food stream, human-made materials will foul the best-hearted efforts and discourage even Greenies from trying to compost at gatherings and events.

Clear-eyed awareness and preparation are required to make a food waste composting system work. And, because it’s a system, all the elements are needed to avoid a discouraging compost SNAFU.

Here are some guidelines from my years of composting experience at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

  1.  The Whole System Has to Work – Evaluate what will come from every part of food service: preparation, serving ware, food itself, on-site collection logistics, people to coordinate and educate, and a composting service to take the stuff. You need every element, and the right stuff at every point, to make food waste composting work. It’s a demanding system, with only 3% tolerance for contamination, but it offers a great experience of how a whole system is needed for sustainable results.
  2. Product Certification and Labeling – Only get single-use products that are Certified Compostable by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI). Labeling can be VERY confusing. Real product info is sometimes only on the case the stuff comes in – which doesn’t give good guidance for products on retail store shelves. Terms like ECO, Enviro, Green, Earth-Friendly and even Biodegradable are NOT reliable guarantees that the product you are paying more for will be accepted by the commercial composter who is permitted to process food waste. Product labeling is squirrelly! Let us double-check it before you buy! Email the webpage of product specs to us at greenresources@mobot.org.
  3. Front-Load ALL COMPOSTABLE – If your event wants to have food waste composting, work in advance with ALL food vendors and servers to help them source ONLY CERTIFIED COMPOSTABLE serving ware. In our experience at the Garden, only one local supplier of these products, Garrett Paper, gets it and will sell your vendors only Certified Compostable ware. Online sources may not have the stuff you need (review #2). It’s still efficient to allow for beverages pre-packaged in bottles or cans that can be recycled, but if you have a mix of recycling and composting from food service, your peeps will be picking through the trash! The rule is Compostable In – Compost Out. Exceptions WILL crash the system.
  4. Engage Person-Power – From a church fish fry to a major community festival, an event of any size needs informed volunteers stationed at ALL disposal points to (A) tell folks you are composting and why and (B) ensure that any rogue items get tipped into the landfill bin so your stream of compostable food waste is clean. If your system is set up well, this volunteer job will be 95% education and 5% picking. It’s rewarding and essential! At the Garden, we celebrate these folks as Zero Waste Ambassadors.
  5. Use the Recycling On The Go Sorting System – Our St. Louis Earth Day’s year-round program Recycling On The Go will help any group launch food waste composting. Hiring their crews to run your event waste system is a sound investment of reasonable fees. Teaming your organization’s volunteers with their crew leaders is an option that can’t be beat. For least cost, volunteer with ROG to experience the system then use ROG’s basic rental of a DIY Waste System, including lightweight collection bins with good signs, and setup instructions from ROG pros. At every level of this service, your event will learn on the go how to make Green work with composting, recycling and very little landfill. Find details at www.earthday-365.org.
  6. Be Ready to Pay More – Sorry but here in the Midwest U.S. where landfill fees have not risen since the dawn of time, your efforts to manage waste through composting as well as recycling WILL cost you more than “conventional” systems. If you’re going to invest in a higher priced batch of compostable serving ware, be sure you have your whole system in place (see #1) to get that stuff to a compost processor, where it will be turned into soil amendments.

    Compostable ware is NOT recyclable! Sorry (again), these systems are not interchangeable!

    And a home compost pile can’t handle both animal and plant-based food waste, or food serving ware. This scale of waste is geared to go into the system of a commercial composter. If you can’t afford compost collection, consider instead using single-use ware that can be recycled in the system you have, like #1 plastic cups or beverages pre-packaged in bottles and cans, and letting your food serving items go to the landfill. OR jump to #7!

  7. Consider ALL REUSABLE as a Powerful Route Toward Zero Waste – Reduce-Reuse-Recycle works in this order for a reason! Zapping waste in the first place is the best practice, though it typically gets the least attention. Configure your event to reward folks for bringing ALL REUSABLE ware – and taking it home to wash and use again – with awards for the prettiest, funkiest, most eclectic, etc. sets of serving ware.

What did people do before we had disposable stuff? We all brought our own dishes and glasses and forks and spoons and carried them away. Encourage potluck contributors to bring some reused to-go boxes so everyone can take some tasty leftovers home. Old fashioned and proven over time, Reusable is Beautiful!

Our human urge Toward Zero Waste is good! Understanding what makes this kind of system work – and the points at which it will break down – will keep us all encouraged and doing our best.

Jean Ponzi promotes Green in many forms, with her KDHX Earthworms podcast conversations (Earthworms.kdhx.org), and as the Green Resources Manager for Missouri Botanical Garden.