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Southern Exposure: Composting in the Southeast

Attitudes are shifting on food waste composting in the Southeast.

It’s food for thought when even small, remote islands like the city of Key West, Fla., aspire to achieve zero waste through composting programs. Typically, one envisions food waste collection and composting taking root in more traditional land-locked Florida communities. Food waste programs are expected to become more important in managing solid waste for all types of communities across the Southeast. In Florida, the state’s 75-percent recycling goal is prompting decision makers to reconsider the way they view solid waste. Materials that traditionally have been seen as garbage or lower on the recovery target list, like organics, are being regarded in a new light. Increasingly, they are being seen as a valued resource commodity.

The recycling of organics is expected to play a larger role as printed newspaper readership continues its decline, packaging volumes decrease and the recycling of newspaper, plastic, aluminum and other materials is maximized. An issue paper published in August 2012 by the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that 40 percent of the food in America goes uneaten. Besides throwing away the equivalent of $165 billion annually, nearly all of that wasted food winds up rotting in landfills accounting for roughly 25 percent of U.S. methane gas emissions, the issue paper says.

Kessler Consulting, Inc. (KCI), which has performed numerous waste composition studies in the Southeast, has observed that food waste makes up approximately 15-20 percent of a community’s total waste stream. Commercial waste streams often include an estimated 15-22 percent of organic materials.

As communities strive to achieve higher recycling targets, the twin goals of food waste reduction and food waste recovery are likely to become a more critical focus for communities and businesses. Including non-recyclable paper as a part of the organics component will shift another portion of the garbage heap from disposal to recovery. And businesses are leading the way in dumpster management by adding food waste containers next to recycling ones.

This article takes a look at commercial food waste projects in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida.

Mecklenburg County, N.C.

Mecklenburg County, N.C., is taking aim at food waste to raise its diversion rate. The county is using data from a food waste diversion study, conducted by KCI, to evaluate the feasibility of a food waste recovery pilot program. The pilot and subsequent countywide roll-out seek to reduce the county’s waste by 35 percent by 2018.

The study, completed in March 2012, found that the county’s commercial sector generates 143,000 tons of food waste each year. The top 300 businesses in sectors generating the most waste — food manufacturing, retail food, retail restaurants, hotels/lodging, medical/health and education — produce 49,300 tons of food waste annually, or 35 percent of the total tonnage.

Current composting operations in the region handle more than 36,000 tons of food waste annually and have an estimated unused capacity of 30,400 tons a year.

Mecklenburg is reaching out to the community to build awareness and increase interest for food waste diversion efforts. The county also is assessing the infrastructure to collect and process food waste, both within its borders and in the region. It has identified three existing facilities and four proposed facilities within a 100-mile radius of the county’s geographic center.

Haulers use that 100-mile radius as a gauge for collecting waste from businesses and corporate distribution centers and delivering it to a processing facility. Fifty percent of the haulers participating in a survey said they are interested in providing food waste collection and could mobilize within 90 days. Thirty percent of the respondents stated they are experienced in food waste collection.

The commercial sector makes up an estimated 59 percent of the county’s waste stream. The recovery rate from the commercial sector could be approximately 82 percent with the successful operation of a recycling program for all fiber and all containers along with an organics composting program for yard waste, food waste and non-recyclable paper.

Another important development in the county’s waste stream reduction efforts occurred in 2011, when the county banned the delivery of plastic bags containing yard trimmings to the landfill and, ultimately, the composting facility located at the landfill. The ban applied to both private and public haulers. This action required collectors to change the way the generators they serviced disposed of yard trimmings based on what worked best for their customer. But the ban was essential to enable the creation of a higher quality of compost that could be marketed to residents and commercial customers. Since the ban was announced, the number of plastic bags taken to the facility has decreased by 95 percent. Yard trimmings are shredded with a Doppstadt unit and mixed with the food waste. The material is put in windrows, which are turned with a Scarab. The tip fee for food waste at the composting facility is $25 a ton compared to the $66/ton for municipal solid waste. Compost is available for purchase by the bag or in bulk. Sales in

2011 totaled approximately $54,000 and the county is seeking USCC STA certification for its product.

Support from business generators, partner haulers and local officials have been crucial to the program’s success, says Christina Moskos, the county’s recycling coordinator. “Charleston County has focused on processing the food waste material, developing outreach materials to gain the support of the local commercial business sector and collectors, and education material for businesses to receive clean food waste and organic program material,” says Moskos. “Many businesses in Charleston County have realized that composting their food waste can result in significant cost savings while conserving valuable landfill space.”

Georgia’s Sustainable Food Court Initiative

In 2010, Georgia started a zero waste-minded initiative that included the launch of “Zero Waste Zones” featured through the Sustainable Food Court Initiative (SFCI) in Atlanta. The Georgia initiative was successful for many reasons, mainly due to its leadership, but also because it created a partnership team that included pilot facilities, national leaders in the foodservice, packaging, recycling and waste hauling industries along with supporting industry trade associations.

The pilot facilities were chosen to drive industry standards for zero waste and included the Georgia Dome, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and the Simon Property Group. The pilots were developed to be implemented in three phases: “back-of-the-house,” “front-of the-house” and “general food court area.” These phased-in pilots are supported by a committee of industry experts and trade associations who help provide industry technical advice for successful implementation and fruitful results.

These associations included the City of Atlanta Office of Sustainability, Elemental Impact, the Foodservice Packaging Institute, Global Green USA – Coalition for Resource Recovery, the Institute for Self-Reliance, the National Restaurant Association and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (a project of GreenBlue).The SFCI program, along with the Wasted Food Crusaders, is credited with putting Atlanta on the map as a leader in the food waste and wasted food reduction.


The state of Florida’s 75-percent recycling goal has prompted a new look at solid waste planning. Local governments are now giving greater consideration to adding food waste composting to their comprehensive program mix. Expanded corporate sustainability programs also are contributing to increased food waste diversion. Many companies now ask haulers to provide food waste collection.

Publix Super Markets, a regional grocery chain, has partnered with Waste Management to develop a composting facility in Okeechobee, Fla., that will accept up to 30,000 tons a year of pre-consumer food waste, including produce, bakery and floral items from more than 40 Publix stores. This exemplifies a national trend where the large company is driving the menu options when it comes to collection service for specific materials.

Changes in Florida’s regulatory environment also have fostered the growth of composting facilities in the state, especially in the private sector. Under a 2010 change in state law, composting facilities in Florida can now operate under a registration, rather than a solid waste permit. The Florida Organics Recycling Center for Excellence was instrumental in performing research and working with the organics industry in Florida to help bring about that change. The change greatly reduces costs and other barriers for companies wishing to build a facility. Revised regulations also allow for food waste and yard trimmings to be composted together.

Eleven of the state’s 24 full-scale facilities are permitted or registered to accept food waste for composting, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) database.

Waste Management and other large haulers have entered the composting industry to create an avenue for food waste recovery -- not only for their existing corporate customers and big-box stores, but also for other commercial food waste generators. We expect to see more facilities open up in the near future with the private sector leading the way.

The FDEP and the state’s recycling association, Recycle Florida Today (RFT), have focused over the last five years on education and awareness. The FDEP has held workshops in 2010 and 2011, performed by KCI staff on the changes the state made to the regulations and how to interpret and apply them. RFT has featured food waste presentations in the last two years to help both generators and communities learn from other successful programs, like Publix and the community programs in the Carolinas. More organics recycling training and education programs for food waste are on the agenda for Florida in 2013 and beyond.

If your community is considering the addition of a commercial food waste program, here are some helpful tips:

  1. Do your research first to identify whether a food waste project is feasible and whether your current infrastructure and politics will support the type of program you need, be it publicly or privately driven.
  2. Estimate your generation and diversion potential data for organics (food waste and/ or non-recyclable paper).
  3. Gather interested large food waste generator partners for a meeting and informally survey them on what they want and need to start a program.
  4. Identify what collection/transportation, processing and end-market structure is available in your community.
  5. Engage your local, state and national organics supporters – associations, industry contacts and partners.
  6. Start with a pilot to design localized program tools and gather diversion data for your generator, collection and processing partners.

Miriam Zimms is the director of program planning and development with Kessler Consulting Inc. based in Tampa, Fla. She has extensive experience in assisting with the planning and development of organics recycling programs across the Southeast. She can be reached at (813) 971-8333. To learn more, visit www.kesconsult.com or www.floridaforce.org.

TAGS: Organics
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