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Food Waste Composting Article

Think that old food is worthless? Think again.

Composting rescues scraps from harmful years spent in landfill

The News Journal 12/19/11

Molly Murray

The deal was too good to pass up: five pounds of clementines, those seasonal, easy-to-peel citrus fruits, for $4.99.

But two weeks later, the little wooden carton was still half full -- 20 clementines in all, and the bottoms of some were turning mushy and brown.

So you salvage what you can, maybe make some marmalade, and then throw away the rest. That deal just turned a little less sweet. You just threw out 99 cents -- the value of that wasted pound of fruit.

It gets worse. Between Thanksgiving and New Year's, people typically buy, prepare and eat more food -- with even more waste.

Since 1980, the volume of wasted food has risen dramatically. Some researchers believe it may be as much as 40 percent of the food available for harvest in the United States.

Researchers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate consumers and food services throw out 91 billion pounds of food a year -- about 26 percent of edible food available for human consumption.

A typical household tosses 45 pounds of food and food-soiled paper waste every month, according to research done at the University of Arizona. The end cost is as much as $600 a year.

There also are environmental impacts. About 70 percent of the water used in this country goes to produce food. Fuel is consumed in production and to bring the product to market.

And when food waste is disposed in a landfill, it produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

A while back, Jason Weissberg did an experiment at the Dogfish Head Brewing and Eats restaurant he manages in Rehoboth Beach.

He'd been composting at home for two years -- fruit and vegetable trimmings, coffee grounds -- and he decided to set up a five-gallon pickle bucket at work. He set it at the end of a prep counter and at the end of the day, took home a half-full bucket of vegetable trimmings.

He kept it up and "by the third or fourth day, I had five buckets" of kitchen waste. He couldn't take it all.

These days, the kitchen waste at Dogfish Head restaurant is recycled and composted but on a much larger scale than what Weissberg was doing with his home composting operation.Farther north, the food waste from Iron Hill breweries in Delaware -- about two tons every month -- go to the Wilmington Organic Recycling Center near the Port of Wilmington.

"I think it's the wave of the future," said Kevin Davies, one of the brewery owners.

Carrie Leishman, president and CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association, said the organization has launched an initiative to encourage restaurant owners to recycle food waste and get it out of the conventional waste stream now rather than later.

Under Delaware's Universal Recycling law, commercial businesses are required to participate in comprehensive recycling programs by Jan. 1, 2014.

Leishman said restaurants can step up and begin recycling food waste now, thanks to two food waste recycling facilities in the state.

"Virtually anyone in our state can recycle," she said. "We're so lucky right now."

Benefits for eateries

For restaurants, the majority of waste and often the heaviest part of the garbage comes from food scraps and plate scrapings.

Leishman said that for restaurants, garbage disposal is a huge part of the cost of doing business.

Landfill tipping fees in Delaware are at $82 a ton. The fee to recycle food waste is $40-$45 a ton.

Jim Weisgerber, one of the business partners at Bethany Blues in Lewes and Bethany Beach, said the impact goes beyond the obvious.

The restaurants use large roll-on trash compactors.

Before it started food waste recycling this fall, those containers had to be picked up and emptied even when they weren't full. The problem: food waste, kept for more than a few days, generates odors.

With the food waste out of the general stream of restaurant trash, they can wait until the compactor is full, he said.

A nonprofit group, REPLENISH!, is promoting food waste recycling among restaurants in the Rehoboth Beach area.

Restaurant owners who participate in food recycling said the staff catches on right away.

But just in case, Blue Hen Organics provides training and signs for establishments that send food waste to the composting operation.One reason, said Robert Tunnell III, a co-founder, is that clean food waste coming in produces clean compost six months in the future.

He said the best candidates for food recycling are restaurants that do their own food prep -- typically higher-end, higher-volume establishments.

"You need volume" and owners need to consider whether they have space in the kitchen for an extra container, he said.

Blue Hen also operates a pickup service, though it will take food waste collected by other haulers, Tunnell said.

The operation in Frankford uses traditional composting methods on a larger scale and depends on a mixture of carbon -- from leaves, yard waste and clean wood chips -- and nitrogen, from the food waste. The process takes six months to convert to compost, he said.

At Wilmington, the system is more high-tech and higher-volume.

There, said Nelson Widell, one of the partners in the operation, food waste comes from New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Jersey and Delaware.

They use a system that takes eight weeks to turn food waste mixed with wood chips into compost.

"We're applying modern fermentation processes so it can happen faster," he said.

The mix of food is amazing: the severed tops from pineapples, the remains from squeezed oranges, the head of a fish. With large-scale commercial composting, even meat and fat can be broken down -- something that is not recommended for the at-home composter.

Sometimes the food that goes by looks perfectly edible, like onions that pass on the conveyor belt. Anthony Watts, who lives in the nearby Southbridge section of Wilmington and works at the picking station, said he sees food pass by all the time that he would never throw away.

The mixture, once plucked clean, goes outside to a staging area.

Another loader operator picks it up and places it on a windrow -- a long, straight line of food waste and chips.

Beneath this windrow is a rack system that is equipped with holes. Air is injected through the holes into the mixture. Any liquid that comes out is captured in a container system under the holes.As the windrow is created each day, it is covered with a Gore-Tex sheet. Special probes are inserted that monitor temperature and air flow.

It is all monitored in a computer control room.

To kill off pathogens and weed seeds, the compost must reach a temperature of at least 131 degrees over three straight days, Widell said.

In eight weeks, all signs of food are gone. What remains is a deep, black, organic mixture.

Rescuing food

Some food is still reusable, and organizations like the Food Bank of Delaware are working to capture it before it gets thrown in the trash.

"We call it our food rescue program," said Kim Kostes, a Food Bank spokeswoman. "And we're looking to expand."

Among the things the Food Bank receives are produce items that are close to reaching shelf life and day-old baked goods, she said.

"We're trying to partner with more grocery stores," to rescue foods that have a short shelf life but can still be used by Delaware's hungry," she said.

"It really does add up," she said.

Kostes picks up day-old baked goods from the Pure Bread Bakery every morning on her way to work.

Walmart stores, along with Sams Clubs and the Walmart distribution centers throughout Delaware and the country, work with food rescue organizations nationwide.

In 2010, the corporation donated 256 million pounds of food, said Brooke Buchanan, a corporate spokeswoman.

Tips at home

Cooks at home have options, too.

Maria Pippidis, the New Castle County extension director and extension educator, family and consumer sciences suggest making a shopping list and buying just what you need.

It "sounds like a no-brainer, but many people just 'stock the fridge' and then plans change, which leaves waste," she said. "So by thinking ahead a bit and mapping out life and food needs, that can really help."

Timothy Jones, an archaeologist who spent a decade researching food waste when he was at the University of Arizona, suggested that people shop for food on Thursdays or Fridays -- days when busy families have a chance to prepare food they buy. It was Jones who found that 40-50 percent of ready-to-harvest food goes uneaten in this country.

"Shopping for these evening meals may be more yogurt, nuts, crackers/ cheese for the car ride and soup/sandwiches for dinner rather than big meals with salad," she said. "Put the rule 'no fast food' and then ask the kids what they will snack on."

Another problem is food that's already in the fridge.

"As long as meats haven't been out in room temperature, you can refreeze them for use later," she said.

"I put a little X on the package to remind myself that it sat in the fridge for a few days. It is more a product-quality issue than a food-safety issue when refreezing products, so this is a great way to be sure meats aren't wasted."

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