Restaurant Compost: A Green Opportunity for Local Development and Sustainable Business

Posted on 01. Dec, 2009 by in Clean Tech, Design & Culture, Politics

final soil compost stupid effing picture

One of the biggest challenges facing the sustainability movement is developing a sustainable culture of sustainability, backed by green institutions, systems, and models that can be tapped into by citizens, business leaders, and government officials.  Successful models at the local level can translate to city-wide, state-wide, nation-wide, and eventually the global level.  This process is a bottom-up emergence of trial-and-error, community awareness, and a participatory culture. While this can fall onto any institution in the United States, this article will focus on composting food waste in the restaurant industry, backed by examples of city-wide programs.

Before we begin, let’s go over a couple snippets of information about the restaurant industry and food waste management:

  • The restaurant industry is the second largest employer in the United States, second only to the government.  In 2005, the restaurant industry did $476 billion dollars in sales.   With over 900,000 restaurants throughout the United States, green business models are emerging as a critical concept in the restaurant industry.
  • Restaurants throw away approximately 30% of their food, about $48.2 billion worth a year, according to the Green Restaurant Association.    Restaurants also produce far more garbage on a daily basis than most other retail businesses.  The development of successful models of restaurant composting programs and policies could redirect billions of dollars of food waste into compostable resources.  A typical restaurant generates 100,000 pounds of garbage per location per year, the Green Restaurant Association estimates. However, 70% of wasted food is estimated to be organic and compostable.

If you read through this carefully, you should have felt not only worry but also OPPORTUNITY.  Like most industries in the United States, wasteful systems and behaviors are both correctable and adaptable.  Not only can restaurants redirect waste from the landfill to local farms and agriculture, a PROFIT can also be made here.  A combination of social responsibility, business ingenuity, and government organization can eventually incorporate a comprehensible composting program in the city of Los Angeles (or any city for that matter) with long term impact on the Triple Bottom line.

Currently, the City of Los Angeles has a restaurant composting program up and running, with 650 restaurants participating.  The city provides both trash bins and trash removal and restaurants are only responsible for separating waste.  The waste is hauled up to Sun Valley (south of Bakersfield) where it sits, rots, and goes through various stages of composting.  Three months later, fresh compost is available to local farmers and businesses.  Not only does the compost enrich the soil, acting more like a fertilizer, the composter has the capability to cater the compost to different crops!  Sun Valley reportedly runs out of this soil all the time because it is in such high demand.  With only 650 restaurants out of the total 8,000 in Los Angeles, am I the only one that sees a chance to improve People, Planet, and Profit?

Perhaps we should tip our hats to San Francisco which has composted 620,000 tons of scraps and food waste since 1996. Recycling and composting became mandatory October 21st, part of an effort to divert 75% of waste by 2010 and eventually becoming a zero-waste community by 2020.

In April 2009, Seattle instituted a composting and recycling program to its local citizens.  The local government, via King County and the Department of Ecology, initiated a $100,000 campaign in July and it will go to March of 2010.  Through active participation and education of its local citizens, Seattle is striving for a positive impact on the environment and setting an example for other cities to follow.  Take a look at their compost guide.

One of the biggest challenges in a comprehensive composting program is there is not a long term successful model of composting for restaurants and citizens to follow.  Somebody has to take the first step and its starts at the local level.  Business leaders at the local level can influence both private citizens and government officials to initiate a global composting system if they can demonstrate an improvement in their triple bottom line.

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