Waste program takes bite out of trash

Signs in the faculty dining room instruct on proper disposal of waste.

by Melanie Hunter

The kitchens on Rider’s Lawrenceville campus are now diverting all of their food waste from the garbage bins and sending it off campus to be turned into organic fertilizer.

“It’s really a no-brainer,” said Melissa Greenberg, Rider’s sustainability coordinator. “We’re going to save money, it’s good for the environment, and the waste product is getting repurposed for business and residential use. Everybody wins.”

Currently, Americans throw away 25 percent of the food they prepare, and as a result, more than 25 million tons of food waste are sent to landfills each year. Rider sent 1,297 tons, or more than two and a half million pounds, of solid waste to the landfill during the 08-09 school year.

Rider’s new program went into effect at the beginning of this month. Aramark employees began training on Feb. 2, and the first separate pickup for food waste took place the same week. In that week alone, Rider prevented 6,560 pounds of food from being sent to the landfill.

The recycling process begins in the kitchens. Employees collect the leftovers from food preparation at both locations and from the conveyor belt at Daly’s. The food waste is then picked up by Rider’s garbage hauler, Waste Management (WM). WM brings the food waste to a plant owned by Converted Organics in Keasbey, N.J., a company that turns the material into organic fertilizer. The product is used on large-scale projects, such as golf courses, and is also sold in retail stores such as Whole Foods and Home Depot.

In the spring of 2009, the school underwent an audit by Environmental Resources of Manchester, N.J., that showed Rider was sending 8,000 pounds of food waste each week to the landfill. By diverting that amount, 416,000 pounds, or 208 tons, could be recycled each year.
Greenburg contacted WM and expressed an interest in starting a food waste diversion program. It took about a year for WM to implement the program at Rider.

“WM of New Jersey has been collecting food waste since October 2009,” said Alyssa Ruggiero, a recycling project coordinator at WM. “We’re really proud to be involved in food waste recycling.”

The initiative represents a joint effort between Rider and the three companies involved in the process: Waste Management, which serves as the hauler; Converted Organics; and Aramark, whose employees do the actual food waste separation. Although Aramark was not available for comment, Greenberg says that she has heard good reports from the company.

“The food service workers have so far been very positive about this experience,” she said. “It hasn’t disrupted the workload, and they think it’s a really positive change in the kitchen. They don’t see it at all as a burden.”

Food-dedicated waste bins have also been placed in the Cranberry’s faculty dining room, along with fliers explaining what can and can’t go into the mix. In Daly’s, leftovers are easily collected because of the conveyor belt system. However, using the same system in Cranberry’s dining room would be more complicated since every student would be responsible for making sure that no contaminants are thrown out with the food waste. Any non-compostable material that is inadvertently mixed in could ruin an entire batch of compost material. Ruggiero emphasized the importance of a “clean” batch.

“When the driver comes to pick up the waste, they spot-check to make sure there is no contamination — no plastic or glass,” she said. “If it is contaminated, it goes right to the landfill. Often, we’ll have to revisit the kitchen staff and make sure they know what belongs and do follow-ups.”
Westminster’s waste hauler, Midco, is not currently involved in any food waste recycling program.

“We are locked into a contract with Midco until 2011,” Greenberg said. “If they don’t do food waste hauling now, I’ll be pushing them to do it.”

Greenberg also said that when both WM and Midco’s contracts expire in 2011, all prospective bidders must have a food waste hauling program in order to be considered.

According to literature from InSinkErator, a company which manufactures household waste disposal appliances, the standard processes of putting food waste in landfills or incineration has very few benefits. Food collected as solid waste decomposes, producing methane, one of the leading greenhouses gases, and causing odors and other noxious problems.

In contrast, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site lists the numerous environmental benefits associated with composting. Compost has the ability to enrich and even repair soil that has previously been contaminated. Diverting food waste from the landfills helps to decrease methane and prevents landfills from filling up as quickly.

“It costs a lot less to have the food waste transported to Converted Organics than to pay tipping fees at the dump,” she said. “Over time, it could be saving us safely over $1,000 a month. In my opinion, this is the most exciting green initiative since I’ve been here.”

After this semester, all of the food waste will be diverted into a compactor behind Daly’s, instead of the 64-gallon bins currently being used, allowing for less pickups and reducing transportation costs and environmental impacts. In the future, Rider might also have the opportunity to buy fertilizer from Converted Organics to use on the grounds. Another possibility is eliminating the transport over time and performing the composting process at Rider.

“It would be even better for our carbon footprint to not transport it,” said Greenberg. “The machinery would pay for itself within two years. We’d need a dedicated staff member to oversee it.”

In the meantime, the high yields from the first week of pickups indicate that the project is off to a great start, Greenberg said. If students do have leftovers, they can feel better about where they will end up. It’s important for students to know that they should not throw out more food just because it’s being recycled, she said.

“It’s right by the environment,” said Jack Walsdorf, vice president of waste management at Converted Organics.. “I’m not much of a tree-hugger myself, but this is something that should be done. Landfill space is precious, and if we can prevent or delay climate change, then that’s a good thing.”

For more information, see the Green Corner on page 9.

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