Scraps of Success
Companies that compost food scraps feed the soil — not to mention their bottom line.
By Matt Alderton
The best way to fight food waste is to produce less of it in the first place, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), whose “Food Recovery Hierarchy” helps organizations prioritize the actions they can take to manage wasted food.
If you can’t eliminate food waste entirely, the EPA says, you should donate edible food waste to food banks, soup kitchens and homeless shelters, and divert remaining food scraps to farms for use as animal feed. Even then, however, you might end up with a certain amount of inedible food waste that you can neither donate to food banks nor divert to farms. Instead of throwing it away, you should consider composting it, advises the EPA, which says Americans compost approximately 2.6 million tons of food per year — or 4.1% of all wasted food.
Although you’ve probably heard of it, you might not know exactly what composting is. Put simply: It’s what happens naturally when organic material decomposes and returns to the earth. While this process can take months or even years in nature, humans can accelerate it by creating an ideal decomposition environment — the right mixture of air and water with carbon (from “browns” like dead leaves, branches and twigs) and nitrogen (from “greens” like grass clippings, coffee grounds and food scraps). Combined in the right proportions, at the right temperature and for the right amount of time, these ingredients create a nutrient-rich substance that looks like garden soil and functions as a natural fertilizer for plants and crops.
“The benefits are almost too numerous to mention,” said certified permaculture designer and teacher Ryan Cooper, Director of Circular Economy Solutions at Rubicon, a software company whose mission is to end waste. “First of all, food waste that goes to the landfill creates methane, which is a super potent greenhouse gas. So by composting food, you reduce emissions. Also, the product that composting produces is incredibly valuable for the soil and can be used by all kinds of people, from farmers and landscapers to departments of transportation that are spreading it on a road bank and soil engineers who are designing rooftop gardens. It also sequesters carbon, and helps reduce drought and erosion. I could go on and on.”
The business benefits also are numerous. “There’s a pretty big business case for composting,” Cooper continued. “More and more investors and consumers want to do business with companies that incorporate sustainable practices into their business model.”
As the preference to do business with sustainable companies rises, so also does the need to verify that a company is telling the truth. Greenwashing, or making false or misleading statements about a company’s or product’s sustainability, has become a problem in the corporate world. But in May 2022, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) put forth guidelines to curb this practice and to force companies to be truthful about their sustainability practices. These new guidelines will allow for the SEC to audit public companies to address greenwashing statements, restoring consumers’ confidence.
In addition to attracting investors and consumers, companies that embrace composting can satisfy regulators — the number of states and municipalities requiring composting by certain types of businesses is growing, Cooper noted — and maybe even reduce their waste removal costs, as composting may allow your company to decrease the number and size of its trash containers, as well as the frequency of its trash pickups.
Although there are challenges — for example, companies must set aside space for composting bins, contract and coordinate with a company that can pick up their food scraps and train their staff about what can and can’t be composted — composting is easier than you think. Whether facilities managers compost food scraps onsite at each of their facilities, backhaul them to a central location or outsource the whole process to a third-party supplier, Cooper said it starts with “a flick of the wrist.”
“It’s the same material you’re already throwing out,” he explained. “But instead of putting it in a black bin with a trashcan liner, you’re putting it in a green bin with a certified compostable liner.”
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: The EPA explains what composting is and what its benefits are.
Natural Resources Defense Council: NRDC offers a how-to guide to creating and using compost.
U.S. Composting Council: The U.S. Composting Council promotes the advancement of composting and shares resources to assist with compost production and utilization.
U.S. Department of Agriculture: A list of all municipalities that have created composting programs.