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Composting 101: A Comprehensive Guide for Restaurants

Debbie MillerAuthor

Looking for ways to make your restaurant more environmentally friendly? Composting is the way to go! Composting your organic waste allows you to use your food waste to enrich soil and reduce your carbon footprint.

Let’s dive into the benefits of restaurant composting and how it can contribute to a sustainable and environmentally responsible eatery. We’ll explore the process of composting, its advantages, and provide a step-by-step guide on how to initiate a successful composting program in your restaurant.

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What is Composting and How Does It Work?

Composting is a natural process that converts organic waste into nutrient-rich soil conditioner. This process involves the decomposition of food scraps and other organic materials through the activity of microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and worms.

To facilitate this process, composting requires the right balance of materials, temperature, air circulation, and moisture content. The proper mix of "browns" (carbon-rich materials like leaves, paper products) and "greens" (nitrogen-rich materials like vegetable scraps, coffee grounds) is crucial to ensure effective composting. 

What are the Benefits of Composting?

Reducing Waste

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, approximately one-third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally. Unfortunately, restaurants are significant contributors to this waste. A lot of it ends up in landfills, producing harmful greenhouse gases like methane. 

Waste management doesn’t have to be scary. Composting diverts the waste from landfills. Instead, it turns food waste into a useful product that can help farmers increase their crop yields, provide a local resource for gardens, parks, and landscapers, restore habitats, and improve contaminated or degraded soils. 

Composting is a fantastic way to reduce your restaurant's carbon footprint, conserve resources, and create a valuable resource for future use. Here are a few additional benefits:

Saving Money

Implementing a composting program can significantly cut down waste disposal costs for restaurants. Research shows between 4% - 10% of food purchased by restaurant leaders never gets to customers and instead ends up in landfills, totaling approximately $1,000 of the company’s revenue per 3.3 lb of food waste. Implement waste controls to increase restaurant cost controls and maximize profitability.

Additionally, adopting sustainable practices like composting can attract environmentally conscious customers. According to the latest research from Datassential, 90% of consumers say sustainability, in general, matters to them. Creating a greener culinary landscape will expand your restaurant's customer base and improve its reputation.

Enhancing Sustainability

Composting aligns restaurants with sustainable practices by reducing their environmental impact. Using compost in agriculture reduces the dependence on synthetic fertilizers and chemical inputs, contributing to a more sustainable and resilient agricultural system. 

Besides adopting environmentally-conscious strategies into your restaurant operations, investing in restaurant-specific sustainable technology can help restaurants from food trucks to fine dining reduce their carbon footprint, and become more sustainable, environmentally-conscious businesses.

Improving Soil Health 

Compost is a natural source of organic matter and nutrients, contributing to healthy soil. By using compost, restaurants can enhance soil fertility and productivity, leading to better crop yields, healthier plants, and an overall more vibrant ecosystem.

How to Start a Composting Program in Your Restaurant

Assess Your Needs and Space

Determine the amount of food waste generated in the restaurant and available space for composting. Decide whether to compost on-site or partner with a local composting facility. Start by tracking food waste to assess how much your restaurant produces and the best option. Some restaurants may not have the time or space on site, so going to a facility is the best option. Facilities also deploy several tools to ensure sufficient moisture, maintain ideal temperatures, reduce odor, and ward off pests. For others, composting onsite can be incredibly efficient and cost-effective.

Educate Your Staff and Guests

Your composting program won’t function if your team isn’t on board. Ensure all staff members are aware of your composting program. Train them on proper composting procedures, set clear guidelines, and provide ongoing education. Everyone from cooks to busboys should know what items go in recycling bins, what goes into composting bins, and what goes into dumpsters. Share the new program with guests as well and explain how they can participate.

Set Up Compost Bins

Strategically place compost bins in the restaurant and label them with appropriate signage. Not sure where to start? Place countertop compost bins around your prep area to make them easy to access for staff. Coffee grounds, carrot greens, and eggshells can all be transformed into valuable compost. Make it easy for your team to compost what they can by having bins close by. It’s also vital to keep your compost bins somewhere cool. Place your larger sealed compost containers in a dry, shaded, ventilated area. The contents will be less likely to cook into a smelly compost casserole, which will keep odors at bay.

Establish a Collection System

It’s vital to use appropriate techniques when composting to ensure organic materials can easily decompose. Implement a regular collection schedule to prevent accumulation and ensure the timely transfer of organic waste to the composting area. Regularly emptying and maintaining your compost bins ensures your venue maintains proper hygiene and minimizes odors. Lay out a composting plan and ensure your staff is aware and on board.

Partner with a Local Composting Facility

If on-site composting is not feasible because of space limitations or other logistical factors, explore partnerships with local composting facilities or community gardens. Such places will collect your organic waste and process it at their site. This option reduces the operational burden on your restaurant while still enabling you to contribute to compost production and support local composting initiatives.

Monitor and Analyze

Regularly monitor and maintain the composting area to manage odor, moisture levels, and temperature. Proper aeration, turning the compost pile, and adding bulking agents like wood chips or dry leaves can optimize the decomposition process and produce high-quality compost. Track progress to keep a pulse of what’s happening and how to best optimize your composting efforts.

Use the Compost

The composting process can take months or even a year to yield usable soil. Once it’s ready to go, consider utilizing the nutrient-rich compost in the restaurant's landscaping or garden. You can also consider donating it to local organizations, such as community gardens, urban farms, schools, or nonprofits.

Restaurant Composting FAQs

What Food Waste Can and Cannot Be Composted?

Compostable: Vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, eggshells, and paper products.

Non-Compostable: Dairy products, meat, fish, greasy food waste, and plastic materials.

How Expensive Is Composting for a Restaurant? 

According to the ReFED report in Restaurant Hospitality, “The restaurant industry alone generates about 11.4 million tons of food waste annually at a cost of about $25 billion per year.”  

The cost of composting programs may vary depending on the restaurant's size and location. On-site composting may require an initial investment in compost bins and education, but it can lead to significant long-term savings on waste disposal costs. Partnering with local composting services may involve fees, which are generally affordable and worthwhile for the environmental benefits.

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Restaurant composting is a win-win solution for both the environment and your F&B business. By diverting food waste from landfills, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and creating nutrient-rich compost, restaurants can demonstrate their commitment to sustainability while cutting costs and attracting environmentally conscious customers. Implementing a composting program requires careful planning, education, and collaboration, but the rewards in terms of waste reduction and a greener future make it a worthwhile endeavor for any food service establishment.

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