How does commercial composting work and how do I get started?

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Composting in a residential environment is one thing—particularly if you live in a municipality that offers curbside pickup. In this context, a small group of people simply have to get in the habit of tossing food waste into an appropriate bin, and make sure that food waste is set out on the curb once a week.

Composting in a commercial, educational or multi-residential setting, however, is quite a different ball game.

Food businesses (like restaurants, grocery stores and sport complexes), schools, and apartment complexes face unique challenges when searching for ways to responsibly dispose of food waste:

  • For one, the sheer volume of food waste is substantially greater—and typically isn’t accommodated by municipally-run curbside programs;
  • Second, because there’s more food waste, you need sufficient space—and storage options—to contain smells and keep pests to a minimum; and
  • Third, food composting on a mass scale requires the buy-in of many more people—such as students, residents and employees—meaning there needs to be more stringent communication and systems in place to make the program effective.

Fortunately, there are ways around these challenges—and countless organizations across North America are proving as much. Whether they’re responding to new regulations, wanting to become more responsible corporate citizens, or striving to meet demand from environmentally-savvy stakeholders, these organizations are taking steps to divert their food waste from landfill, and dramatically reducing the amount of methane entering our atmosphere in the process.

This article will dive deeper into what these larger types of composting programs entail—and how interested organizations can get started in adopting them.

How does composting work?

Broadly speaking, commercial composting programs are very similar in structure to existing commercial recycling programs—but instead of diverting paper, aluminum and plastic, these programs divert food waste.

As with recycling, participating parties implement a system to separate one form of material from another—in this case, food waste from non-organic materials. Those materials are then placed in an outdoor bin, where a contracted “hauler” picks it up and takes it to a large composting facility.

One key difference is that composting, in many ways, is significantly more straightforward than recycling. Sometimes, it can be difficult to determine whether a type of paper is recyclable—or how much residual peanut butter threatens a jar’s recyclability.

With composting, if it’s made of organic matter, it can be thrown in the green bin. The only exception is if that organic matter has non-organic matter stuck to it (like fruit or vegetable stickers)—or if it’s been exposed to harmful chemicals, like a paper towel saturated with glass cleaner.

This simplicity can be very helpful in a large composting setting—as there’s less rules for people to follow.

After the haul

Once your food waste is hauled away, it will be taken to a commercial composting facility. These composting facilities are significantly larger than an on-site residential or composting bin. Because of the mass amounts of organic matter they can handle, they’re able to produce a substantial amount of heat—enough to break down things like bones and compostable bags and liners, which wouldn’t break down in smaller settings.

Commercial composting facilities can be part of a municipal waste program—situated in close proximity to recycling and waste disposal facilities—or they can be run privately. They can also vary in terms of how they compost organic material.

Some facilities, for instance, may rely on windrow composting—a form of composting that involves arranging compostable material into long, five-foot-high piles called “windrows”. An open-air process, windrow composting relies on staff turning the piles and ensuring all the organic matter gets equal access to the heat generated within the piles.

In-vessel composting, on the other hand, may make more sense in urban settings, as it takes up significantly less space than windrow composting by utilizing enclosed drums, silos, concrete-lined trenches or similar equipment to break down organic waste. These vessels mechanically turn or mix the material to make sure it’s properly aerated.

An aerated static pile is also a popular option for relatively homogenous mixes of organic waste originating from commercial food operations. In this type of facility, organic waste is placed into large piles and aerated by bulking agents like wood chips or shredded newspaper, as well as a series of air-blowing pipes located underneath the piles.

Emptying food waste into the compost bin

How to get started with commercial composting

If you’re interested in composting your facility’s food waste, there are typically five key steps you’ll need to follow to get started:

Step 1: Find a local composting service

If you already have a contract with a waste hauler, your best bet is to contact them first to see if they offer organic pick-up. If they do, they’ll be able to set you up with a large disposal bin and arrange a collection schedule. A growing number of waste haulers are offering bins that maximize transportation of waste while reducing the number of hauls needed—while others use bin liners to make collection cleaner (avoiding foul-smelling residue).

Step 2: Create an in-house collection system

While food waste will eventually find it’s way to the large hauler’s bin, you want to make collecting food waste as seamless as possible. In a restaurant or grocery setting, that will require implementing one or more bins inside, to capture food waste as it’s being created. These bins can be as simple as garbage bin, a five-gallon bucket—or something else entirely! The key is to make sure they’re in a convenient spot that people can see and use.

In a multi-residential or educational setting, you may want to consider providing residents and students with their own composting bins, designed to fit conveniently on their counter or under their sink.

Step 3: Choose the right bin liners

Composting can get messy—fast. To keep messes and smells to a minimum, therefore, you’ll want to make sure all your composting bins are lined. While lining bins with newspaper is an option, newspapers can get soggy fast.

A better option is to use compostable liners. When purchasing compostable liners, you want bags that are certified by BPI and, ideally, CMA approved. It’s also important to note that some bags are stronger than others, so make sure to find a brand that you feel comfortable carrying a full load of organic waste in.

And don’t forget fit. Bags that don’t fit a bin tightly can lead to frustration and messes. You can find the optimal-size bag for your bins, here.

Step 4: Launch a strong educational campaign

Like all habits, composting is something that happens over time—but communicating the importance of composting, and explaining the steps to a successful composting campaign, can go a long way in accelerating the process.

In a food business setting, it may be beneficial to have a staff meeting—or series of staff meetings—to explain the new program, why it’s important, and how your employees can help make it a success. After that, posting pertinent signage in composting areas can help ensure all compostable items are making their way into the green bins.

In a multi-residential or school setting, the communications process will be similar—although likely larger in scope. In this situation, it can be effective to first talk to prospective participants about their needs and concerns, and implement strategies to address those issues. It’s also important to provide sufficient education, either in the form of flyers or something else, to help participants understand the reason for composting, the impacts of contamination, and how to identify compostable materials.

Step 5: Maximize existing composting resources

To stay on top of local composting requirements—and reduce contamination—keep your local composting facility’s website handy. In some cases, these facilities may also offer a mobile app, making it even more convenient to determine what’s compostable—and what’s not.

Get started with commercial composting today

As more governments begin to mandate composting across the United States and Canada, food businesses, educational facilities and multi-residential property owners would be well-served to get ahead of any looming regulations. Voluntarily adopting a composting program not only generates stakeholder goodwill, but it allows you to dramatically reduce your organization’s carbon footprint.

As an added bonus, implementing this type of program is easier than one might think—thanks, in part, to EcoSafe Zero Waste’s extensive line of compostable products and programs. Ask us how our products can support your commercial composting journey.

Food loss and waste occur at each stage of the supply chain. The biggest proportion (about 37%) happens in the home.

ReFED, 2021