What should you do with all that extra food your restaurant kitchen can’t use? Consider the magic and benefits of composting.
Once you master a few composting basics, you can change your relationship with all of that inevitable, excessive waste and save some money in the process.
If you own/operate a restaurant, then you understand how important (and costly) waste management is. One of the biggest expenses every restaurant faces is consistent and proper waste removal. But did you know that in a commercial kitchen, it’s estimated that as much as 70% of all waste is made up of organic material like food scraps and soiled napkins? We’re talkin’ mostly biodegradable waste. Many big chain restaurants literally throw it all in the garbage. Food waste, glass, paper and other recyclables all tossed away, with little consideration for the trash’s value as a resource.
But you’re not like them. Small- to medium-sized restaurants feel the local impact much more than their larger chain restaurant brothers, and simply cannot afford to operate the same way. Not only are you concerned about the community that you work in—the same community that supports you—but you recognize opportunity when you see it.
Extra food doesn’t have to be hauled away by trash collection just to decompose in a landfill somewhere. Landfills produce a lot of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas. Instead, consider learning how to recycle leftover food by turning your compostable items into something that can be repurposed for the greater good.
Imagine reducing your waste removal bill by nearly 70% each month! With a minimal amount of planning and effort, you can not only easily reduce this cost immediately, but you can also put this waste to good use and increase profits.
Quick Compost 101: What is Composting?
Simply stated, composting is an environmentally responsible (and friendly) practice in which various organic materials are mixed together (usually in a container of some type or piled into a heap), and aerated with proper moisture and oxygen, allowing microorganisms to consume the waste material. The product of this consumption is a nutrient rich material known as humus or “finished compost”. By using compost as a soil additive, it acts as a natural fertilizer, helping to enrich the soil which stimulates plant growth. Not to mention, it also improves the soil quality itself!
This process of biodegradation occurs naturally, but farmers and gardeners have long used the benefits of composting as a way of turning the farm’s “waste” into a useable product. Restaurants can take a lesson from farms and mimic this idea. Although you may not have the same waste materials as a farm (like manure and unusable plant parts) you do have a lot of organic waste coming out of the kitchen!
As for what type of container to use or pile to make, that all depends on your space. There are plenty of great materials online about options for making or buying a compost bin that will best suit your needs.
Composting Basics: How To Compost Kitchen Scraps
There are 4 factors that make composting more than just an organic waste heap: ingredients, temperature, moisture & air circulation. When a compost pile is properly built, it becomes a fast, efficient way to quickly do away with all that organic garbage and turn it into a profit. Here we will cover some composting tips and the most important components of the process. It’s more than just rotting leftovers!
So what can be composted? A 25:1 ratio of nitrogen-rich and carbon-rich ingredients is needed to quickly and efficiently decompose into the nutrition-rich soil additive that anyone with a garden or farm loves so much. But don’t let a word like ratio scare you into thinking it needs to be totally scientific. Basically, you just want a lot more carbon ingredients than nitrogen ingredients. Here are some examples of compost ingredients:
- Coffee grounds
- Any organic waste (food scraps)
- Grass clippings
- Undyed paper
- Dead leaves
- Paper Towels
There are plenty more Nitrogen & Carbon rich ingredients found within the restaurant setting. All paper products are biodegradable (as long as they are just made of paper or cardboard and not plastic). Separating all of your paper waste products from the rest of the trash is a great way to ensure you have a lot of carbon for your compost pile. When combined with landscaping waste, you can quickly solve many of your waste removal expenses. Check out websites like compostinstructions.com for more complete lists of what goes in compost and what should not be included.
If your ratio is too far off (a lot of nitrogen or equal parts carbon and nitrogen) your compost pile may begin to give off a bit of a smell. A compost pile with the proper ratio should not smell much at all. This is a good thing, considering your neighbors probably don’t want to get a whiff of your new activity! Also, that smell can attract vermin, and possibly negatively affect your business.
For microorganisms to do their job of decomposition, temperature is of key importance. Composting can begin as soon as temperatures outdoors are warm enough for long periods of time (late spring to early autumn). Once the temperature begins dropping and birds start migrating, outdoor composting becomes impossible.
If space is available indoor composting can be done year round, but it requires more of an initial monetary investment in the proper tools (which can be pricey). If indoor space is not available and you are in a cold climate in the winter, you can still contribute materials to your compost pile. They just won’t break down during the months when things are frozen solid.
The surrounding temperature of a compost heap is important, but the decomposition process also produces heat as a result of organic consumption. This means that a pile over 8 feet tall has the potential of starting on fire! Turning and mixing the pile every few days will keep the temperatures within it even, and prevent things from getting too hot or cold. A healthy heap needs to stay warm and cozy—and not too big!
Simply put, if the heap or bin dries out, the process stops. The heap needs to stay moist so that the microorganisms can properly break everything down. If your compost pile is outside, try to keep it from direct sunlight. Spray it down with water every so often, especially on hot days, to ensure it stays about as moist as a damp sponge. If the pile is too wet, the microorganism action will slow down as well, so avoid over-soaking your pile. Of course, some days the rains just come down so just do the best you can to keep it moist but not dripping wet.
Those microorganisms don’t need much attention, but the last important factor to a healthy community of money-saving goodness is enough oxygen. Without air circulation, your compost heap won’t break down correctly, causing the process to grind to a halt, which is exactly what you don’t want. So again, mixing up the pile on a regular basis is an integral part of an efficient compost pile.
After several weeks of mixing and making sure the heap is sufficiently moisturized, the compost will begin turning into a dark, nutrient-rich compound that can be used in landscaping and gardening. This rich mulch can even be sold to local farmers, gardeners and nurseries.
The Benefits of Composting
Still asking “But, what is composting going to do to help my business?”
Figuring out how to recycle leftover food will reduce the cost of your waste removal fees, is good for the environment and beneficial to the community. It may result in collaborations with like-minded area businesses or non-profits who are concerned with issues of food justice, food security and eco-friendly business practices. These are just a few of the benefits of composting and can all be great marketing material!
If your restaurant grows and maintains its own personal garden, the compost becomes a multifaceted tool that truly embraces the green movement. You can even advertise that your garden is locally sourced on-site, enriched by your organic waste and environmentally-friendly, plus it helps keep your food prices lower because so much is produced and recycled right there.
Composting your food waste keeps your food resources working for you. Even if you can’t compost on site, there’s also a growing industry of composting removal services that work just like your trash removal services. And if you don’t live in an area that offers a composting service, there are other local businesses and industries that will gladly take your compostable excess food off your hands, free of charge. Consider the following:
- Biofuel Producers
- Urban Gardens
- Other Restaurants with Gardens
It’s not a deal-breaker if your restaurant can’t personally compost your excess food waste—there are plenty of others interested in working with you for their own profit and mutual benefit! Your trash doesn’t have to become another man’s treasure… it can become something even better with a bit of simple planning. Eco-friendly Compost Alternatives
1. Perform a food waste assessment.
Perhaps that food can be repurposed and somehow used in other ways that can also be beneficial. Find out the facts about your restaurant’s waste areas, so you can start running a more efficient, greener business. After you determine where your waste is coming from and just how much of it is actual waste vs. perceived waste, you can begin implementing solutions immediately.
2. Asses your donation options.
What can be donated to various facilities, including outreach centers, farms and other industries that can repurpose excess food and food waste? Donating extra food has so many benefits. Not only is this practice tax deductible, but it also significantly cuts down on your waste removal costs, saving your restaurant money each week. Your excess food can be donated to multiple sources, including:
- Food shelters and food banks
- Farmers, for use in fertilizer, animal feed, vermiculture and compost
- Local urban farms and garden co-ops for compost/fertilizer
- Industrial applications, for use in fuel source reclamation (biofuels)There are plenty of other uses for your excess food donations and they’re easy to find. Look online or contact your local urban development center. There’s a lot of attention and interest focused on food donation right now and becoming a part of this movement is key to not only your success, but the success of your community.
Of course, there will always be some food waste, right? Some people would say there’s no getting around that—some things will need to be thrown away. But there’s a restaurant right here in the Midwest that’s living proof it can be done! Reducing what becomes actual garbage by learning the essential composting basics will only help your business, but the local community and the environment as a whole.
It’s time to start thinking about your restaurant’s food as a resource and not simply, “the product” you can make money from. A lot of resources went into the creation of the food product you buy and just because it’s not consumed by a customer, doesn’t mean has no value. Combine these composting tips with a bit of research and you can implement better, greener practices in your restaurant. Eventually, you can succeed in making sure that everything in your kitchen is making you money—not just the plated entrée.