Cleveland Downtown Businesses Avoid Landfill Send Food Waste to be Composted into Soil Additives

written on June 14, 2010 by Beau Daane

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CLEVELAND, Ohio -- There's something rotten in downtown Cleveland.

But this might be urban decay Northeast Ohio can brag about -- and the next big green thing, some local sustainability experts say.  This is food composting -- in a big way.  Large-scale downtown food-waste makers like The Q, Tower City and the Browns, along with restaurants like the Great Lakes Brewing Co. and the Greenhouse Tavern, are heading a new effort to keep tons of biodegradable food scraps out of the landfill.  Instead, they dump their own unique combination of post-meal slop into biodegradable bags (often made out of potato starch) and a composting company hauls them away to be turned into a high-quality soil additive.  "This is the next wave," said Jill Ziegler, program manager for Sustainability Initiatives at Forest City Enterprises, who is coordinating composting efforts at Tower City and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.  "We already know that people will sort recyclables and build green, clean with green products and live green in some way now, but this is the next step toward removing a big portion of what goes into the landfill."

Large volume of waste:
And there's plenty of compostable waste to be had: A recent study by the waste industry found that organic materials made up half of all household solid waste -- and up to 75 percent of that can be composted and re-used.  Ziegler and others said the numbers are probably even higher for sports arenas and certainly for restaurants but no doubt lower for offices and other businesses.  In a three-week pilot program in November 2009, eight downtown businesses, with the help of the Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District and sustainability group Entrepreneurs for Sustainability (E4S), combined to collect 9 tons of food waste.  Most of that came from food preparation work in their corporate kitchens or restaurants, not from the vast amount of leftover fan food at the sports venues.  That's the next level: The Browns and Cavaliers expect to be collecting and composting fan food waste -- possibly including biodegradable plates, cups and cutlery -- by next season.  The Indians are also working on a plan for Progressive Field but haven't yet settled on a contractor to pick up the material.  All of this makes Cleveland a part of the new movement toward zero waste, said Beau Daane of the Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District. "We're very excited to see the number of companies downtown and elsewhere who are taking the lead on this," he said. "This is a movement catching on here and around the country."

A survey of 121 cities released in January by the Center for a Competitive Waste Industry supports that.  The report said more cities are beginning to look at a centralized composting program as part of a residential recycling program.

Composting catching on
Composting isn't new, of course.  Farmers and ecology-minded folks have been recycling organic food waste and re-using the decayed matter to enrich their soil for untold generations.  And other area organizations -- including a handful of Heinen's grocery stores and some offices at the Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and NASA Glenn Research Center -- already collect and recycle a portion of their food waste.  And cafeteria workers at NASA Glenn Research Center bag up their food waste and store it in a freezer to wait for a pickup from Rosby Resource Recycling, a composting facility in Brooklyn Heights.  The program has been in place since last July, said Rosemary Giesser, an environmental scientist for SAIC, a private contractor working there.  But a full-fledged downtown food composting program would have greater visibility and has the potential to divert far greater amounts of food waste away from landfills -- especially on game days for the sports arenas, Daane said.  A downtown compost pickup route could also include large government buildings and more downtown restaurants.  The downtown start-up group used Aramark Corp. in November for the pilot program, but a handful of other compost companies also now pick up and process waste and are negotiating individual contracts.

Costs still high
Most of them, however, are still trying to figure out how to make a profit.  "Food composting is not a fad, it's here to stay," said Bill Rosby, who began his company in 1970 and ran a three-year food-composting program in the 1980s.  "But that doesn't mean it's making any money yet.  "Still, when you consider food scraps and yard materials a resource, not a waste product, you're halfway there to changing the way people think about it."  The January study by the Center for a Competitive Waste Industry said that overall "tipping and processing fees for composting organics was less expensive than landfilling or incineration."  That's not yet the case in Northeast Ohio, though, said Jessie Jacobson, director of Premium Services at The Q.  "Eventually this will be a cost savings -- once it becomes more popular," she said.  "The haulers will need to be able to pick up more, a regular route through downtown, to bring down the cost for everyone.  "But we're involved now because we feel it's the right thing to do, our social responsibility, because we generate quite a bit of waste with the amount of people we bring through here every day."  Ziegler said Forest City and the others are willing to absorb higher costs until greater participation drives the price down.  "We can sort of afford it and we need to be the ones to lead the way," she said.  "Maybe eventually the smaller places, the mom-and-pop restaurants and everyone else downtown, can get involved."

 

By Michael Scott, The Plain Dealer
May 16, 2010, 5:46PM