Local institutions put waste to good use by composting food scraps
PEORIA, Feb 17, 2013 (Journal Star - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Most people are familiar with recycling bottles, cans and newspaper. But what about carrot shavings, melon rinds and egg shells
Soon, composting food waste could be as automatic as tossing an empty soup can into the recycling bin. A handful of local institutions, including Illinois Central College and Bradley University and the new Chipotle restaurant, are leading the way.
"As Americans, we throw away so much food," said John Vogelsang, director of facility services at ICC. "And not only do we do it at home, we do it at work. Any time you can divert that stuff from the landfill, that's fantastic."
ICC started composting "before-dinner waste" -- the shavings from carrots or potatoes, meat trimmings, onion skins -- last spring at the ICC North culinary facility, and in the fall at the Main Campus cafeteria.
The school took up the cause after local recycler Midwest Fiber began offering a composting program to the Peoria area in January 2012. The company provides customers with 65-gallon carts and biodegradable bag liners and runs pickup routes two days a week, on Mondays and Thursdays.
"When Midwest Fiber started their program, I was so elated," Vogelsang said, because all the school has to do is toss the scraps into the bin.
Midwest Fiber tackles the composting dirty work, so the campus doesn't have to contend with pests and odors -- which invariably become part of the equation when you're dealing with decaying matter.
Vogelsang says ICC composts about 100 pounds of food waste a week from the East Peoria kitchen, and around 30 pounds a week at the culinary facility -- that's waste that would normally be put in a landfill. He says he'd eventually like to expand the composting to include food scraps left on plates.
Giving scraps a second life
Midwest Fiber also picks up compost from several Caterpillar plants and Bradley University's Dining Services program, which started composting in August. The school composts all food left over from student plates, as well as food left over from preparation stages.
Chipotle Mexican Grill, which opened Dec. 11 near Northwoods Mall, is the first local restaurant to take part in the program, composting food waste such as onion skins and the fleshy insides of green peppers, as well as food that sits on the line for too long and can't be saved for donations.
Chipotle general manager Heather Celis says the two Bloomington-area restaurants each compost about 1,000 pounds of food a week, and she expects they'll exceed that number at the Peoria location.
"(Chipotle is composting) in as many markets as we can," she said. "This is brand new for most of the managers here."
'Back to Mother Earth'
So, where does the waste go To Paul Rosenbohm's LHF Compost, located near the Peoria airport.
The company started taking waste from the local pumpkin processors in 2003, he said, and now Wal-Mart and Sam's Club are among his compost clients.
The food scraps are mixed in with yard waste and wood chips from area tree trimmers. A machine turns the material to add oxygen and microbes and in two to three months it becomes Better Earth Compost, which is sold in a 100-mile radius for landscaping and sometimes fertilizer.
"Our goal is to have a top-notch, beautiful product," Rosenbohm said. "It's just going right back down to Mother Earth. The plants grow great in it."
Why throw it away
There are a few challenges to overcome before commercial composting catches on, proponents say.
"It's a combination of cost and getting over the perception that keeping the bins around is going to make it stinky," said Marie Streenz of Midwest Fiber.
The bins have lids, she says, so it's no different than having a garbage can around.
Since food waste is so heavy, it makes sense to look into a cost analysis to see if businesses can lower their landfill costs if they divert this organic material, said Vogelsang of ICC.
"A lot of people look at recycling and composting and they might say, 'You want me to pay for that ' But what they don't realize is, what do you pay per ton to put something in a landfill "
No residential composting program exists in Peoria, though several communities in the Chicago area -- including Highland Park, Barrington and Palo Alto -- have in the last couple of years organized pilot programs to evaluate effectiveness and efficiency.
"(Residential composting in Peoria) is probably 20 years down the road," Streenz said. "But (businesses) produce a lot of food waste, so commercial (composting) has the potential to grow more quickly."
To some, getting grocery stores and restaurants on board is an important first step.
"The East Coast and West Coast have been doing this hot and heavy for the last 10 years," Rosenbohm said. "The Midwest has always been slower to adapt to things, but that's OK. It gives us more time to study what works and what doesn't work.
"Landfill space is getting to be more expensive, and nobody wants a landfill in their backyard. Why throw it away if it can be made into another product "
Danielle Hatch can be reached at email@example.com or 686-3262. Follow her on Twitter @danielle_hatch.
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