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Restaurants following NCC’s lead in food scrap composting

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North Central College students throw food scraps into a composting bin at the school on Thursday, February 2, 2012. The school is part of a movement with downtown restraunts to recycle food scraps to compost rather than throwing them out. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 4, 2012 12:43PM



Those last couple of cold fries or that bit of bread crust you leave on your plate the next time you patronize a downtown Naperville restaurant might be worth something. Food composting, the next green frontier, depends on those scraps.

Several restaurants in the retail core have begun chewing on the idea of separating the decay-prone parts of their trash — coffee grounds, wooden shipping crates, chicken bones, egg shells, overripe fruit, paper napkins and yes, uneaten salads and sides — and pooling them in a centralized container to be carted off for composting.

The approach would lighten the load and cut the fuel and environmental costs of taking non-recyclable waste to the landfills that bury it, none of which are located in DuPage County.

But the undertaking would have myriad other benefits, according to Kay McKeen and the other people at School and Community Assistance for Recycling and Compost Education (SCARCE), who are pushing for the downtown collaboration. The end product of the process, the fully broken-down material known as humus, provides soil enhancement and reduces the chronic problem of excess runoff and soil erosion. It also can result in fewer chemical fertilizers and pesticides going into the soil, and eventually the water table. McKeen said that means something in famously fecund Illinois, one of 20 states that have an official soil established by legislation: Drummer Silty Clay Loam.

She predicts “peer pressure” will be a key motivator in the partnership’s success.

“Zero waste is where we’re going,” she said.

It’s no pipe dream, or not much of one. Managers at Lou Malnati’s on Jefferson Avenue, discussing the idea when they hosted a gathering of about 20 restaurant people and energy and waste management specialists Tuesday, said they could foresee virtually none of their garbage going off to landfills once they remove the foods and liquids from their waste.

Second helpings

The first priority, McKeen said, is to salvage what can be put to good use. The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996 simplified the process of donating food by removing some of the liability risk. Under the federal legislation, extra edibles set aside and handled in good faith can be passed along to food pantries, shelters and churches for distribution to underserved populations.

What’s left after that is still plenty valuable. North Central College is reaping the benefits now.

After completing a food waste audit a year ago with help from the Student Governing Association, the downtown Naperville school last fall began collecting edible scraps separately to have them hauled away by Compost Supply, which runs a 175-acre compost farm in LaSalle County.

Mike Hudson, assistant vice president for business operations, said the new routine has been adopted readily by North Central’s food service employees, and it has gone over very well among the its socially conscious undergraduates. It also has cut costs for the college, which used to have to replace its heavily used garbage disposers three or four times every year. They aren’t needed anymore.

“Just taking that component out made a big difference,” Hudson said.

When the college hosted a gala in November to commemorate its 150th birthday, the scraps left over after the 2,500 meals were served filled a three-yard container. Hudson said the college expects the compostable portion of its refuse to come to more than 40 yards by the time the program finishes its first year.

Learning curve

The process and its parameters can be confusing at first. Some plastic is compostable, for example, but because different kinds break down at varying rates, a set of specifications known as ASTM D6400 has been set up for identifying the types that can be composted. And then there’s the new bottle Pepsi will introduce later this year, made entirely of plant products. McKeen said that material can’t be composted and will still have to go into the general recycling bin.

Whole Foods in Naperville has encountered the challenge of conveying the difference between its cardboard salad bar trays, which are compostable, from its coffee bar cups, which are not. But the payoff is worth the effort, according to in-store educator Erin Smock-Hattle, who said the store’s staff has accumulated 283 tons of food scraps since the program began last April.

Smock-Hattle said an added benefit of the increased attention to discards is that more recycling is getting done. She estimated that the volume of glass, plastic, aluminum and paper being sent away from the store for processing has nearly doubled.

Economies of scale

The implementation of a commercial composting program will depend in part on how many participants sign on. Matt Hernandes of Waste Management Inc. said his company is already working with nearby Jewel food stores, and if enough restaurants or other businesses in a centralized area start composting, it makes sense for the company to expand a route or add a new one.

The concept has potential for any organization where food is served. Teri Lodesky, learning behavior specialist and sponsor of the Eco-Eagles environmental club at Scott Elementary School, said planning for a food composting program has been “in the process” at the Naperville school for a while. A collection bin has been built, and now Lodesky is looking for volunteers to help get the project going.

Downtown restaurateurs and retailers already show an inclination to go green. A project launched more than a year ago has had about 30 businesses bringing cardboard, cooking oil and other conventional recyclables to a corral in the parking lot north of Jefferson Avenue between Main and Webster streets, where a pair of compactors and a grease collector provide places for participants to deposit the separated materials.

McKeen and SCARCE coworker Kris Salmen conducted an audit of the program in mid-December, and they found encouraging levels of participation.

“The city should be happy, and the (Chamber of Commerce’s) Green Leadership Council and the Chamber should all be very happy,” McKeen said.

She is confident the business community is ready to start clearing its plates.

“Naperville has a lot of green stuff going on already,” she said. “I think it’s just time for the next step.”

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