A steering committee of 6 local organizations and agencies: Lehigh County Conservation District, Greater Lehigh Valley Chapter of Buy Fresh Buy Local, Rodale Institute, Cougle’s Recycling, Inc., Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center and the City of Allentown, held several meetings within 2011 to establish an economically-driven food service to farm composting program in the Lehigh Valley (Lehigh and Northampton Counties in Pennsylvania).
Under the auspices of the SARE grant, two restaurants, one farm, and one school district benefited from promotional materials and subsidized costs. One workshop was held that encouraged three universities, one school district, one hotel and two other restaurants to participate, without supplemental grant funding.
The goal of the initial proposal was to forge a successful, close collaboration between area farms and restaurants which involves the larger community and to create compost that can be used to enrich agricultural soils and improve farm yields. The objectives were to determine the most effective methods for creating a wide-scale food composting program in the Lehigh Valley, and to lay the groundwork for the future expansion of a composting program. These objectives were met; however, they did not come about exactly as originally outlined.
According the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans needlessly send to landfills over 30 million tons of food per year. This waste not only consumes already limited space in landfills, but through the landfill decomposition process, generates greenhouse-gas methane in significant quantities.
But food waste is actually a significant economic resource: when combined with leaves and other materials, food scraps turn into compost, a valuable soil amendment containing nutrients necessary for sustainable growing. By sending food waste to landfills, Americans are dumping money in their trash – a recent trip to a landscaping center finds a 5 quart bag of organic compost costing $5.95. At the same time, landfills charge fees to accept this material. According to BioCycle Magazine, tipping fees – the fee that landfills charge to accept waste – have increased significantly. And the prices that farmers pay for fertilizers are also climbing. According to the USDA Census of Agriculture, farmers spent $18.1 billion in 2007 on fertilizers, which was an 86% increase from 2002 ($9.8 billion). Synthetic fertilizers not only cost farmers, they cost the society as a whole, where streams and rivers fouled by nutrient runoff have to be evaluated and restored.
In light of this situation, diverting food waste from the landfill-bound waste stream only makes sense: both environmental sense, and economic sense. In 2011, the Lehigh County Conservation District partnered with Rodale Institute, Cougle’s Recycling Inc., a number of local restaurants, the City of Allentown, area farmers, and other local agricultural organizations to create a cost-effective transportation system for this material. Commercial facilities, universities, and a school district have also joined with this partnership. To boot, the school district has begun to incorporate the benefits of composting of its cafeteria waste into the curriculum. Additionally, marketing materials used by the restaurants have spread enthusiasm throughout the community, promoting both the restaurant and the farm receiving the food scraps. Local newspapers and TV stations have also covered the initiative, creating wide-spread support.
In February 2011, after a preliminary meeting with project partners, Casa Toro Mexican Grill in Coopersburg, PA began diverting their pre-consumer food waste, or the food scraps solely from kitchen preparation, from their landfill-bound waste stream. This was found to be the easiest step for a restaurant to take, since diverting the post-consumer food waste adds another level of complexity and the possibility for contamination (i.e plastic straws). The food scraps from the kitchen were placed in 6-gallon buckets with screw-on lids to reduce odor. Once a week Pure Sprouts Organic Delivery Service came to pick up anywhere from 10 to 14 buckets in a pickup truck and deliver them to Liberty Gardens, roughly 2 miles away. The buckets were an easily manageable weight and size; any larger and they would have been too heavy to maneuver [note that larger containers were initially budgeted]. Jeff Frank, owner of Liberty Gardens, utilized these food scraps for roughly 2 months in his compost pile. He supplemented the food scraps with leaf litter from Upper Saucon Township’s yard waste stockpile. Although the material was valuable to his operation, as the growing season approached, he found that the bucket delivery system was too labor intensive and he would not have the time to continue. A commercial waste hauler was needed to make the system feasible
Fortunately, by reaching out and partnering with the Rodale Institute, the Lehigh County Conservation District was able to make considerable progress despite the cessation of the Coopersburg model. The Rodale Institute recently began a composting project with the Berks County Solid Waste Department and Cougle’s Recycling, Inc. Cougle’s Recycling, Inc. is a commercial recycler with the necessary trucks and equipment to pick up large volumes of food scraps, as opposed to 6-gallon buckets, in a more economical fashion. Cougle’s Recycling Inc. charges $8 per 64-gallon tote for a weekly pick up of material. The material is then dropped off at the Rodale Institute, which is serving as a model operation for farmers in the region. The fee was found to be low enough to save food generators money on their trash disposal costs, which has been a great program incentive. The Lehigh County Conservation District began discussions with Cougle’s Recycling, Inc. and found that the company was interested in expanding a Lehigh County route.
The Allentown Brew Works was the first restaurant to sign up with Cougle’s Recycling, Inc.. The company later expanded the program to Bethlehem Brew Works. Between both restaurants, the program is an economic boon, saving the owners nearly $10,000 per year on trash disposal fees. The Brew Works diverts pre-consumer and post-consumer food scraps, which is a large portion of their savings. Despite initial concerns, no additional labor was needed; the bus boys sort out the compostable materials from the non-compostable material with minimal effort. The Lehigh County Conservation District also provided marketing materials for the restaurant, which has served as a great outlet for public outreach and education. The Brew Works owners are also happy to provide guidance to other interested restaurants.
The original proposal had outlined a plan for municipal composting. Due to the duration of the grant award process, the Emmaus Borough lost staff and was unable to participate. The City of Allentown then became a project partner. The City hopes to one day offer curbside pickup of compost; however, the City currently does not have the space for a composting operation. In the interim, the City helped to promote the project; a compost program seminar invitation was sent out to all the food service facilities within the City limits. Focus was initially directed on Allentown due to Cougle’s Recycling, Inc route densities. A truck was already picking up food scraps from the Allentown Brew Works; to keep service economical and efficient, the pick-up locations needed to be in close proximities.
With help from the City of Allentown, the Lehigh County Conservation District held a seminar in August 2011 to encourage more food generators to participate in the program. The seminar featured talks from restaurant owners, the Rodale Institute, Cougle’s Recycling, the Allentown Board of Health and the Pennsylvania Recycling Market Center. The seminar was successful, as interest grew shortly after.
To date, several universities, hotels and grocery stores are participating. In September, the Lehigh County Conservation District approached a local school district. By leveraging grant funding, the Southern Lehigh School District was interested in participating and now has incorporated composting into their curriculum. Because the majority of the food served at school lunches is pre-processed, there was minimal pre-consumer food scraps generated by kitchen staff. In order to see a cost savings and create an educational opportunity, the students would need to sort out their own food scraps, since the kitchen staff had very little time. After students finish their meals, they form a line and hand their trays to kitchen staff. Prior to handing off their trays, the students are to remove their recyclable plastic bottles and dispose of them in the proper bin. The kitchen staff then quickly discards all the contents on the trays.
An extra bin was established for the students to separate their non-compostable materials (plastic bags, candy wrappers, etc.), so the kitchen staff was accepting only the compostable materials (ie., food scraps, napkins, cardboard). This was found to be easier and more efficient than having the students scrape the food off their plates.
As participation increases, Cougle’s Recycling, Inc. is looking for other local farmers to accept the material. Unfortunately, Liberty Gardens does not have an access way suitable for commercial trucks and cannot receive food scraps.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
The Lehigh Valley Composting Initiative gained considerable momentum and public support through outreach and education efforts. Table cards and posters, produced by Maxfield Design, were printed for each participating restaurant: Fegley’s Brew Works and Casa Toro Mexican Grill. The table cards explained the benefits of composting and promoted the farm receiving the food scraps, which emphasized the importance of supporting local farmers. The 11” x 17” posters contained the “vegetable tree” graphic and text detailing the benefits of composting. Copies of these materials are attached.
Erin Frederick of the Lehigh County Conservation District and Rich Fegley, co-owner of Fegley’s Brew Works gave a presentation at the Mid-Atlantic States Association of Food and Drug Officials. The attendees found the project new and exciting. They planned on relaying the idea to their respective cities.
Maxfield Design also designed a brochure, detailing the benefits of composting to food service facilities, farmers and the community. Contact information to solicit project participation was also included. This brochure is attached.
A local film maker also offered to create a brief, educational video on the program. Once finished, the video will be loaded to the Greater Lehigh Valley chapter of Buy Fresh Buy Local’s website.
The program received media exposure on Patch.com, the Morning Call newspaper and WFMZ TV news. Links to the stories are below:
A workshop was held in August to highlight the benefits of the composting initiative and encourage greater participation. Save the Date cards were mailed to each restaurant in the City of Allentown. Exposure from the Morning Call article widened the attendance. Thirty people attended representing malls, schools, restaurants, and farms. A copy of the save the date card is attached.
The promotional materials could be adapted and used elsewhere in the country, helping to promote composting and the farmers receiving the material. This project also lays the ground work for how a composting program can be sustainable: the grass roots process utilizing buckets and a pick up truck will not work in the long term. For an efficient program, the support of local recycler is needed.
Up to this point, the main factor that has driven the food-waste-generators (restaurants and institutions) to participate has been the incentive of significant savings on their trash disposal fees – at least 30% in savings from their previous bills. This savings has been based upon farmers accepting the waste for free – essentially avoiding any “tipping” fee. This situation is only sustainable when the amount of compost is small, and can easily be incorporated into area farms without any special equipment or handling on the part of the farmer. But, while the current LCCD pilot project has been small, expanded interest in this food waste composing has made it clear that this final economic obstacle needs to be tackled: how to maintain and expand a food-waste compost project in light of the need of farmers to charge a reasonable fee.
The initial goal for the project has been met: Lehigh Valley farmers and food-waste producers are enthusiastic about composting. However, the current balance requires that farms not receive any compensation for participating. Over the long run, this situation is not sustainable. As the potentially-compostable waste stream increases, compost operations need to increase in size. And there are significant on-farm costs involved with larger operations. Currently, the major incentive for food-waste generating operations to participate is the 30% savings on their hauling bills. Further work should be done to find the appropriate “balance point” whereby farms could charge a fee to accept the compost, but restaurants would still feel a sufficient incentive to participate. The fee to farms would enable them to defray expenses incurred by the composting process – materials such as machinery to turn the compost in windrows. For larger farm operations, permitting is also a concern.