Lehigh Valley Composting Initiative

Project Overview

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2010: $13,584.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Rebecca Kennedy
Lehigh County Conservation District


Not commodity specific


  • Crop Production: nutrient cycling, organic fertilizers
  • Education and Training: demonstration, display, extension, focus group, networking, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research
  • Farm Business Management: feasibility study, market study, value added
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture
  • Soil Management: organic matter
  • Sustainable Communities: community planning, leadership development, local and regional food systems, new business opportunities, partnerships, public participation, urban agriculture, urban/rural integration, community services, sustainability measures, community development

    Proposal abstract:

    The Lehigh County Conservation District proposes to carry out a one-year long food compost waste pilot project involving three local restaurants, a farm, a organic food delivery service, and a municipality. This project draws upon the results of other, similar projects that have been carried out elsewhere in the country that have led to the development of successful food waste composting programs. The key to success has been a high degree of public education and outreach, and the enthusiastic support of the participating restaurants and farmers. Also critical is ease and efficiency of food waste collection and transportation. The Lehigh County Conservation District will create reports and presentations to be disseminated to various environmental groups and Environmental Advisory Councils. Brochures will be provided to restaurants in the region, highlighting the model project and calling for additional participants. Table tents will be provided to restaurants participating in the pilot project to advertise their efforts to their customers. Outreach materials will also be created to encourage residents to begin back yard composting. Project results will be published in newsletters and local newspapers.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Composting food waste for use by farmers is of clear environmental and economic benefit. There are several hurdles to surmount before food composting becomes “mainstream” in the way that recycling now is. Chief among these problems is finding a simple way to transport food waste from homes and restaurants to facilities that can compost the waste. Another significant barrier is to raise public awareness and acceptance of food composting. Lastly, an effective economic model needs to be built so that composting becomes self-sustaining for both food waste providers, and farm end users.

    According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food waste from homes and restaurants accounts for 12.5% of the material entering landfills, with the average person generating 1.35 pounds of food waste per day. Food waste primarily ends up in landfills, where it takes up space, produces methane, and creates leachate which often escapes the landfill and enters groundwater. By removing the food waste from the landfill-bound trash, the useful life of landfills can be increased, while a valuable material is returned to the environment.

    This material is compostable; once composted, food waste provides a valuable source of nutrients and organic matter to use as a soil additive. Compost enriches soils by adding essential nutrients and organic matter which is vital for farmers to conduct sustainable agricultural operations. The organic matter in compost helps retain water; this decreases erosion and conserves water for irrigation. Compost reduces the need for chemical fertilizer, saving money and providing higher crop yields. Food waste from restaurants is a valuable source of organic matter for farmers; however, the infrastructure does not yet exist to effectively make use of this resource.

    Composting food waste is not technically difficult. Many farms and municipalities are already composting; farmers compost manure, and municipalities compost leaves and yard waste. The main challenge facing food composting is similar to the one that faced large-scale recycling years ago; to create workable conduits and a functioning economic model for dealing with the waste, and getting the material to end-users who treat the material as a resource. At the same time, composting needs to be “normalized” so that it seems attractive and worthwhile to expend the small amount of extra effort to separate out the food waste from trash, just as many people now routinely do with paper, cans, and bottles.

    There are many different ways to carry out workable composting programs; what methods work for a given area depends upon a number of factors. The Lehigh Valley is a unique region, due to its mixed rural/agricultural and urban areas, which means that farms and restaurants are in close proximity to each other. This project proposes to model several different methods of restaurant/farm/municipal composting to determine the most effective composting methods for the Lehigh Valley. At the same time, this project will create a local awareness of composting, to build a regional interest and acceptance of food waste composting.

    Proposed Solution:

    The Lehigh County Conservation District proposes to carry out a one-year long food compost waste pilot project involving three local restaurants, a farm, a organic food delivery service, and a municipality. This project draws upon the results of other, similar projects that have been carried out elsewhere in the country that have led to the development of successful food waste composting programs. The key to success has been a high degree of public education and outreach, and the enthusiastic support of the participating restaurants and farmers. Also critical is ease and efficiency of food waste collection and transportation.

    This project proposes to address both the technical and outreach aspects of successful composting. On the technical/economic side, there are several different models of dealing with food waste; this project proposes to pilot three of these methods, with the intention of showing that food composting is both economically and practically feasible for both restaurants and farmers. On the outreach and education side, the challenge is to create a sense of food composting as a possible, normal activity that is “green,” and not difficult or intimidating.

    While there are many producers of food waste, restaurants are the easiest place to begin a composting program, for a number of reasons. The food service industry contributes a large portion of total food waste. The EPA estimates that 4% to 10% of a restaurant’s food purchases become waste even before reaching a guest. Restaurants present an excellent opportunity for outreach to the public. Restaurants are always eager for publicity and ways to connect to their patrons. Restaurant kitchens operate according to a number of set procedures; in order to implement a food composting program, a relatively small number of people need to be trained.

    In order to ensure that the farm side of the composting pilot program is a success, the District has recruited a local organic farmer who is highly enthusiastic about participating in the project. There are many other local farmers also interested, but it was felt to be best to chose a single, already-experienced farmer for the initial efforts. Once the success of the pilot program is established on one local farm, it is expected that others will be ready to follow.

    On the municipal side, the District has chosen to work with a municipality, the Borough of Emmaus, with whom we have successfully partnered on a number of previous environmental projects. Municipal food composting has proven successful elsewhere, so it was felt to be an appropriate choice for a pilot project here in the Lehigh Valley.

    To transport the food waste, the District is partnering with Pure Sprouts Organics delivery service, which already has a regular pick up-drop off delivery service. Looking towards the future, the program will only be successful if the food composting program can be self-sustaining, meaning that the funding to pay for transportation and delivery of compost and the materials needed (compostable bags, trash containers) is available

    Project methods:

    • Pure Sprouts, an organic delivery service that is already working with local farmers will pick up compost from Casa Toro Mexican Grill in the Borough of Coopersburg and deliver it to Liberty Gardens, a local organic vegetable grower located within a mile of the restaurant.

    • The Borough of Emmaus Public Works Department will collect compost from two Borough restaurants and include the waste in their existing compost facility; the finished compost will be available for re-sale to backyard gardeners and local farms. In this model, there is significant potential to expand the program by allowing nearby residents could drop off their food waste.

    • Create extensive outreach and educational materials for use in the restaurants, at the compost facilities, at farmer’s markets in local newspapers, and through on-farm tours.

    The following organizations will be involved in the initial phases of the project:

    Lehigh County Conservation District will draft all of the marketing and outreach materials, conduct training, evaluate the project, provide technical support on composting.

    Maxfield Design will design marketing materials including promotional flyers, posters and table tops.

    Borough of Emmaus Public Works Department will pick up food wastes from Superior Restaurant biweekly.

    Pure Sprouts Organic Delivery will pick up food wastes from Casa Toro on a regular basis and deliver the bins to Liberty Gardens, an organic farm

    Casa Toro Mexican Grill, Superior Restaurant and South Mountain Cycles & Coffee Bar will participate by attending training, separating food waste, and storing it on-site in appropriate containers for pickup.

    Key Milestones
    Action Date
    Restaurant Employee Training April 2010
    Restaurant Marketing Materials Complete May 2010
    Begin Food Waste Pickup and Delivery June 2010
    Evaluate Progress Ongoing, begin April 2010
    Complete Pilot Project Pickup and Delivery May 2011
    Recruit Additional Restaurants and Farms Begin Fall 2010
    Carry Out Cost Analysis Begin Fall 2010
    Outreach to other composting communities Ongoing, Spring 2010

    Measurable project success will be defined in the following ways:
    • The project will be a success if the participating restaurants and farmers wish to continue, and others wish to join them.
    • The project would also be successful if problems encountered during the pilot program are pinpointed and solutions developed and implemented.
    • Success will also be found in creating a more widespread knowledge and acceptance of food composting throughout the Lehigh Valley.

    In order to ensure that these elements of success are properly measured, project evaluation will include the following components:

    • Overall Program Evaluation: Ongoing interviews will be conducted with all pilot project participants to determine where the program was successful, and where improvements could be made. Interviews will also be conducted at the conclusion of the project. Interview topics will include: the restaurant owner’s perceptions and personal motivation and feelings about the project, the relationship between the farmer and the restaurant, community feedback, challenges, and ideas.
    • Cost Analysis: Determine the amount of compost generated from each business and calculate its worth in terms of trash abatement, fertilizer and municipal re-sale value. Also evaluate indirect costs and savings such as staff time to separate materials and marketing. The amount of compost will be evaluated directly, by logging the containers picked up. The amount of finished compost will also be measured directly at the farm and at the municipal composting site.
    • Marketing Success: Restaurant customer feedback will be measured indirectly through the perceptions of the restaurant owners. It will also be measured directly, through the number of composting informational flyers taken bay restaurant patrons.
    • Creation of a Sustainable Restaurant-to-Farm Model: Using the cost analysis generated, it will be determined how to make the restaurant/farm compost model self-sustaining after the initial pilot period.
    • Creation of a Sustainable Restaurant-to-Municipal Model: Using the cost analysis generated, it will be determined how to make the restaurant/municipal compost model self-sustaining after the initial pilot period.
    • Public Interest: Inquires to our office and to the farm, municipality, and restaurants from the public and other businesses will be documented to determine where further interest lies.

    The goal of this project is to determine the best models for developing an economically and practically feasible food waste composting program in the Lehigh Valley. The Lehigh Valley area has recently placed a great deal of focus on sustainable, natural agriculture. Recent initiatives include the establishment of the Lehigh Valley Food Co-op, which hosts a virtual farmers' market and storefront for Lehigh Valley residents to buy and sell locally-grown food, the creation of 10 farmer’s markets, as well as a strong movement in community gardens spearheaded by Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley. There are currently seventeen community gardens in the region’s urban areas. The Lehigh Valley is also home to the Seed Farm, an agricultural incubator project which will help train new farmers to establish sustainable enterprises in the region. The Seed Farm will helps to ensure a source of healthy food for residents and revitalize the economy by facilitating the growth of a vibrant local food system by teaching apprentices to operate profitable farms in a way that protects and enhances the natural resources of the rich farmland we have here in the Lehigh Valley. The Seed Farm will be a future participant in the composting pilot program.

    This region has also demonstrated a high emphasis on maintaining clean water and a healthy environment. Local sources of readily available finished compost address the need for farmers to keep their soil healthy and their yields high, without the excessive use of artificial fertilizers that pollute local waterways.

    Some specific expected benefits to the community include:

    • Availability of locally produced compost for organic farming and backyard gardens.
    • Decreased waste stream entering landfills, extending their lifespan.
    • Establishment of closer ties between local farms and restaurants, encouraging the use of local produce, and the possibilities of local farms growing specifically for particular restaurants. This is increasingly a popular model for local farms, which are able to grow with a known market in mind.
    • Backyard organic gardeners and community gardens are both excellent markets for finished food compost. Local community members interested in “green” and local initiatives will find locally produced food compost a highly desirable product for gardening use.
    • Local restaurants using food composting will feature marketing materials that will highlight local Lehigh Valley farms, raising the consciousness of local farming activities.

    The groups considered most essential to reach include:

    • Farmers
    • Restaurants
    • Food Service Institutions
    • Local Governments
    • The public
    • Environmental Advisory Councils
    • Schools

    William McFadden, Agricultural Resource Conservationist for the Lehigh County Conservation District, will lead this project. McFadden was responsible for managing a 113 acre livestock and crop farm for over 25 years; during this time he had experience with many different types of composting practices. McFadden is a certified conservation planner and is responsible for implementation of agricultural best management practices on Lehigh County farms.

    Assisting Mr. McFadden on the District staff will be Erin Frederick, District Resource Conservationist, and Rebecca Kennedy, Watershed Specialist. Erin Frederick has been working with the Farmland Preservation Program for the past three years; she has conducted agricultural field work and outreach for Lehigh County’s agricultural incubator program. She has also been responsible for creating a number of successful pilot outreach activities to a wide variety of community groups, and she has a strong background in working with locally based food systems. She will be responsible for overseeing the creation of the marketing and outreach materials, for setting up trainings for the restaurants, and for creating “tours” and other public education events and activities.

    Rebecca Kennedy has many of project oversight and grant management experience; she is also responsible for many of the District’s outreach and education programs. She has worked for eight years at the District, and has experience working with area farmers. She will be responsible for the management of the project budget and outreach.

    Partnering Organizations
    The Lehigh County Conservation District has had a longstanding involvement with the local agricultural community. The District has assisted municipalities in improving agricultural protection ordinances, prepared conservation management plans for numerous farmers, and composed outreach materials to promote local agriculture, which is coupled with economic development. The District has also successfully managed many natural resource grants and has a large administrative capacity. The District will provide training, compost bins and marketing materials for the restaurants. The Conservation District will also provide technical composting support to the Borough of Emmaus and Liberty Gardens. The Conservation District will publicize the program to the public, local environmental groups, and other communities within the Lehigh Valley, in addition to conducting an economic analysis of the program to ensure future sustainability.

    The Borough of Emmaus has been ranked as one of the top 100 best place to live in the country. They have a local farmer’s market and have collaborated with the District on several environmental projects in the past. Their Public Works department will pick up food waste from Superior Restaurant and South Mountain Cycles, both in Emmaus, and will then incorporate the material at their existing compost facility. South Mountain Cycles & Coffee Bar is an organic coffee bar and bicycle shop; Superior Restaurant is a popular diner. Both South Mountain Cycles and Superior Restaurant employees will attend training to separate food scraps from their waste stream and promote the project via posters and flyers.

    Casa Toro Mexican Grill, is located in Coopersburg, was voted one of the top ten restaurants in the Lehigh Valley. Casa Toro has done considerable amount of work with local charitable organizations. Casa Toro Mexican Grill employees will attend training to separate food scraps from their waste stream and promote the project via posters and flyers. Pure Sprouts Organic Delivery Service purchases produce from local farmers and delivers to homes, businesses and restaurants in the Lehigh Valley. Pure Sprouts will pick up food scraps from Casa Toro Mexican grill on a regular basis and deliver it to Liberty Gardens. Liberty Gardens is a Certified Naturally Grown farm in Coopersburg, Pennsylvania that grows high quality vegetables, herbs and fruits for restaurants and individuals. Liberty Gardens will accept the food scraps, compost and utilize the material.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.