Closing the loop: composting can save money, local farms and the planet

We’ve all been in situations where we’ve gone to a restaurant where we’re given a volume of food that we simply can’t consume at one time. We have a few options in this situation: we can take the food away, eat until we are at the point of bursting, or let the food go to waste, filling the restaurant bins to the brim.

What if there was another option?

Composting is the ideal solution. This allows us not to take our leftovers with us every time and not to fill our stomachs too much, while avoiding food waste.

Food waste is a major problem, especially in the restaurant industry. In the United States, 4-10% of food purchased by restaurants is wasted before it even reaches the consumer, and about 55% of edible leftovers remain after people have finished their meal.

Although the root of this problem is oversized portions, restaurant food waste is still said to be an issue whether portions have been reduced or not. I propose that in order to help alleviate this problem, the City of Jacksonville mandate the composting of food waste in restaurants.

Composting in restaurants is not unusual, at least outside of the United States. While studying in Europe this summer, I noticed composting in a handful of restaurants I visited, but most notably Kantine Freiburg, a restaurant in southwestern Germany. Visiting Kantine was a unique experience in American restaurants.

They make sustainability a priority on their menu, sourcing meats and produce from farms within a few miles of the restaurant and serving only seasonal produce.

Red Davis, food services manager at Brevard Zoo, dumps food waste from one of the zoo's restaurants into a compost bin.

In addition, the restaurant practices composting before and after consumption. This means that all food waste produced during meal preparation is composted and all food left on consumers’ plates after eating is also disposed of in a compost bin. This ensures that they do not contribute to food waste, but improve the soil quality of farms that source food.

Reducing food waste in the United States is something that deserves our attention. It is estimated that approximately 40% of the food produced in the United States is wasted each year and that 40% of the total waste comes from restaurants and grocery stores. Food waste not only costs Americans in lost income, but also causes significant environmental damage due to the release of methane, which is produced when food decomposes in landfills.

Methane is one of the most threatening greenhouse gases with more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide, although it occupies less time in the atmosphere. Landfills and the food waste they contain contribute 17% of total methane emissions in the United States, which means that this waste contributes significantly to global warming. These statistics show that changing the way we deal with food waste is vitally important.

Seeing how restaurants across Europe and parts of America have implemented composting practices shows that this change could be easily achievable. If Jacksonville restaurants switched to composting practices on their own, it would set a precedent for the rest of the state to make the switch.

Compostable materials include food products such as eggshells, dairy products, fruits and vegetables, beans, cardboard or paper packaging, tea and coffee. Essentially, anything other than meat-based restaurant waste can be composted on-site, according to the USDA and FDA. Many restaurants have been reluctant to start composting despite knowing the environmental benefits, due to perceived burdens, such as additional cost and labor or lack of knowledge of proper techniques.

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However, composting has the potential to save restaurants money rather than cost them dearly. As this waste would be put in a compost bin rather than in a dumpster to go to landfill, the cost of waste collection would be significantly reduced. It would depend on whether a restaurant has on-site composting or uses a compost collection service.

On-site composting would result in the greatest cost savings, as restaurants would not have to spend as much on landfill waste removal or frequent compost collection fees. However, if this is not possible, they could use compost collection services that pick up the waste and transport it to an industrial-scale composting facility.

In terms of what these composting policies would look like in individual restaurants, the easiest way to transition to restaurant practices that include both pre- and post-consumer composting would be to have small bins throughout the restaurant. where this food waste can be disposed of. For pre-consumer composting, it would be better to have small compost bins next to food prep stations instead of just having standard trash cans.

Post-consumer composting is a little more difficult, as often the contents of people’s plates are mixed with compostable products and meat.

This does not mean that composting food waste is impossible. If the food appears contaminated (i.e. meat and compostable products are mixed together) it will be disposed of in a landfill bin, but if the food is not contaminated it should be separated accordingly.

Opened in 2011, Southern Roots Filling Station, a popular vegan restaurant on King Street in Riverside-Avondale, is also helping to reduce food waste through composting.

Composting offers a clear benefit in terms of reducing landfill waste and lowering methane emissions, but it can also help improve food quality by making organic fertilizers cheaper and more accessible to local farms.

Composting aids plant growth by providing essential soil nutrients such as slow-release nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, regulating soil pH, improving soil texture and density, and regulating humidity levels. Improving soil quality and removing reliance on inorganic fertilizers help improve the quality of food produced, as well as reduce the environmental impacts associated with traditional agriculture.

Composting helps close the food loop, so it’s not just farm-to-table, but table-to-farm as well.

Overall, there are very few downsides to composting and those that do exist are related to minor additional cost or labor. In addition to looking at how restaurants in Europe are composting, we can look to the many US cities with zero waste initiatives that include restaurant composting, such as San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; Boulder, Colorado; and more.

These cities have dramatically reduced their food waste generation and are amazing examples of successful city-wide composting initiatives. Many of these towns have had success with government-run curbside compost collection services, so cost is not an issue. While there may be initial challenges to implementing mandatory composting citywide, the many benefits associated with the changes far outweigh the minimal costs.


Allison Raudenbush is an environmental science student at the University of Florida, where she is a member of the Outdoor Spaces Conservation Committee. A resident of Jacksonville Beach, she is a frequent volunteer at the GTM Research Reserve.

This guest column is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of The Times-Union. We welcome a diversity of opinions.

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