Fermilab pilots composting program

Aaron Carrillo of Southern Foods Management throws a full compostable bag into a designated bin. The green compostable bags are made from plant products such as corn. Only bags specifically certified as compostable are accepted at compost facilities. Photo: Katie Kosirog, ESH&Q

Some of you may have noticed the sign in the Wilson Hall east parking lot that says, “Food Waste Compost Collection Area.” Since May, Southern Foods, Fermilab’s food service contractor, has helped Fermilab minimize waste by participating in Fermilab’s compost pilot program, thus diverting compostable waste from landfills. Between May 5 and July 18, Southern Foods has collected more than 4,200 pounds of compostable waste. Each kitchen workstation has a 5-gallon bucket lined with compostable garbage bags. All 14 of their employees have been trained on what is allowed in the compost bin, and posters in the work areas display acceptable compostable material.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food waste makes up the largest percentage of waste that ends up in a landfill, about 35 million tons annually. When food waste is composted, it has many environmental benefits in addition to those associated with less waste in a landfill. When food waste goes into a landfill, all the nutrients it took to grow that food are lost. Composting can help bring some of the nutrients back into the cycle of growing food. It is also very beneficial for the soil, reducing the need for pesticides and fertilizers as well as increasing drought resistance and decreasing storm water pollution by helping soils hold water.

When the company Advanced Disposal picks up Fermilab’s kitchen food waste, they take it to a compost facility in LaSalle County that has the proper equipment and land footprint to process the waste into compost. Many facilities are now able to compost more than just coffee grounds and fruit and vegetable scraps. With the proper equipment, meat trimmings, paper towels, eggshells and even milk cartons can be placed in the kitchen’s compost bins.

Although most suburbanite homeowners compost if they separate grass clippings and other yard waste at the curb, food scrap composting is a relatively new concept for nearby businesses and residents. Towns such as Oak Park, Gurnee and Grayslake have launched successful pilot programs recently, and some schools and restaurants have joined in the effort.

The ultimate goal is to not waste any food, but as the cafeteria serves 850 customers a day, having some food scraps is unavoidable. Separating compostables from regular trash compels us to take a closer look on how much food we stock up on. The average household throws away about 20 pounds of food per week. If you are interested in composting at home, take a look at the EPA guidance. John Hatfield, manager of Southern Foods, says the program has been running well in their kitchen. He says, “In the beginning we struggled a bit because it was something new for us, but in a short time it has become a normal part of operations. We are happy to help the environment.”

Fermilab and the cafeteria hope to make this pilot program a permanent part of operations to further reduce its landfill waste and carbon footprint.

Katie Kosirog