Wasted Food Dude–Composting Conundrum

Here’s the latest installment of my food waste advice column, Dear Wasted Food Dude, which also runs on BioCycle‘s site and their e-bulletin, BioCycle Food Recycling News

Related: send questions! All food-waste-related queries are welcome–big or small, true or false, named or anonymous. Send stuff to wastedfood {at} gmail or @wastedfood.

Dear Wasted Food Dude,
My composting facility takes in food scraps as well as yard trimmings, soiled paper and compostable liner bags. I recently attended a food waste workshop and was surprised to hear comments that composters compete with food rescue groups for wasted food. What’s up with that? I’m a big supporter of rescue and donation!

—  Perplexed in Pennsylvania

Hey Perplexed,

What IS up with composters and food rescue groups competing? The words “composting” and “competition” so rarely even inhabit the same sentence! Sadly, it does happen, and leads to some real tension.

Explaining that tension raises those classic questions of theory vs. practice and ideals vs. profits. In theory, most organics recyclers would rather not compost edible food because it defies the “reduce, reuse, recycle” axiom summarized by the EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy. Ideally, they’d only take scraps and food that were clearly inedible.

In practice, though, it can be difficult for composters to tell what foods could have been donated. And they are at the mercy of their customers’ practices. Still, I know many composters who are proactive here, notifying customers when they have large amounts of edible food in their bins. Some composters will even help their customers link with local food rescue groups (find yours here), to ensure edible food reaches those in need, not a compost pile.

Fortunately, the type of retailers, restaurants and institutions that divert to composting are prone to welcome food recovery, once they learn about that option. But inertia is powerful. Getting compost customers to separate edible from inedible — like organic from landfill — isn’t easy. Many potential donors find that the time, effort and storage space for potential donations can be real barriers. And unreliable collection by often-volunteer-staffed food recovery groups can be problematic.

Another factor at play is whether or not this “wasted food” can even be donated. If we’re talking about food kept at the right temperature and following all food safety protocols then all efforts should be aimed at redistributing it to hunger-relief agencies (who may even pick up that food). If not, following the EPA Hierarchy is best.

In some ways, organics recyclers don’t have much agency here. Aside from notifying these “overcomposting” customers and connecting them with local food recovery organizations there’s only so much a composter can do.

In addition to logistics, self-interest plays a role here. All businesses, including organics recyclers, need revenue. There is such a thing as cold, rational economic behavior. Since composting operations are paid by the ton, they don’t always quibble over the optimal destination of those materials. In the game of tonnage, the bottom line can supersede the optimal hierarchical action, especially when donation (or source reduction, feeding livestock, or anaerobic digestion) is not easily achieved.

You mentioned that composters are competing with food rescue groups for the same wasted food, but I wouldn’t think of it that way. The overlap is usually a small amount of what a composter is picking up. And that competition is almost unavoidable. To avoid any competition, a composter would forgo most customers and condemn all of those operations’ organic waste to the landfill.

Returning to the question of tension, I’ve spoken with organics recyclers about the friction between composting, source reduction and food rescue. Composters do receive money for accepting food waste, no question there. But for the most part, composters are on board with the EPA Hierarchy. As one North Carolina composter told me, “I don’t hide the fact that reduce and reuse come before recycling,” said Amy Brooks, of Brooks Contractor. “People say, ‘if we only had more food waste, we’d have more compost.’ But are those couple buckets of apples in your one cubic yard roll-off really going to make more compost? Not really. You’ll get a bit more tip fee, but there’s a better use for it.”

Take ‘er easy,
Wasted Food Dude


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