Composting at Work

Me n’ the micro-bin

I’ve started a composting process of the food waste at my workplace using a bin that is passively aerated. It’s kind of a prototype, as I am figuring out what kind of mix of inputs will work, how much moisture it needs, etc. During the summer, our kitchen produces a huge amount of food scraps which gets bagged up, thrown into a room, then later heaved up by staff onto our dump truck, driven into town, dumped at the refuse center, where it is then sorted and transported out of the county to a landfill 70 miles away. It’s a ridiculously inefficient process of dealing with waste that generates yet more waste.

The small bin I have currently set up will fill up within a week, so obviously it isn’t anywhere near cutting much waste out. However, once I’ve demonstrated that it works and have figured out the proper mix and all that, I’m hoping that we can expand the operation to cut out a more significant chunk of waste.

The whole science and art of composting consists of a proper ratio of carbon to nitrogen, which ideally should be around 30:1. We have a vast amount of cardboard and newspaper on-hand which I will shred to serve as bulk carbon (further reducing the transport of those materials into the recycling center in town), as well as sawdust and, every now and then, pine needles. The food waste supplies the nitrogen, as well as moisture. I will also pick up horse manure from stables down the road and mix that in there as well to provide essential microbes. It remains to be seen what kind of compost such a mixture will produce—it may be somewhat deficient on nutrients as my main sources of carbon are bland.

I’ve learned already that I need to have my carbon sources on hand and ready to mix in with the food waste as it comes in, because it comes in fast. The amount of scraps that comes out of the kitchen is overwhelming. We’re not even talking about the waste that comes off of guest plates; we’re just talking about scraps that come from food prep in the kitchen.

So it’s been a learning process for me, but I’m excited to actually finally be putting my hands in the dirt after having come up with the proposal this past winter. Trying to figure out how to successfully enact a composting operation here hasn’t been as easy as it sounds, as while composting itself is fairly straightforward, when you begin talking about composting an institutional amount of food waste in enclosed in-vessel systems with a very small amount of space (must be enclosed cuz we’ve got bears, racoons, squirrels, and mice roaming about), then suddenly you’re talking about an initial start-up fee of $200,000 for a manufactured system. This obviously wasn’t going to happen.

After posing this unique situation to several different manufacturers of industrial sized composting systems, I was pointed to a small company called O2compost, which has a very simple but effective passive aeration bin design for horse manure composting. As a prototype for an eventual larger system, I am using one of their micro-bins to demonstrate that composting is possible, cheap, and saves resources and money. Hopefully on next year’s capital budget we can expand the system to compost as much food waste as possible, if not all. Unfortunately, however, I will no longer be working here at the time, as I’ve put in my notice already that I’m leaving at the end of October. Then I’m going to Colombia for 2 months, and then . . . God knows. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed that since I’ve already done the research and groundwork for starting the composting system here, that whoever comes after me will have the initiative to get the process going. After all, it makes sense on all levels: both to the bottom line, as well as to staff satisfaction. Nobody likes seeing so much waste (nor heaving the heavy bags up into a truck) every single day.


Author: manderson

I live in NYC.

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