Composting is the oldest and most recognized solution for disposing of food scraps and other organic waste. It can be as simple as tossing food scraps and other organic waste out the back door to decompose. However, for a business, a lack of strategy can open organizations up to unexpected problems. With a clear strategy, businesses in more urban areas can benefit from composting as an alternative to sending food waste to the landfill.
Here we’ll outline how some of the several forms of composting works, when this solution works best, and some of the potential drawbacks you may face in composting your food scraps. With a better understanding of how composting works, you can make a more strategic decision as to how best dispose of your food scraps without sending them to the landfill.
How composting works
Composting is the disposal of food scraps, leaves, grass clippings and other organic waste in a process that mimics natural decomposition through the use of oxygen, bacteria, and microorganisms. In general, compost piles and bins require some level of maintenance, including watering and regular aeration through turning, to provide the appropriate conditions for decomposition.
[As an aside, there are industrial products on the market that are called “composters.” These are generally machines that use large amounts of energy to dry – or dehydrate – your food waste. These machines generally do not compost the material and are not discussed in this article.]
There are several forms of composting:
- Vermicomposting simulates a natural ecosystem through the use of redworms, bacteria, fungi, and other bugs to break down organic matter.
- Windrow composting uses long piles of organic waste, called windrows, that are aerated by regularly turning the pile. These piled windrows generate and maintain the levels of heat that best activate microorganisms, typically 35°C to 65°C (95°F to 150°F), while supplying plenty of oxygen. This form of composting is fairly maintenance-intensive, and so works best for high volume, mass composting.
- Aerated static pile composting mixes all types of organic waste together in one large pile, layered with “bulking agents” such as newspaper and wood chips, and introduces air into the pile through a series of pipes.
- In-vessel composting feeds food scraps as well as most other forms of organic waste into a silo or drum or even a concrete-lined trench, where temperature, moisture levels, and aeration can be easily controlled. Generally, these vessels feature some type of mechanism to turn the material to achieve the proper levels of aeration.
Organizations that do not have room onsite for composting can also work with an offsite hauler. Offsite composting organizations are becoming more common, particularly in areas that are limiting or banning the disposal of food scraps at landfills. While there are no true cost savings with this strategy, it can benefit the planet and some organizations may find it necessary to meet local ordinances or corporate sustainability goals.
Benefits of composting
Many organizations first turn to composting to lower their carbon footprint by removing food waste from landfills. When food scraps are sent to the landfill, they decompose in an anaerobic (without oxygen) process that emits methane gas, an ozone-damaging byproduct. Composting plays a critical role in reducing this damage.
On an individual-level, the beauty of composting for many organizations is that it can be relatively cost-effective to get started. For some, it’s as simple as finding an unobtrusive space in which to dump food scraps or other organic waste. Others might opt to invest in a simple container, either a wooden holding area or a more fully sealed vessel that limits the entry of pests.
Yet another benefit of composting is the nutrient-rich fertilizer that the process produces. Using composting on your landscape is a cost-effective strategy for enriching the soil without the use of chemical fertilizers.
Drawbacks to composting
While it is fairly simple to start composting, it is best done by organizations that have the manpower, space, and time to maintain it. It does take work to ensure the right balance of nutrients and feedstock, and to maintain the necessary moisture content, oxygen levels, and temperature. What’s more, this work takes time. Reaping the fertilization benefits of compost doesn’t happen right away. Composting may be ready for use as fertilizer in as little as two months or as long as two years.
There are additional drawbacks to consider. While composting in a container can limit smells, many compositing strategies can release odors and can attract all manner of pests. Because of this risk, the use of certain food scraps (particularly meat) may not be permissible in your preferred form of composting.
In addition to odors, most forms of composting produce “leachate,” or water that has drained through the decomposing materials. In commercial operations, this residue must be collected and treated to prevent contamination of nearby water sources.
Alternative food waste solutions
Composting provides a low-cost, high-maintenance approach to disposing of food scraps that will only work for businesses with ample space, time, and manpower. While it is a well-recognized option, it is not always the best option for commercial food operations looking to reduce their carbon footprint without adding to their operational costs.
Fortunately, there are a number of solutions for food waste disposal available today. Many organizations find that onsite biodigesters provide a better option to the inconvenience and labor of composting. As with composting, biodigesters break down food scraps through the use of natural microorganisms in the presence of oxygen. However, biodigesters perform this work in sealed equipment in the kitchen—eliminating odors as well as the hassle of disposing of food scraps outside.
Composting is an excellent place to start thinking about alternatives to food waste disposal, but it won’t be right for every organization. To discover more about how an on-site biodigester can help your organization, contact Power Knot today.