What is Compost?
 
Composting is the natural process of decomposition and recycling of organic material into a humus-rich soil amendment known as compost. For any business or institution producing food waste, this organic material can be easily decomposed into high-quality compost.
 
What can be Composted?
 
Fruits, vegetables, dairy products, grains, bread, unbleached paper napkins, coffee filters, eggshells, meats can be composted. If it can be eaten or grown in a field or garden,  it can be composted.  Items that cannot be composted include plastics, grease, glass, and metals — including plastic utensils, condiment packages, plastic wrap, plastic bags, foil, silverware, drinking straws, bottles, polystyrene, or chemicals.
 
Items such as red meat, bones, and small amounts of paper are acceptable, but they take longer to decompose.  Add red meat and bones to only a  well-controlled compost pile to avoid attracting vermin, pests, and insects to partially decomposed meat scraps.
 
Food Waste Is Unique as a Compost Agent
 
Food waste has unique properties as a raw compost agent. Because it has high moisture content and low physical structure, it is important to mix fresh food waste with a bulking agent that will absorb some of the excess moisture as well as add structure to the mix. Bulking agents with a high C: N ratio, such as sawdust and yard waste, are good choices.  Food waste is highly susceptible to odor production — mainly ammonia — and large quantities of leachate. The best prevention for odor is a well-aerated pile that remains aerobic and free of standing water. Leachate can be reduced through aeration and sufficient amounts of a high carbon bulking agent. It is normal to have some odor and leachate production.  Captured leachate can be reapplied to the compost.
 
Pre-Consumer vs. Post-Consumer Food Waste
 
Pre-consumer food waste is the easiest to compost. It is simply the preparatory food refuse and diminished quality bulk, raw material food that is never seen by the consumer. This food waste is generally already separated from the rest of the waste stream generated, thus no change is needed to keep contaminants out of the future compost. Post-consumer food waste is more challenging because of separation issues. It is simply the table scrap food refuse. Often, after the consumer is done with the food, the waste is subject to contaminants and a decision has to be made on how to separate food from other waste. This can be done by having an extra trashcan that is only used for food waste. Either the kitchen staff or the consumer can separate it depending on the feasibility, flexibility, volume, labor, atmosphere, and attitude of the business or institution.
 
Why Compost Food Waste?

Food waste that is not composted generally goes directly to a landfill. As landfills fill up and close at an alarming rate, waste disposal and tipping fees to the businesses and institutions generating the waste will continue to climb. Once in the landfill, organic matter may react with other materials and create toxic leachate. Food waste placed in an airtight landfill stops the earth’s natural cycle of decomposition. This cycle plays a crucial role in the health of our environment. More than 72 percent of all materials entering landfills can be diverted through composting. Composting provides a way in which solid wastes, water quality, and agricultural concerns can be joined. An increasing number of communities, businesses, institutions, and individuals are expected to turn to compost to divert materials from landfills and to lower waste management costs. Although waste stream managers view composting primarily as a means to divert materials from disposal facilities, the environmental benefits, including a reduction in water pollution, and the economic benefits to farmers, gardeners, and landscapers can be substantial.
Benefits of Compost to the Environment and Agriculture
 
Environment
– Water and soil conservation.
– Protects groundwater quality.
– Minimizes odors from agricultural areas.
– Avoids methane production and leachate formation in landfills by diverting organics from landfills into compost.
– Prevents erosion and turf loss on roadsides, hillsides, playing fields, and golf courses.
– Drastically reduces the need for pesticides and fertilizers.
– Binds heavy metals and prevents them from migrating to water resources, being absorbed by plants, or being bioavailable to humans.
 
Agriculture
– Long-term stable organic matter source.
– Buffers soil pH levels.
– Adds organic matter, humus, and cation exchange capacity to regenerate poor soils.
– Suppresses certain plant diseases and parasites and kills weed seeds.
– Increases yield and size in some crops.
– Increases length and concentration of roots in some crops.
– Increases soil nutrient content and water holding capacity of sandy soils and water infiltration of clay soils.
– Reduces fertilizer requirements.
– Restores soil structure after natural soil microorganisms have been reduced by the use of chemical fertilizers; compost is a soil inoculant.
– Increases earthworm populations in soil.
– Provides slow, gradual release of nutrients, reducing loss from contaminated soils.
– Reduces water requirements and irrigation.
– Provides portunity for extra income; high-quality compost can be sold at a premium price in established markets.
– Brings higher prices for organically grown crops.
– Minimizes odors from agricultural areas.
 
What Are the Benefits to the Food Industry?
– Reduces solid waste disposal fees.
– Ends wasting large quantities of recyclable raw ingredients.
– Educates consumers on the benefits of food waste composting.
– Helps close the food waste loop by returning it back to agriculture.
– Reduces the need for more landfill space.
 
How do I participate in a food waste compost program?
Foodservice businesses and institutions have several options depending on feasibility and specific restraints. If the land is available, you may compost the food waste on-site in rows or bins. If minimal space is available or if appearance, odor, and leachate containment are an issue, in-vessel systems or aerated containers are other options that require little attention and labor. Finished compost may be sold for added income or used internally on grounds to beautify landscapes or reduce landscape and soil amendment costs. Finally, the best option may be to export the food waste either to a central compost facility or to a local farmer.
 
Composting Methods

Figure 1 Passive composting, or piling

Passive composting or piling is simply stacking the materials and letting them decompose naturally. This method is simple and low cost but is very slow and may result in objectionable odors.

Figure 2. Aerated static piles

In Aerated static piles, the air is introduced to the stacked pile via perforated pipes and blowers. This method requires no labor to turn compost but is weather sensitive, and can have unreliable pathogen reduction due to imperfect mixing.

Figure 3.4 Windrows

Windrows are long, narrow piles that are turned when required based on temperature and oxygen requirements. This method produces a uniform product and can be remotely located. However, turning the compost can be labor intensive or require expensive equipment. Windrows are typically used for large volumes which can require a lot of space. In addition, windrows can have odor problems and have leachate concerns if exposed to rainfall.

Figure 5. In-vessel system

Simple to use, easy to turn, require minimal labor, are not weather-sensitive, and can be used in urban and public areas. The initial investment can be high.

What must I know to make and monitor food waste compost?

Proper nutrient mix or carbon to nitrogen ratio (C: N) is important for bacteria to process organic material into compost. The optimum ratio to begin composting is 30:1. If the ratio increases decomposition is slowed, if the ratio decreases foul odors and nitrogen loss can occur. Food waste is typically 15:1, fruit waste 35:1, leaves 60:1, bark 100:1, and sawdust 500:1. For example, a recipe using 1 part leaves and 1 part food waste by volume would achieve close to a 30:1 ratio.
The moisture content of 60 percent is optimal for microorganisms to break down the compost. Moisture contents above 70% anaerobic conditions, slow down the process and can create foul odors. Moisture below 50 percent also slows down the decomposition process. The moisture content of fresh food waste is 80 to 90 percent, sawdust is 25 percent, and yard waste is 70 percent. Compost with a proper moisture content will form a clump and will slightly wet your hand when squeezed. If the clump drips water, it is too wet and may require additional aeration or more bulking agent. If the compost falls through your fingers, it is too dry and may need water additions or more food waste.

Aeration or oxygen is essential for optimum microorganism populations to effectively break down the composting material. This can be done by turning, mixing, the use of blowers, fans, aeration tubes, aeration holes, or raising the compost off the ground.
 
Particle size can affect the rate of decomposition of compost. The smaller the particles the more aeration the compost receives and microorganisms can break down smaller pieces faster. This can be accomplished by shredding, chipping, chopping, or cutting composted materials before they enter the compost pile.
 
PH levels from 6.0 to 7.8 are considered high-quality compost. Proper C: N ratios should create optimum pH levels. Starting with a fairly neutral pH will ensure high levels of microorganisms for efficient decomposition.
 
Temperature of the compost is important while biological activity takes place in the decomposition process. Low outside temperature slows down the process, while warmer conditions speed up the process. Mesophilic bacteria function between 50 and 113 degrees F to begin the composting process. Thermophilic bacteria take over and thrive between 113 to 158 degrees F. These high temperatures are what destroy weed seeds and pathogens in the compost. Some composting manures can reach temperatures of 200 degrees F. However, temperatures above 158 degrees F may char the compost or create conditions suitable for spontaneous combustion.

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