By Paul Ruffins

Why are local restaurants having difficulty recycling food waste, which unlike plastic, rapidly breaks down into simple natural compounds? 

Typical unsorted restaurant trash. 1
A dumpster full of comminged restaurant waste, some of which could have been recycled
Photo credit: Paul Ruffins

The problem is when and where food breaks down. In an urban dumpster, food waste attracts flies and vermin. In a garden, it nurtures the soil. In a low-oxygen landfill, it produces methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide. 

In Hyattsville, some food waste is easy to divert from landfills. Mike Roy, brewmaster for Franklins Restaurant, Brewery and General Store, says the company produces 650 to 1300-plus pounds of spent grain a week. “Depending upon the beer, it may break down to between around 4 to 8 ounces per pint. We produce a lot of spent grain, but that’s really pretty easy to dispose of, a farmer comes and takes it away for free as animal feed.”

Daniel Calles, a production roaster for Vigilante Coffee Company, explains that his company contends with 150,000 burlap coffee sacks and plastic linings a year. There’s also the chaff left over from roasting coffee, hundreds of pounds of used coffee grounds, and a relatively small amount of the typical commingled restaurant trash. 

Calles said, “Coffee grounds and chaff are not an environmental problem because they make great compost. We pay Compost Cab to pick them up, and people love the used coffee sacks so much we just give them away.”

Vigilante’s founder and owner, Chris Vigilante, said that the plastic liners are reused by a coffee firm in Hawaii. 

The reason these food items are so easily disposed of is because they’re not combined with anything else.  

However, when food mixes with single-stream recycling, in which paper, cardboard, plastic, glass and metals are combined, those recyclables are often considered contaminated. Vigilante’s business partner Ashley Bodine noted, “We used to use a recyclable cardboard container with a compostable liner. But if there’s just a tiny bit of butter or cream cheese in it, then it would be considered contaminated. We were getting charged $400 a month for rejected recyclables. That’s why we switched to compostable containers where a little left over food is acceptable.”

“Cross-contamination is absolutely the problem,” agreed Mike Franklin, who owns Franklins. “If a bottle has just a little bit of wine left in it, it’s not considered recyclable. I would have to pay one full-time employee just to wash everything out, and we just don’t have the space to sort everything.”

Food cross-contamination makes it hard for restaurants to recycle, and hard to enforce recycling requirements for restaurants. Only clean, dry materials can be put into recycling. Few recyclables thrown out at a busy restaurant will be clean or dry. 

“It’s a terrible headache,” said Andy Shallal, who founded and owns Busboys and Poets. Like Franklins, Busboys puts a lot of effort into sustainability, preferring local suppliers and organic foods on the sourcing end, but struggles on the disposal end. “This is a great example of where a smart partnership with government could really help,” Shalall declared.

Vigilante said, “It would be cheaper not to use composting. We do it because we believe in it. But there is no economic incentive to recycle rather than throw things in the trash.”  

Understanding the few things that virtually all local restaurants do recycle consistently: clean cardboard boxes, grease and used fry oil, shows the advantages of sorted recycling over  single-stream recycling.

Grease bin for fry oil
A special bin just for grease and used fry oil
Photo credit: Paul Ruffins

Local restaurants recycle cardboard boxes in separate dumpsters that keep them relatively clean and dry. The dumpsters often have a narrow slot to discourage adding anything else.

Likewise, grease and used fry oils from restaurants and kitchens must be kept in separate tanks or dumpsters.  

And there is a strong market for both the cardboard and the grease. The pandemic has created a surging demand for recycled corrugated cardboard, according to the Wall Street Journal.

As for grease, Shallal noted, “A few years ago, companies were actually paying me to pick up our used fry oil to refine it into biodiesel.” 

Efforts to fight global warming mean that sooner or later, food waste will have to be separated from other trash. On June 1, Maryland’s organic recycling legislation, House Bill 264, became law to encourage the growth of facilities that use composting or anaerobic methods to process food waste without emitting methane. One example is Prince George’s County’s organic recycling facility, which composts yard and food waste into marketable gardening products called Leafgro and Leafgro GOLD, helping offset costs.

Starting in 2013, the law requires certain organizations that produce more than two tons of food waste a week, primarily supermarkets and schools, to divert it away from landfills and incinerators. By 2024, some that produce only one ton a week will have to comply. For now, restaurants are exempt, but the pressure, or incentives, to recycle food waste will only increase.