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From garbage to gardens, composting gains steam

Rotting food in landfills produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Reducing methane is a key part of a global agreement to address climate change signed in Paris in 2015. President Trump announced Thursday he was withdrawing the United States from the agreement.

Chef Jason Lewis of West Chester University cuts fruit for lunch and saves the waste for compost. Lawrence Hall, West Chester University, West Chester, Pa. on Friday morning, June 2, 2017.
Chef Jason Lewis of West Chester University cuts fruit for lunch and saves the waste for compost. Lawrence Hall, West Chester University, West Chester, Pa. on Friday morning, June 2, 2017.Read moreBob Williams/For The Philadelphia Inquirer

After they prepare the food, Aramark employees don't just toss away the scraps – they weigh them first.

Under a program that Aramark started five years ago, the international food-service giant has been keeping tabs on the monetary value of that fruit still hugging the rinds and all that other detritus with an eye toward cost-cutting.

But at the Lawrence Dining Hall at West Chester University, under an EPA-funded pilot program in the borough, Aramark workers are putting the discards to work.

"It was the logical next step to do the right thing and compost," said Jason Lewis, an Aramark chef at the university. If the practice, which began in September, works for Lewis and his coworkers, he said, the company could expand composting to other locations.

The university and nine other entities — restaurants, senior living facilities and Chester County Hospital — are part of the yearlong composting pilot program in West Chester. Denise Polk, chair of the university's Communications Studies department, and Meghan Fogarty, who became the borough's first sustainability coordinator last year, are leading the project.

The ripening U.S. composting industry got its start about 25 years ago when an increasing number of municipalities decided to keep yard trimmings out of landfills to save space, said Frank Franciosi, executive director of the U.S. Composting Council, a trade organization. Food waste has joined the party, and that has fed the growth of the industry during the last five years, he said.

Many people know only that their trash goes away when they put it out, he said.

"Well, where's 'away?' " Franciosi said. " 'Away' is some mega-landfill somewhere, and they're filling up."

Food remnants and other carbon materials can be composted, a process by which microorganisms break down organic matter. That includes food scraped from plates, coffee grounds, bones, egg shells, napkins, fruit rinds, and rotted vegetables. Compost can reduce or eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers. Businesses that pay for trash pickup by the dumpster-full can save money by cutting volume.

Rotting food in landfills produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Reducing methane is a key part of a U.N. agreement to address climate change signed in Paris in 2015. That's the one the United States will withdraw from, President Trump said last week.

A result of that agreement, France's "4 per 1,000" initiative, seeks to trap carbon dioxide in soil, something promoted by composting.  The initiative says that increasing the amount of carbon in soil by 0.4 percent a year can slow annual increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Americans composted nearly two million tons of food, and food-composting collection programs reached more than 2.8 million households in 2014, according to a November 2016 EPA report. However, the agency estimates that Americans produced more than 38 million tons of food waste in 2014.

More than 60 licensed facilities in Pennsylvania compost food waste and other materials. Among them are farms, colleges, state prisons and an Episcopal church. One goal of the West Chester project is to spur support of composting among businesses and residents to increase the number of facilities.

Composting, of course, isn't the only remedy for reducing food waste or even the best one, according to the EPA. Its hierarchy of food recovery solutions ranks composting near the bottom, just above incineration and use of landfills. Ideally, the EPA instructs people to produce only the food they will consume and give the excess, if edible, to people, then animals. If that is not possible, the goal should be to turn excess food into renewable energy.

West Chester's sustainability coordinator composts at home, but, Fogarty said, "When you're talking about doing it at a large scale, it changes the game."

The agency gave the West Chester program a $12,000 grant late last year. Since the pilot started, West Chester's public works trucks have hauled more than 270 tons of food scraps to a facility outside the borough, which uses the resulting compost. During a six-month pilot program funded by the EPA in 2014, three restaurants diverted 44 tons of food scraps to a composting facility. That is the equivalent of eliminating emissions from 202 cars, Polk said.

"These are the first steps to show we have a system that works, an infrastructure," she said.

Polk's and Fogarty's goal is to make the program permanent and add more businesses and, eventually, the borough's nearly 20,000 residents.

They look to State College as a model. It started collecting food and yard waste for composting borough-wide in April 2013. The program collects about 900 tons of waste a year from residents and its list of 28 commercial participants is growing. The borough produces compost in about 10 weeks, which residents can take for free.

Efforts to control food discards have spread across the country.

California, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont ban certain producers of food waste from sending it to landfills. The states focus on businesses and institutions, although Vermont plans to include residences in the ban starting in 2020.

New York City's Department of Sanitation offers curbside pickup of organic material to one million people and plans to provide all its residents with either curbside pickup or access to sites where they can drop off organic materials by the end of 2018.

"People have a bad connotation of what composting is: something sticky and smelly and icky," said Franciosi of the U.S. Composting Council.

"And it doesn't have to be if it's done right."