Composting Becomes Big Business in Central Ohio

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Steam rises from piles of rotting food scraps at Ohio Mulch in Delaware County as it's turned into reusable fertilizer or top soil(Photo: Joe DiPiero, Ohio Mulch)
Steam rises from piles of rotting food scraps at Ohio Mulch in Delaware County as it's turned into reusable fertilizer or top soil(Photo: Joe DiPiero, Ohio Mulch)

Composting has long been practiced by homeowners in Central Ohio and elsewhere as a way to recycle kitchen waste and create fertilizer for the family garden. But now composting has become big business. Restaurants and grocery stores have gotten into the act.

I’m on Route 42 in Delaware County standing outside of Ohio Mulch. Here trucks from Columbus drive up every day to dump food scraps and other waste where it’s mixed with wood and yard waste. Then it’s hauled to one of several large piles. There it’s left to “cook.”

It’s a cold, snowing morning but there are plumes of steam rising off rows of rotting stuff…and it smells to high heaven. While many homeowners tend to small compost piles in the backyard, Ohio Mulch is a commercial composting site.

“The food scraps that we receive here are primarily pre-consumer food scraps. So a lot of the back of the house food scraps from restaurants. And also a lot of produce from grocery stores. any item that can go bad relatively quickly is what we see a lot of, ” said Ohio Mulch spokeswoman Kristin Chek.

Since the mix has a high concentration of food, the stuff stinks as it rots or breaks down. And that rotting actually produces energy.

Even on cold November days temperatures inside the piles of rotting food waste can get pretty hot.

“Good temperature to be at is somewhere, I believe, between 130 and 160 degrees. So even if there’s a layer of snow on top, once you dig into the pile it’s still really warm,” Chek said.

Chek said the heat comes from bacteria released during deterioration. Eventually, it becomes fertilizer or potting soil.

More and more restaurant owners and grocery store operators see the benefits of recycling food scraps. Many are turning to composting as a way to eliminate garbage.

In Central Ohio, White Castle began a pilot program for composting food scraps last December.

Manager Shannon Tolliver says the company creates efficiencies by fabricating its own sinks and other equipment in a huge manufacturing facility behind the company’s headquarters. And she says White Castle has a long history of recycling.

“We have cardboard boxes that we’ve been reusing since the 1960’s from our bakery to our Castles. Our Castles take the buns out of the plastic bag in the boxes and send them back to our bakeries. And the boxes get reused about six or seven times,” said Tolliver.

Tolliver said making the move to composting was a natural one. The program became so successful and popular with employees that the company recently started recycling at most of its Columbus-area stores along with the company’s home office on Goodale Boulevard in the program.

“So far since I think since October we started with our home office October of 2012 and we added our Castles in December 2012, we’ve diverted over 42 tons of food scraps since September of this year,” said Tolliver.

Kroger also recycles an impressive amount. The nation’s largest grocery store chain has 126 stores in Central Ohio. Columbus Retail Manager Marne Fuller said Kroger created a multi-store compost pilot program for the state in 2008. Now, Fuller said the chain diverts thousands of waste into a compost pile.

“We have all of our fiber material, all of our waxed corrugated, all of our wood, all of our paper. We also have all of our organic material, all of the produce type material. We also do the deli department. We have the cakes the breads, things of that nature that actually don’t get donated”, Fuller said.

All of that, Fuller said, that’s adds up to a lot of waste.

“Every week the boxes that come out of each store are weighed and we’ve been tracking it since the beginning of the program and we have actually diverted 31 million 6 hundred and 36 thousand pounds,” Fuller said.

After 6 to 9 months of composting, all the would-be garbage turns into a clean smelling, finely grained fertilizer to be used again for gardening. And that, says White Castle’s Shannon Tolliver, is just what the company did.

“We actually used their compost which is called ‘Green Envy’ to plant some flowers for Earth Day this year,” said Tolliver.

Marne Fuller of Kroger said the company resells ‘Green Envy’ to its own customers.

“The customer will come back in and say ’You won’t believe how big my rose bushes are.’ They’re very happy when they get to use the product,” Fuller said.

Overall, companies aren’t spending any more money composting than they would throwing trash in the landfill.

And it doesn’t look like commercial composting in Central Ohio will slow down anytime soon. This year Ohio Mulch doubled the amount of food scraps it received over last year.

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