In discarding food scraps, more restaurants are going green by composting

By Danielle Douglas
Monday, October 25, 2010

At Bar Pilar in the U Street corridor, wait staff no longer chuck uneaten food into the dumpster. Scraps are instead thrown into pails and taken out back to a compost heap. Same thing across town at Restaurant Nora in Dupont Circle and Zola in Penn Quarter. Not too far from Zola, chefs at Poste Modern Brasserie even use a portion of the bistro's compost to fertilize the on-site garden.

These are but a handful of the restaurants in the Washington area embracing eco-friendly waste disposal. No fewer than 15 local eateries compost, a far cry from the dozens that do so in cities such as San Francisco and Seattle, but the list is growing.

Food scraps account for some 13 percent, or 32 million tons, of the total garbage generated nationwide, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Of that 32 million tons, less than 3 percent is composted, with the remainder discarded in incinerators and landfills. The food waste that languishes in landfills produces methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Composting, however, is not without its challenges. There are only a few commercial compost haulers in the area and even fewer facilities that can handle the decomposition of restaurant waste. What's more, removal costs can add anywhere from $100 to $300 to a restaurant's monthly trash bill.

Still, for John Snellgrove, owner of Bar Pilar and neighboring Cafe Saint-Ex, the benefits outweigh the costs. He estimates that more than 90 percent of the kitchen food waste at Bar Pilar is being composted. Producing less traditional garbage has netted Snellgrove some savings, though he had to first negotiate a lower flat rate with his traditional trash carrier. Standard garbage removal services tend to lock customers into two- to five-year contracts at a set rate, making immediate compost savings difficult to realize.

Snellgrove has contended with his share of obstacles since he began composting two years ago. His neighbors, for instance, were none too pleased about the smell, especially on humid summer days. Resident complaints can cause establishments to lose their liquor license, if they are found in violation of the agreements they sign to allay community concerns about their operations. Snellgrove, however, has avoided any serious confrontations.

Landlords are also often hesitant to approve compost heaps behind their buildings for fear of attracting rodents, said Nicolas Jammet, co-owner of Sweetgreen, a salad and yogurt eatery with five locations in the area. But staff at the restaurants, he said, have gotten in the habit of "keeping bins closed and clean," as well as the added chore of sorting the trash.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for most restaurants is actually finding a composting service. Both Snellgrove and Jammet use EnviRelations, a District-based company that provides commercial compost services. The company hauls the food waste to Recycled Green Industries in Howard County because there are no equivalent facilities in the District and few left in the suburbs.

Municipalities are reluctant to make the capital investment for composting machines and obtaining financing for private shops can be difficult. Grass-roots movements, such as the Georgia Restaurant Association's zero-waste zones in downtown Atlanta, however, may drive demand and needed infrastructure improvements.

"At the end of the day, there are enough people that want to do this, despite the obstacles," said Walker T. Lunn, manager of EnviRelations. "And that's promising."

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