St. Louis is no Seattle, so it probably won’t be requiring food waste be kept out of landfills anytime soon.
But that hasn’t stopped local groceries and some restaurants from putting in a little extra effort to get their organic waste into composting facilities rather than taking it out with the trash.
“It was all going into the landfill,” said Greg Lehr, the produce category manager for St. Louis-based grocery chain Straub’s.
That changed about five years ago, after Lehr heard that St. Louis Composting had started accepting food waste at its compost sites. With produce and other food that needs to be replaced on shelves regularly, not to mention buckets of orange rinds from squeezing orange juice in-house, Straub’s decided to send its waste there.
“We kind of fit the program really well,” Lehr said.
The grocery chain was one of St. Louis Composting’s first big food waste customers. Since then, demand for the service has grown enough that the firm launched a sister company in 2014, Total Organics Recycling, to handle commercial food waste collection from groceries, restaurants and institutions such as Busch Stadium, the St. Louis Zoo and Washington University.
Customers throw food scraps into special bins that Total Organics picks up regularly. Each week, it collects about 250 to 300 tons of food waste, said Tyler LaBerge, the sustainability coordinator for Total Organics. That’s up from about 150 to 200 tons per week it collected just a year ago.
In addition to what Total Organics collects from customers, an additional 200 or so tons of food scraps are dumped weekly at St. Louis Composting sites by customers that take it there themselves.
The company composts nearly all of the food waste it collects at its Belleville location, a 110-acre facility on top of a closed landfill. Mounds of decomposing organic matter, known as windrows, line the grounds. To keep birds and pests at bay and better facilitate the composting process, the food is covered with yard waste, and St. Louis Composting uses large equipment to turn the piles so oxygen can get in.
That’s one of the most important ingredients to composting. In a landfill, decomposing food is deprived of oxygen, leading to anaerobic digestion that produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas that pound for pound has 25 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide.
Landfills accounted for about 2 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2013, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And about 20 percent of what goes into landfills is food.
Of course, composting also helps save space in landfills for material that isn’t easy to compost or recycle. And for St. Louis Composting, all the food scraps help create a better compost that it sells to landscapers and homeowners. Larger customers can buy it by the cubic foot, and the company partners with the Missouri Botanical Garden to sell it by the bag, giving part of the proceeds to the institution in exchange for using the Botanical Garden brand on the compost.
As the move to composting grows, St. Louis Composting and Total Organics seem poised to capitalize on it. St. Louis Composting says it’s the only company in the St. Louis region permitted to collect and accept food waste. In 2014, it bought out another composting company, Route 66 Organics of Pacific, that also collected food waste.
Then, last year, it brought on all of Shop ’n Save’s groceries, which significantly boosted the tonnage Total Organics Recycling collects, LaBerge said. It already collected food waste from about 20 Schnucks locations.
“We definitely would love to grow,” she said. “We have capacity for more, and there’s definitely a market for the product.”
The challenge is to make the service appealing to more than just progressive, green-leaning restaurants and groceries. The hope is that the cost of the additional service can be offset by lower trash fees. Much of the weight in municipal trash is food.
“We try to make it cost-neutral to landfilling,” LaBerge said. “It’s tough because the landfill fees are pretty low.”
But as the company continues to grow, pricing should get more competitive. “The more customers we’re able to bring on, that will improve our route density and that makes everything more efficient,” she said.
Customers now say they pay a bit more for the service, but not enough to dissuade them.
“It’s comparable to a normal dumpster,” said Andy White, who heads restaurant operations at brewer Schlafly’s Bottleworks and Tap Room locations. “We aren’t paying that much more.”
The St. Louis Brewery, maker of the Schlafly brand, has been recycling its food waste since opening its Maplewood Bottleworks location 13 years ago. It started doing some of its own composting on site before sending it to St. Louis Composting. It even buys compost from the company for its on-site garden.
“I like to say we rent our garbage to them and then we buy it back,” White said.
While commercial composting grows, it could be a ways off before residential customers in the area can use a food waste pickup service.
For one, it would take some education to keep households from contaminating compostable material with trash. And enough people would have to want to do it to make the numbers work, which makes LaBerge think it might take a mandate, such as Seattle’s, before that happens.
In the meantime, she sees more promise from neighborhoods banding together and asking for the service. A commercial composter can accept waste that even backyard composters avoid, such as meat and dairy products that attract pests.
“What would need to happen is a really progressive neighborhood would have to get together and say, ‘We really want to do this,’” LaBerge said.