IN JULY 2008, the Kroger supermarket chain decided to expand its active role in the community to include an environmental element. The company’s first food scrap composting program was rolled out in 24 Ohio stores. In just four months, more than 650 tons of food waste were diverted from landfills and instead composted. The project proved so successful that Kroger recently added a dozen more of its Columbus-area stores and six Toledo-area stores earlier this summer. To date, more than 2,000 tons of organics have been recovered. “Our stores are proud to be part of a pioneering effort with the state of Ohio to start, sustain and excel at a compost/recycling program,” says Marne Fuller, who is with Retail Operations for Kroger’s Columbus division. The state of Ohio hopes the successes of the Kroger food waste composting project, and the connection made between environmental stewardship and community leadership, will motivate other grocers and industries to implement similar programs.
Kroger first learned of opportunities to divert food waste from landfills at a stakeholders’ meeting held by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (Ohio EPA) in 2007. The idea was further discussed by the Environmental Task Force created by the Ohio Grocers Foundation (OGF). OGF received a grant from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) to develop a supermarket manual to help grocers plan and implement food waste composting programs. As the manual neared completion, Kroger volunteered to conduct a waste audit, which revealed that nearly 60 percent of the waste at its stores consisted of compostable material. Kroger then committed 24 of its Ohio stores to participate in a four-month pilot project.
The pilot project was designed to determine logistical and economic feasibility. Store managers monitored the efficiency of separating compostable wastes from packaging both in terms of time and contamination. Departments selected to participate in the project used containers with clearly marked signage and lined with compostable bags. In many stores this included produce, floral, deli, bakery and dairy. Prior to the project, Kroger had a program in place to recycle corrugated cardboard, but the compost facilities encouraged the inclusion of waxed corrugated and soiled paper — a carbon source for the compost facility, that also absorbs liquids and controls odors during collection. The hauling costs were also studied to compare disposal costs at the local landfill to transporting the organics up to 40 miles west to the nearest permitted compost facility. The study determined that it would be economically feasible to divert food scraps to compost facilities despite the relatively low landfill tipping fees (with a state average of $35/ton).
The start-up of the pilot project did encounter challenges, similar to any other program that requires behavioral change. Store employees neededto adapt to the new task of separating waste streams. Each store selected an employee to champion the program by motivating and assisting coworkers. Employees seemed to embrace the program once the purpose of separating organics and the environmental benefits of composting were understood through educational efforts. Kroger filmed a training video at one of its participating stores and the composting facility to communicate the purpose of the program. The video is now a training requirement for all employees, and has reduced contamination to a level that is manageable by the composting facility.
Kroger stores previously placed all wastes in a compactor that required pick-up every 10 to 15 days. Twenty-one participating stores designated the compactor to food waste and placed regular trash in box dumpsters. On average, compactors filled with compostable wastes were hauled every 15 to 20 days. The reduced frequency of hauling has factored into the economic sustainability of the program. The recent opening of a composting facility in central Ohio, and an anaerobic digestion facility that will undergo construction later this year, will also make food waste programs attractive by reducing hauling distances.
OHIO FOOD SCRAPS RECOVERY INITIATIVE
As Kroger plans to expand its food waste composting program, OGF hopes that the publication of its supermarket manual will interest other grocers implementing similar programs. The state of Ohio wants to apply the successes of the grocery industry to other industries that generate significant quantities of food waste. Ohio EPA and ODNR, in collaboration with private and public stakeholders, plan to connect the Kroger and OGF successes with Ohio’s Food Scraps Recovery Initiative to lead the state forward in projects involving organics diversion and renewable energy.
Ohio’s Food Scraps Recovery Initiative was launched in June 2007 with the goal of capturing Ohio’s portion of the estimated 26 million tons of food waste generated in the U.S. each year. The initiative has focused on education, infrastructure development and the partnerships needed to develop and implement a successful diversion program (see “Food Scraps Recovery in Ohio,” BioCycle April 2008). After a year of statewide stakeholders’ meetings that targeted composting facilities and waste haulers, Ohio is now in a position to offer food waste composting services to businesses and communities in its major cities.
In June 2007, there were only three remote locations with composting facilities that were actively accepting and processing food waste. Eighteen months later, this number has tripled and three proposed solid waste anaerobic digesters are planned for construction later this year. Not only has the number of composting facilities significantly increased, but the location of the facilities has established an infrastructure that can serve the more populated areas of the state including Columbus, Cleveland/Akron, Cincinnati and Toledo
While the establishment of these facilities is a result of composting facility operators identifying community needs, the timing can also be attributed to Ohio EPA and ODNR programs. Since 2007, these agencies have hosted several stakeholders’ meetings and provided Community and Market Development grants totaling $2 million. Ohio’s tiered regulatory approach has motivated many yard waste composting facilities to change facility status to a food waste classification. Proposed rule changes aim to further promote food waste composting by streamlining regulations for institutional composting. This is gaining popularity at colleges and universities, correctional facilities and business campuses.
The Ohio Compost Association recently amended its name to the Organics Recycling Association of Ohio (ORAO). It also has been integral to the development of food waste diversion in the state. ORAO held two Food Scraps: Create a Diversion! conferences in 2008 to provide technical assistance to composters who were interested in accepting food waste. The association included sessions introducing anaerobic digestion, recognizing the emerging industry’s future role in recovering organics.
The Ohio Grocers Foundation continues to reinforce opportunities for organics recovery by supermarkets. The agendas for the organization’s quarterly Environmental Task Force meetings focus heavily on food scraps diversion identifying current and future solutions for its members. In addition to commercial composting facilities, OGF is interested in anaerobic digestion facilities and on-site solutions that may offer renewable energy to offset store operational costs. Regardless of the management option, OGF’s Composting and Diversion Guide has been widely distributed to assist grocers (and other sectors) to develop programs, and is available at www.ohiogrocersfoundation.org.
The state plans to showcase the successes of Kroger to communities throughout Ohio to develop food scrap diversion programs. “Kroger should be commended for taking the initiative and boldly embracing a food scrap composting programs,” said Ohio EPA Director Chris Korleski. “The results of this project are beneficial to Kroger and our environment. I encourage other grocers and industries to implement their own program all across Ohio.” Solid waste management districts in Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Akron hosted local stakeholder meetings this past spring to facilitate the partnerships needed to sustain diversion programs. The state plans to work with local governments to identify the most effective way to market the program. Advertising campaigns may include community newsletters, council meetings and social networking web sites such as www.zerowasteneo.org.
The Kroger pilot project not only demonstrates the feasibility of a food waste diversion program but also the connection of environmental stewardship and community leadership. Central Ohio plans to transition existing and future food waste composting programs into sources of renewable energy with the construction of a community anaerobic digester scheduled to open this winter. Businesses and communities can be a part of conserving landfill space, reducing landfill emissions and producing renewable energy by simply diverting food waste to composting and anaerobic digestion facilities. While we may think everyone is aware of the relationship between organics, composting and renewable energy, many of these concepts are new to businesses and communities. Kroger’s commitment in Ohio and other states across the country have begun to make the connection more visible and have sparked renewed interest in organics management.
Joe Goicochea of the Ohio EPA, Environmental Supervisor of the Compliance Assistance & Inspection Support Unit, has been active in promoting food scraps recovery in the state and working with other regions.