Trimming costs with Composting

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

Weis Markets, Inc. has an interest in diverting organics from its grocery stores as part of its overall sustainability goals, but to bring an individual store onto the program is always decided by the economics. “It has to balance out,” says Ginny Frederick, Facilities Manager for Weis Markets. “If it costs too much at a particular location, or the store doesn’t generate enough organic waste, it won’t go on the program.”

The company, which is publicly traded, has 163 stores in five states (Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, West Virginia and New York). In late 2009, Weis initiated a composting pilot using 65-gallon wheeled carts in nine of its stores. “The pilot ran from December 2009 through February 2010,” says Patti Olenick, Weis Market’s Sustainability Manager. “Only produce was being source separated, with the material composted at an on-farm facility. The composting site did not charge a tipping fee for the first 60 days of the pilot. Once the tipping fee was factored into the program costs, the economics were not going to work out. For the stores using dumpsters, it cost more for total trash disposal. For compactor stores, it was less. However there was no reduction in trash collection frequency or the size of the waste containers.” About a half-ton per week per store was being captured for composting.

At the time, Olenick was the organics recycling coordinator for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, providing technical assistance to the pilot program. She joined Weis Markets several months after the pilot was concluded. “When I came on board as sustainability manager, one of the projects that Weis wanted to reevaluate was composting,” Olenick recalls. “They wanted me to analyze the data to determine how to make the program work.”

During the pilot, totes filled with produce scraps were stored in coolers until the day of collection. “One of our main interests when we started the pilot was to eliminate some odors from the compactors and outdoor trash receptacles,” recalls Charles Dinsmore, Director of Engineering & Store Service at Weis Markets, who oversaw the pilot. “Storing the totes in the coolers was beneficial for both odor reduction and keeping food waste from freezing in the totes between collections.” For the pilot, only stores with extra cooler space were selected.

Looking back at the experience, Dinsmore adds that the most challenging element he anticipated going into it was proposing a change in accepted operations. “Our fears were quickly dispelled,” he says. “We found that store operations staff were very interested in reducing waste and were happy to see this initiative in the workplace. Associates were commended about how well they separated packaging and other contaminants from the produce. When we started the pilot, we took all the managers from the stores on the program to the composting facility, so they could observe the process. They could see that anything not compostable jumped right out.”

Confidence that store managers and staff were accepting of the change in trash handling was very encouraging. It also was determined that access to cooler storage space was not an issue. “Back room space is precious in stores, but there seemed to be adequate room in the coolers to accommodate the filled totes,” says Dinsmore.

Second Round
Ultimately, Weis Markets decided to test organics separation and collection again. A store audit conducted with the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center after the initial pilot found that 50 to 70 percent of its waste stream was packaged and unpackaged food waste. “That was an eye opener for people in the operations department because it was actual Weis waste and data, not an industry-wide metric,” says Olenick. “We gained a lot of valuable data from that waste audit, and plan to do 12 more in 2013.” She adds that recyclables comprise 25 to 40 percent of a Weis store’s waste stream.

For the next composting pilot, Olenick approached Two Particular Acres (TPA) in Royersford, Pennsylvania, which has an on-farm composting permit and collects and processes commercial organics. Working with Ned Foley, owner of TPA, it was decided to bring four Weis Markets on to an organics collection program to reassess the economics. “All four stores were close to Ned’s facility,” says Olenick. “We began in September 2010. We were able to use the 65-gallon totes that had been part of the original pilot.”

Foley collects organics utilizing a recycling truck with a 26,000 pound gross vehicle weight (GVW). Any commercial vehicle with a GVW of 26,000 lbs or less does not require a commercial drivers license (CDL). “Unloaded, the vehicle weighs about 13,000 lbs, and its payload is approximately 12,000 lbs or six tons, for a total GVW of 26,000 lbs,” explains Foley. “Each filled tote averages about 200 lbs, although when meat is in the mix, it can be closer to 600 lbs/tote. There is a lifter on the truck that can handle the weight. We can service about 60 to 65 totes, before we need to go back to Two Particular Acres to unload.”

All food waste must be depackaged. Acceptable items include all produce, bakery waste, deli meats and salads, all floral plants, cut flowers and soil, and coffee grounds and filters. Each department within the stores has its own collection containers that can be stored in a cooler. Each store was given 15 totes. Collection is provided weekly. On average, stores are diverting 1.5 tons/week of food waste. (This quantity is post food donation.)

Initially, meat and seafood were included with the other compostables, but last fall, Weis Markets negotiated a new contract with a rendering company that is taking the meat at no cost. (Deli meat still goes to composting, but meat department products are rendered.) “Rendering has always had its own line in a store’s budget because for a long time, it was a revenue generator, not a cost,” explains Olenick. “Then, after the scare with Mad Cow disease, rendering service was less available, and over time, it became a cost to the stores. When the second pilot started, TPA collected the meat, but it continued to show up as its own separate expense. Now, there is no cost, which has helped make the overall economics work.”

Concurrent with the 4-store pilot, Weis was evaluating options and models for expanding the program to additional stores. It considered a reverse logistics model to backhaul food waste from the stores to a distribution center, or placing 4-cubic yard (cy) dedicated organics dumpsters at each store where organics from each department would be consolidated. “We rejected the reverse logistics model because we didn’t like the idea of having large amounts of food waste at the distribution center,” notes Olenick, “and we rejected the 4-cy dumpster option because of potential for vectors and odors, as well as the challenges when food waste is exposed to the elements, such as freezing temperatures.”

Ultimately, it was determined that totes stored in coolers between collections, and then staged outside on the scheduled pickup day, was still the best arrangement. “Stores have a regular pick up day once a week, and associates take the carts outside on that day and set them out so they can be serviced quickly,” she adds, noting that a new security system installed at the stores would have made it difficult for associates to be going in and out to unload the totes into dumpsters anyway. Foley says that initially, he or another driver would go into the stores and pull the carts from the various coolers (or one central cooler), however that was adding too much time per stop.

Totes are lined with clear plastic bags, and secured on the lip of the cart with a heavy-duty rubber band. The cart lifter goes up about 4-feet and then tips into the bed of the truck. Associates remove the soiled plastic bag and reline the cart, securing the bag. Carts are cleaned at the stores as necessary. “Because the food waste is stored in the coolers, we aren’t getting a lot of liquid in the totes,” says Foley. “And storing the carts indoors extends their shelf life.”

Over the course of 2011 and 2012, Weis brought several more stores in TPA’s service area onto the program. As of December 2012, a total of eight stores were participating. In addition, the Weis Market in Carlisle, Pennsylvania is working with the student organic farm at Dickinson College to divert the food scraps. “Students at the organic farm come in a pickup truck to get the food waste,” explains Olenick. “We pay them a fee for the service. They needed more organic matter for their farm, so the program is working out very well.” In State College, Pennsylvania, the Weis Market located in the borough of State College is serviced by an organics collection program operated by the town and the Centre County Recycling and Refuse Authority.

Program Economics
A critical goal of the second pilot was to work out the economics of an organics diversion program — both for Weis and Two Particular Acres. “In the early stages of the pilot we charged a tonnage fee on the tipped material and a tonnage fee on the trucking,” recalls Foley. “This yielded a set tonnage fee in the aggregate for trucking and disposal on the total tons collected at the stop. If a store wasn’t fully participating (i.e., it only put out a can or two for a total of several hundred pounds), our costs would increase significantly. We worked with Weis and decided to modify the charge based on a set stop fee and an additional fee per ton for the material collected (a fixed charge and a variable charge).” This fee structure also incentivizes Weis to make sure all the organics in a store’s waste stream are being captured and set out for the weekly collection.

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