ITHACA, N.Y. — A recycling plan devised by Cornell University students, with assistance from community members and waste-management experts, would save restaurant scraps from the garbage can and send them to the compost pile.
The resulting compost could boost community greenhouse-gardens.
"Our survey found many restaurant operators willing to separate food scraps for composting if the collection process is convenient and cost-effective," says Heather Clark, president of Cornell Students for Composting. "We have the technology to heat greenhouses with energy from the composting reaction, and the composted food waste will provide enriched soil for community garden plots in the greenhouses. We know this will work in Ithaca, and it should help any community with commercial food wastes and vacant lots."
Starting last fall, the 15-member student group conducted a mail survey of 120 Ithaca-area restaurants then followed up with telephone calls trying to gauge the businesses’ interest in composting food scraps.
"Some said ‘absolutely not’ and some said ‘maybe,’" Clark reports. "But we found seven restaurants willing to try composting, and that’s enough for a pilot study."
For the 20-year-old College of Agriculture and Life Sciences junior from Canton, N.Y., who is studying ecology, environmental science and community design, the campaign to save Ithaca’s food scraps began last summer. "I was eating in a downtown restaurant," she recalls, "and I saw food scraps going into a special bin, so I asked: ‘Are you composting?’ and they said, ‘No, but we’d like to.’"
Reputedly one of the "greenest" small cities in America, Ithaca is filled with backyard composters, and food scraps from dining halls at Ithaca College and Cornell are composted, as are many leaves, grass clippings and other yard waste. But Ithaca has no comprehensive plan for composting restaurant or grocery store wastes.
Neither do other cities in the state, according to Ellen Z. Harrision, director of the Waste Management Institute at Cornell. "New York state prisons do a great job of composting food
scraps," Harrision said, "but most restaurant, institutional and grocery store waste really is
wasted, in landfills and incinerators. We are talking about hundreds of tons of usable, organic material each year."
That’s all Clark needed to hear. She put up posters urging concerned citizens to come to a "town meeting" about food waste. One result was formation of the Ithaca Compost Committee, an informal group of about 15 college professors and students, business people, community activists and other residents who agree that there’s a better place for food scraps than landfills.
Construction of new, technologically advanced compost-to-greenhouse facilities will come later — along with funding support for the ambitious program, the students hope. At first, the restaurant food wastes will be hauled to an existing compost facility, such as the one at Ithaca’s Cayuga Nature Center, where food wastes from one area supermarket are processed, or to Future Farms in Van Etten, N.Y., where the greenhouse-compost connection is being tested.
At Future Farms, a technology-assessment grant from New York state supports research in food-waste recycling, according to farm operator Earl Hicks, who blends horse manure with food from restaurants and grocery stores to create a rich compost. Heat from carefully managed compost piles, which can reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit, helps heat greenhouse spaces where salad greens grow year round and photovoltaic cells capture sunlight to produce electricity.
"Heather has put together a good consortium of people," Hicks says. "A pilot test will help identify the weak links in the operation before it’s scaled up to full production."
Clark already is planning to address one potential problem, with training assistance to restaurants whose employees must decide what can be composted and what cannot. Organisms in compost piles will process just about anything that people eat — and some things humans don’t, such as paper napkins and coffee grounds — but plastics and metals must be separated at the restaurants, she explains.
"There’s a good chance this will work," says Joe M. Regenstein, a Cornell professor of food science who studies composting technologies and is an adviser to the student group. "Technically, this kind of medium-scale composting from commercial sources is feasible. And composting in association with community greenhouse gardens should make these facilities more acceptable and provide additional benefits. All that’s been lacking is organization and enthusiasm."
Organization and enthusiasm are what the Ithaca composters have, not to mention experience. Clark, for example, tried to organize her high school into composting food scraps when she was in ninth grade.
For a variety of reasons, the high school in northern New York didn’t start to compost, but Ithaca’s restaurants will, she predicts, adding: "It’s such a thrill to see so many businesses interested in the environment."
Cornell University News Service. March 1993.