In the past 15 years, food-waste handling technology has advanced, allowing operators to reduce waste volume and the amount of resources required to handle that waste. But, once the waste is collected and compacted, it’s still disposed of the same way it has been for decades. “The industry standard in North America is still to bag all the waste and take it to a landfill,” says Michael Pavlovic, senior systems planner at Meiko, USA. For small operators, composting continues to be an effective means of repurposing food waste, but for large operators who produce hundreds or thousands of pounds of food waste daily, composting is no longer a viable solution — North American demand for compost simply cannot match the volume of waste produced. In 2014, Value Chain Management International estimated that more than six billion tonnes of food waste worth $31 billion is dumped in landfills every year in Canada, an increase from $27 billion in 2010.
In contrast, parts of Europe use the organic matter in food waste, called biomass, to create bioenergy — a renewable source of energy often used to generate electricity. Today, there is an infrastructure in place for foodservice operators to sell their waste to biomass facilities, which turn it into energy. “All of that food waste is collected and agitated over time to break it down into a reasonably homogenous slurry and, once a week, that waste is transported to a biomass energy production facility,” Pavlovic adds. “So now, you’re actually reclaiming the energy in the food waste.” The system sustains itself by providing both the operator and the food-waste collector with a profit.
“The problem in North America is that we don’t have the infrastructure yet to support this system,” says Pavlovic. We are, however, at a technological crossroads where foodservice operators, especially large ones, have several options for significantly reducing the waste that they create on a daily basis.
For example, Meiko offers a waste-pulping system that uses a recirculating water trunk to transport waste, which is then macerated and run through a de-watering press, thereby compacting the waste volume by up to two thirds. For large-scale operators, such as army-base and corporate-campus kitchens, the volume of food waste is such that it takes more water per hour to transport the waste than is used in ware-washing, alone. So the WasteStar system uses a vacuum instead. “The operator scraps food waste directly into a bin and periodically a valve opens at the bottom of the bin that’s connected to a vacuum piping system, which yanks all that food waste to a macerator and a collection station.” It’s also much easier to clean and maintain a vacuum system than a water-transport system. “If you have a leak, the system just goes down because it’s just a ruptured vacuum pipe,” Pavlovic explains. “You fix the pipe and you’re back in service. So, you don’t have to clean up hundreds of gallons of water off your floor.”
In Ontario, CFB (Canadian Forces Base) Borden — Canada’s largest army training base — uses the WasteStar system in its new kitchen, which opened in 2016. It is the largest institutional kitchen in the country, according to Gary Lummis, president of Lummis & Co. foodservice consultancy, who was commissioned to design the kitchen. “We have five stations throughout the facility,” Lummis explains, “where food waste is scraped into a big box and the vacuums work, one after another, sucking the waste to a central location where a truck comes, once a week, to pick up the slurry.”
For small-scale operators such as Big Wheel Burger, food-waste management becomes a more creative pursuit. The B.C.-based burger-and-shake restaurant was designed to be as sustainable as possible. “To become sustainable, you must be creative and use your investigative skills in finding suppliers that can provide the right materials,” says Big Wheel Burger owner, Calen McNeil. The QSR produces minimal emissions and offsets it through composting to attain carbon neutrality. “The actual cost of being a sustainable business is only marginally higher than a non-sustainable one,” says McNeil. “And even now, we’ve got it down because we actually save a lot of money on garbage disposal.
Everything that comes into our building gets diverted, so we produce almost no trash.” Most of that diversion is accomplished through composting, which is becoming a more attractive option for small operators as associated costs decrease over time, thanks to wider adoption.
A great example of getting creative with food-waste reduction is Big Wheel Burger’s approach to eliminating disposable food packaging and wares. “Our idea was that everything in our customer area was going to be compostable,” says McNeil. “We don’t supply any of our products in disposable packaging. We don’t sell bottled water, for example. It took us a long time to find a compostable straw but we eventually found one.”
Larger QSRs are reducing waste by taking a step back to washable wares in place of disposable. “Food courts typically use disposable wares that get dumped at the end of the day,” says Gary Lee, Meiko’s director of Sales. “We’ve installed a couple of our ware-washing systems in Toronto at Yorkdale Shopping Centre and Scarborough Town Centre, where they’ve moved to using recyclable wares in their food courts. They now have trays, plates, bowls, cups and utensils that are washed and cleaned in a backroom and then brought back out to be reused at all the different vendors in the food court.”
While food-waste pulping and composting are like the hybrid car, says Pavlovic — a viable solution for the present while the groundwork for the final solution takes place — North America has work to do to catch up with Europe on developing a biomass system. “We’re at the point where there are alternatives but we’re waiting for the technology to catch up. So, you’ve got things today in the foodservice sector equal to the hybrid car, because you can’t tell a customer who wants a great solution, ‘Call me back in 20 years.’”
Volume 50, Number 7
Written by Eric Alister