eliza berkon is a journalist and musician based in washington d.c. 

What Happens To All Those Compostable Fast-Casual Bowls, Anyway?

What Happens To All Those Compostable Fast-Casual Bowls, Anyway?

DCist is providing special coverage to climate issues this week as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of 250 news outlets designed to strengthen coverage of the climate story. Many of these stories originated as questions from our readers

A few miles down the road from the center of Clifton—a small Virginia town whose main street sports an ice cream “depot,” an old Texaco sign, and a general store beside a set of railroad tracks—Fritz Gottschalk is bearing the searing midday heat at a bucolic farm.

“A lot of our customers, they’ll pick up food on the way home in that type of container,” he says, referencing packaging from Sweetgreen and Whole Foods. “This is where [it all] comes.”

Just yards away sit several conical piles of dark brown mulch-like material, the kind of thing that might get bagged up and shipped off to Home Depot for home gardening projects or office-park landscaping. Except these aren’t commercially prepared bark nuggets—they’re the leftovers from thousands of D.C.-area meals.

With the proliferation of fast-casual D.C. restaurants in recent years, there are plenty of disposable bowls, cups and utensils now in circulation—not to mention countless quantities of rejected kale, overlooked cacao nibs and clumps of basmati rice. Some area eateries are sparing this from landfills by offering compost bins and compostable serviceware in their shops. And here’s where much of it goes: a 205-acre Virginia farm with cows and chickens milling about, another private farm in Aberdeen, Maryland, and a state-operated facility in Prince George’s County.

“This is nature’s fertilizer,” Gottschalk says, as he walks me through the process of how avocado skins and biodegradable takeout boxes are transformed into the heaps standing before us. He manages operations at the Clifton facility of Veteran Compost, whose motto is “from combat to compost,” among at least three hauling services in the region making residential and commercial food-scraps runs to D.C.

In a country that wastes some 150,000 tons of food daily, composting can be a critical way to reduce the environmental hazards of sending waste to landfills. For one thing, the aerobic nature of composting cuts down on or even eliminates the production of methane, a greenhouse gas. Composting also reduces the need for fertilizers and pesticides, which also contribute to climate change.

The entire process at this Clifton farm goes something like this:

First, food scraps and compostable foodwares from area restaurants, corporate cafeterias, and homes are mixed each day and topped with a layer of carbon in a holding area where they reside for about a week. Then they’re moved to a windrow (a row of compost materials that’s allowed to aerate) for roughly a month, with an air blower operating intermittently to send oxygen to the many microbes at work. From there, they go to a raw compost pile for another few weeks before they’re screened, moved to yet another windrow, and left for three to six months until microbial activity has died down and the compost has cooled to a usable temperature. Nearly all of the finished compost then goes back into the farm, where it is used to grow produce.

Among the clients of Veteran Compost—which also runs the Aberdeen facility and employs mostly veterans—are Google D.C., Northrop Grumman, George Mason University, and veggie-centric fast-casual D.C. restaurant Beefsteak.

“I get excited about how you can add value to farm byproducts, and composting is a great example,” Bennett Haynes, chief of produce at Beefsteak operator ThinkFoodGroup, tells DCist via email.

The eatery—which has two D.C. locations and is one of several brands operated by chef Jose Andres’ restaurant group—provides compostable to-go bowls and straws, and also offers in-store bowls that are made of sustainable bamboo. Beefsteak has what’s known as a closed loop in its supply chain, Haynes notes: The company partners with D.C.’s Little Wild Things Farm, which uses a soil mix made from the compost to grow pea shoots incorporated into the Beefsteak menu.

On a recent visit to fellow composter and veggie taco outlet Chaia, I took a peek at the trash area. Where Beefsteak offers separate bins for recycling and compost, they’ve got just one container.

“We compost everything we give the customer,” says Chaia lead supervisor Eleanor Parry.

“That includes bowls, utensils, cups, side containers, lids, even our straws and all of the food.”

Each morning, the restaurant’s compost is picked up by another compost hauler, Maryland-based Compost Crew. The 8-year-old company serves several D.C. restaurants, including some Sweetgreen and Starbucks locations, as well as residences, some Smithsonian museums, and a Senate office building. But rather than process the compost materials themselves, the Compost Crew drops them off at the Prince George’s County Organics Composting Facility.

Gottschalk suggests compost pickups like these are generally more costly than regular trash pickups, which may propose a particular challenge to the food industry.

“Fast-casual restaurants, it’s tough for that industry because their profit margin is so low,” he says. “It comes down to what they want to pay for and what they’re able to pay for.”

While Compost Crew CEO Ben Parry (no relation to Eleanor) wouldn’t share what his company charges for its services and how it might compare to standard trash pickup, he says they aim to be “as cost-neutral” as possible, and claims that composting can give a company’s image—and therefore, its revenue—a boost.

With “the impact to revenue and the bottom line from the public-relations benefits—because now more and more customers are demanding this type of service—it can be at least cost-neutral, if not better,” he says.

Yet the cost of compost pickup is just one consideration among many for D.C. fast-casual restaurants. Bandoola Bowl, a new spot in Georgetown offering Southeast Asian salads, carries some compostable serviceware, but because the business doesn’t actually compost, most of it goes in the trash or recycling bins, says owner Aung Myint. He is interested in learning more about composting food leftovers as well, but expresses a few reservations.

“What I’m concerned [about] is, when you’re composting, you start throwing away skins of onions, everything, food that is discarded,” which may emit an odor and ultimately attract rats, he says.

Concerns about rodents and smell are “a big mental block” for many considering composting, Ben Parry says.

“Actually, what we do reduces the amount of odor and [rodents], like rats,” Parry says, noting that the bins his company provides come with lids. “If you think about it, if you’re not food-scrap recycling right now, where is it going? It’s going in the dumpster, which is typically open-air.”

Another potential concern is with contamination, especially in those public compost bins. What happens when restaurant patrons toss non-compostable items in compostable-only bins?

“It is a problem that we have,” says Eleanor Parry of Chaia, who adds that the company can be fined by the hauler for an excessive amount of non-compostable items. “We have clearly marked signs at all of our composts to tell the customers to make sure that outside trash can’t go in there unless it’s also compostable. But we can’t go through every single trash can.”

Another restaurant making its own efforts with composting is Sweetgreen. The D.C.-born salad chain, which did not provide comment about their composting program, switched to a larger, hexagonal serving bowl last summer, reportedly because employees could assemble salads in it, rather than mixing them in metal bowls that required gallons of water to clean.

For now, D.C. restaurants are not required to participate in composting, an official from the D.C. Department of Public Works confirms, but their food serviceware must comply with guidelines rolled out in the past few years, which include bans on styrofoam and those much-maligned plastic straws. And a 2014 D.C. law established an Office of Waste Diversion to develop a “zero-waste” plan, with the goal of diverting 80 percent of solid waste from landfills and incineration.

The city offers drop-off sites for residential food scraps at local farmers markets and is considering a curbside compost program. It also incentivizes home composting, offering a rebate of up to $75 for materials.

“Many local governments are very, very interested in expanding their food-scrap recycling services because they want to hit their diversion objectives, and in order to do that—especially with the recycling crisis—food-scrap recycling and composting is the next frontier,” Ben Parry says.

As the sun beats down above us, Gottschalk invites me to reach into a pile of raw compost that’s roughly my height. It’s surprisingly warm, simmering with activity as it slips through my fingers.

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