Sustainable America Blog

The Future Looks Bright for Compost Pioneers

We recently profiled some of the enterprising entrepreneurs who are building incredible businesses based on reducing food waste. But on an even larger scale, commercial waste facilities have begun capitalizing on the potential of composting.

In 2009, The Peninsula Compost Group opened the Wilmington Organic Recycling Center. Situated on 27 acres of a former brownfield site in Wilmington, Delaware, the facility cost approximately $20 million and took three years to build. The facility now takes in and composts about 400 tons of food waste a day from restaurants, schools, and other sources, making it the largest commercial composting facility on the East Coast.

The cost for a business to dispose of its waste at the Wilmington facility is $45 a ton versus $120 a ton at a local landfill, making the business model a win for everyone involved: Waste is kept out of landfills, greenhouse gases are reduced, suppliers of the waste are saving money, and the recycling center is officially turning an operating profit. The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia even dumps its shredded bank notes there.

It takes about eight weeks for the scraps to turn into a rich, dark compost that is purchased for $20 a ton by landscapers, farmers, and private gardeners. The Wilminton Center churns out some 75,000 tons of compost a year, and the Peninsula Group is hoping to expand into other nearby cities in New Jersey and New York.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that some 33 million tons of food waste either end up in landfills or are burned each year in America. That amounts to about 40% of all food produced and makes food the largest category of waste going to landfills and incinerators.

In Monterrey, California, the Monterrey Regional Waste Management District has just opened a state-of-the-art composting and bio-gas facility. The plant can handle about 5,000 tons of waste a year and should be able to produce enough power to sell 100 kilowatts of electricity daily to the nearby wastewater treatment plant. The Monterrey model uses a special dry anaerobic digestion process that takes only about three weeks to complete. There are now plans in the works for some 30 more similar plants to be built in California.

The current wave of compost pioneers understand that waste is actually a viable and profitable resource. With millions of tons of food being wasted, we need to find multiple ways to reduce food waste across our food systems. Diverting food from landfill and using it to create compost is one way to tackle the food waste issue head on. Sustainable America has a goal to significantly reduce food waste in America by 2035.

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.

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