FOOD FOR THOUGHT, NOT WASTE: NHC’s HazWagon now accepts food waste for composting program

According to the USDA, the average American wastes about a pound of food per day. Research shows fruit and veggies are most likely to get tossed, followed by dairy, then meat. All of it adds up to 150,000 tons of food trashed daily in U.S. households. Such stats don’t include the vast waste found in restaurants.

COMPOST IN NHC: Airlie Gardens (above) is one locale benefiting from NHC’s new composting program. Photo courtesy of New Hanover County.
COMPOST IN NHC: Airlie Gardens (above) is one locale benefiting from NHC’s new composting program. Photo courtesy of New Hanover County.

“We are producing approximately 300 pounds [of food waste] per week,” Sarah Rushing says of Castle Street’s Rx Restaurant and Bar. “While we do scrape the plates of customers who are unable to finish their meals into our compost, the majority of our weekly food waste is comprised of kitchen scraps. Food waste doesn’t necessarily mean ‘wasted food,’ as like I said, much of what we compost is inedible (coffee grounds, egg shells, animal carcasses, stock scraps, stems, peels, etc).”

While restauarants like Rx actively combat the problem at hand, there’s an obscene amount of food wasted across the nation—which is tragic on numerous levels: for hunger ( estimates 41 million Americans are affected) and our environment. Millions of acres of land, millions of pounds of pesticides and trillions of gallons of irrigated water are dedicated annually just to clog landfills with food, of which then releases methane gas—a contributor to climate change.

“We are very attuned to [the amount of food wasted worldwide],” Rushing continues, “which is why Rx practices whole animal butchery, allowing us to utilize nose-to-tail practices (i.e. utilizing as much of the animal as possible). Animal bones—after being used in broths—comprise a good bit of the weight of our 300 pounds of food waste, as well as many of the organs. . . . Additionally, whenever possible, the farmers we buy from are certified organic or use organic practices—meaning no pesticides—and with the exception of items we cannot find here (citrus, etc.) we buy locally, which cuts down on transportation (i.e. carbon emissions).”
The latter is one reason why Rushing and company were so excited by New Hanover County’s composting facility acceptance of meat scraps. While individuals and restaurants like Rx practice composting to cut down on food waste, last week New Hanover County announced its latest efforts to tackle the issue. Starting on August 6, NHC’s HazWagon mobile collection service began accepting food waste for composting.

“I would like to see at least 400 tons of food waste be diverted [from landfills] in our first full year of operation,” Environmental Management Director Joe Suleyman says.

While Rx uses Riley Alber’s Wilmington Compost Company, a service which comes to them and offers home pickup for $25 a month, Rushing commends New Hanover County and HazWagon for a move in the right direction. “I’m so excited there are some sustainable options available now and hope people will utilize them.”

HazWagon is a free service and has three drop-off locations: Ogden Park on Mondays, Wrightsville Beach’s municipal complex on Wednesdays, and Mike Chappell Park in Carolina Beach on Fridays. All operate from 10 a.m. –  2 p.m. and people can bring household hazardous waste, electronics, batteries and so on. Last year NHC processed over a million pounds of household hazardous waste (everything from fluorescent light bulbs to cooking oil) from July 1, 2017 through June 30, 2018.

Now residents and businesses are encouraged to bring food waste, biodegradable cutlery and plates, and even dog food. An entire list of what can and can’t be accepted at HazWagon is located at encore asked Suleyman to break down details of HazWagon’s latest service and NHC’s composting program.

encore (e): Tell us about the demand for this service, which led to HazWagon accepting food waste.

Joe Suleyman (JS): We were consistently hearing from residents the composting program was amazing, but there was very little movement around the collection side. We leveraged the success and convenience of HazWagon to bring a form of food waste collection closer to residents.

e: What did it take to get to the point where HazWagon would/could do this?

JS: It all happened very quickly. A few minutes after the idea hit my mind, I met with the supervisor of the HazWagon and pitched the idea. Ten minutes later we had worked through logistics and started moving to get the word out. It just made sense.

e: On average, what types of and how much waste does HazWagon manage?

JS: The program is in its first week, so we can only make an educated guess on long-term volumes. In the first two collections, we accepted food waste from over 20 residents, totaling about 40 pounds. We’re seeing everything from corn husks and cobs, spoiled fruits and veggies, to plate scrapings.

e: Why is it an important service for the community and why should folks take advantage of it?

JS: The program is intended to serve several different functions. First, I hope it will start some serious conversations around food waste in general. We collectively throw out 40 percent of food grown in this country. How can we feed hungry people with that instead? Or use it for animal feed?

Second, we had to prove the food waste can be composted efficiently, and return that organic matter back to our soils to start the cycle all over again.

Lastly, I want this program to inspire others to take a hard look at waste in general, and perhaps make a few changes in their lives that collectively will have a big impact.

e: While the compost is currently used at Airlie and the Arboretum, and not available for purchase, could that change in the future?

JS: We’ve delivered seven loads—that’s 140 cubic yards—of finished compost to Airlie and the Arboretum, as well as Hugh MacRae Park, Ogden Park and Veteran’s Park. The facilities are used every day by thousands of New Hanover County residents, so the benefits are reaching a wide portion of the local population. We also don’t want to compete with the private sector in compost sales. That stance may change in the future, but it would be a policy decision by the NHC Board of Commissioners.

e: Can folks bring their food waste all in one bin?

JS: We recommend bringing in the food waste in reusable containers. That way we’re not creating more waste in using single-use bags or containers. The reusable containers can be rinsed out and used again and again.

e: How do you plan to encourage more people, households and businesses to take advantage of the service?

JS: The program helped drive the creation of a local compost collection business, like the Wilmington Compost Company. It will fill a need without involving county resources. We stay actively involved in the Coastal Composting Council, the NC Composting Council, and offer regular tours of the facility to help get the word out. Rolling out the collection side with the HazWagon will drive participation. We’ll also periodically introduce related initiatives to further increase awareness and encourage more people to get involved.

e: Is there anything else you’d like to add about HazWagon or composting services?

JS: Last fiscal year, the HazWagon diverted nearly 1.1 million pounds of the most toxic, corrosive, reactive, and combustible material away from landfill disposal. While food waste doesn’t fit into any of those categories, it certainly doesn’t belong in a landfill. This program is a great way for everyone to do their bit to creating a more sustainable future for us all.

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