Restaurant composting pilot program diverts 3 tons of food waste so far

The Drunken Onion owner Ben Stroock dumps a bucket of food waste into the restaurant’s compost bin this week.
The Drunken Onion/Courtesy photo

In the restaurant industry, food waste correlates to significant waste of business funds.

Local restaurant owners say they do as much as possible to reduce food waste, and disposing of unavoidable food waste is part of that overall picture, including the option of commercial composting.

“All of our waste is pretty tight. We try to minimize our waste on every level,” said Chris Shea, owner of Cruisers Sub Shop in Wildhorse Market Place. “From our business model perspective, composting is just a no-brainer, and it’s now viable.”

Cruisers is one of three local restaurants that are taking part in a restaurant composting pilot program that is funded through a Sierra Club grant and managed as a learning project for a student intern at the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council. Participating restaurants receive up to six months of free commercial composting collection service, as well as technical assistance and training to help staff establish habits for composting.

YVSC Waste Diversion Director Winn Cowman said funding is still available for two more restaurants to participate in the pilot project this year in addition to Cruisers, The Drunken Onion and Salt & Lime. To date, almost three tons, or 1,308 gallons, of food waste have been collected from the three restaurants for composting.

Cowman said restaurant composting programs have been established in other Colorado mountain communities such as in Salida, Durango and Summit and Pitkin counties. In Routt County restaurants, it is more common that kitchens may keep a food collection bucket to feed local chickens or pigs, which is another positive diversion method, Cowman said.

The director noted the Routt County Climate Action Plan set an ambitious goal of achieving 46% waste diverted from landfills by 2030. Strategies such as reusing, recycling and composting keep materials from being landfilled where organic materials generate methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas.

According to the recent Steamboat Springs Recycling Study, the city’s current waste diversion rate is 9%, which places Steamboat among the lowest in Colorado, Cowman said. Organic waste, including food waste, is the largest material by weight in the waste system and represents almost 30% of the waste sent to landfills.

Ben Stroock, owner of The Drunken Onion, said he has utilized composting in the past and is happy with how easy Steamboat-based Cowgirl Compost has made composting for his restaurant staff. The compost material is stored in a bear-resistant bin and is placed outside for pick up in the same way as trash, Stroock said.

“I feel the composting of organic matter makes perfect sense on all levels,” Stroock said. “From my business, even though we are very judicial about waste, we still produce five to 10 gallons of organic matter per day.”

Stroock said composting is diverting up to 30% of his business’ trash. At Cruisers, Shea estimates they have diverted 20% to 30% of their trash to composting since joining the pilot.

“We’ve always wanted to compost since the beginning. The practicality is usually the biggest hurdle,” Shea said. “It’s not that complicated for our business; it’s just one extra step. I think what it offsets in the long term is definitely worth it.”

Both restaurant owners hope to continue composting after the pilot program. Stroock said he hopes more restaurant owners will sign up for composting in hopes that larger volume sales will decrease costs to restaurant owners.

Cowman said Salt & Lime, which signed on to the project in May, also is working to compost post-consumer food waste, which adds challenges such as keeping plastic straws and lids out of the compost bin.

To learn more, restaurant owners can contact

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