Turning food scraps into compost

Keith Losoya thinks a terrible thing to waste is waste itself.

Losoya is the founder and principal partner of Waste Neutral, a small Baltimore firm that helps businesses and institutions compost leftover food that would otherwise go in the trash. The company started consulting in 2008 and began hauling the next year.

Another business does the actual composting, but Waste Neutral gives its clients credits so they can get some of the compost back for use wherever they like — in gardens, at urban farms or on other property. Those clients range from the Johns Hopkins University to the Baltimore public school system, which this year began food recycling at 10 schools.

Losoya, a Baltimore resident, previously ran the Chesapeake Sustainable Business Alliance, a network of local companies and nonprofits. As he watched the green sector expand, he saw an opportunity to help businesses better manage their waste.

Losoya, 44, spoke with The Baltimore Sun recently about the composting industry's local processing problem, how he pitches composting to potential clients and where he sees the field going.

How does Waste Neutral's service work?

We go into commercial properties, institutions, small businesses and we take an overall survey or audit of their waste streams. We can determine how much of that waste stream can be recycled. And then we advise the clients on how they can divert as much of their waste as possible.

When it comes to collection of waste, the only thing we deal with is organics — food waste is primarily what we collect. If the client is a large food producer, then we let them know there's [a recycling] option … if they want to collect with us or through someone else.

Are there others doing this in the area?

It's still a very niche market in the solid waste industry … but now there's a lot more competitors getting into it as it's growing. Currently there's about four other haulers in the Baltimore-D.C. area that specifically [handle] organics.

What do you do with the food you collect?

We service accounts in the Baltimore metro area down to Annapolis. We currently take the food waste to a processing facility in Wilmington … called Peninsula Compost. And, unfortunately, it's the only processing facility that's able to accept large volumes of organic waste, food waste, in the region.

There was a composting facility in Carroll County that MDE [Maryland Department of the Environment] did not approve of. [The agency told the company in December to stop accepting food waste for composting.]

So the biggest issue facing this growing market is infrastructure.

What does it mean to haul to Delaware — what does it do to your costs?

We have to pay to dump it per ton, and those fees have doubled [compared to the cost of hauling to Carroll County] — more than doubled. A lot of it has to do with the transportation logistics to get it out there. Along with the distance, the price of fuel has obviously gone up dramatically.

What's your pitch to potential customers? How do the costs compare with simply throwing food waste away?

At some point, we would love to be able to compete with solid waste, but right now the cost for diverting and recycling your organic waste is a little bit higher. But what we encourage customers to do is look at their overall waste streams.

If they divert as much waste as possible … what they used to put in a large Dumpster or compactor is now very minimal. And the recycling rates are significantly cheaper than solid waste. If they manage their waste streams properly, and they're a high-volume producer, they can see an overall reduction in their costs.

How has the pilot program with the city schools gone so far?

Some schools are doing a very good job. Other schools are finding it more challenging.

When the students walk into the cafeteria, they see something new. Rather than just one bin to throw everything in, they have a waste-separation station. So there's three bins, one for [nonrecyclable] solid waste, one for single-stream recycling and then one for food waste. We've actually been very impressed with the short amount of time that this type of separation becomes muscle memory for the children.

For the schools finding it more challenging, is everything going in one bin?

What we're finding is, yeah, what we call a lot of contamination, where there will be materials that could end up in single-stream recycling that are ending up in our bins, or the food waste is not being used and is just being put in solid waste.

In most of the schools where the students have taken leadership of the program, it's working out well. in schools where students aren't the leaders of this program, it's having some challenges.

Is Waste Neutral profitable? Those early years of a company tend to be tough.

The waste business is a high-volume, low-margin business, so our profit margins are very slim.

We're basically a little over break-even, but we hope that what's called the "density" improves as more people decide to recycle their food waste. The whole hauling business is based on density, meaning point A, point B, point C being very close together. And right now, just because of our market demand, it's very spread out and small.

So we hope the density improves to make it more profitable, like the rest of the waste sector. If you think of recycling, it used to be very spread out. Now it's dense; many people do it. But it used to be unprofitable for a long time.

If the school pilot works out, we would like to see the schools operate as nodes, so to speak, so that residents that live around the schools can take their organic waste to the containers at the school and have it recycled.

What's your sense of the future of waste?

In this sector of organics, it's growing. But it's growing voluntarily. Very few municipalities have made it systematic.

We hope that, as a population, we recognize that this is a recyclable resource. It's the oldest recyclable resource there is. Composting has happened since the beginning of time, but as a country we've moved toward centralization and landfills.



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