Below is a FAQ for restaurants that are seeking more information on starting a successful compost program.
As reference and inspiration, check out select Spotlights of restaurants that have integrated composting into their operations. They did it, and so can YOU!
This program is made possible through the generosity of the Searle Funds at the Chicago Community Trust.


Xpert Accordion

Why should we compost food scraps instead of sending them to the landfill?

There are so many wonderful reasons to take on composting. If you have not tried composting to date, here are some great reasons to start.

  1.  It’s good for the environment. Why send food scraps to the landfill when there are better uses for it? Composting means less waste goes to the landfill, which extends the life of the landfill too.  Plus, food takes a long time to decompose in the landfill. Why build a mountain of food waste when we can use compost to help grow food?

    Right now, our top soil is depleted. Compost puts much-needed nutrients back into the soil, so more great tasting produce can be grown. Plus, farmers get a better yield when they grow food in compost.
  2. It’s good for our bodies. Food grown in compost tastes better and is more nutritious than food grown with synthetic chemical fertilizers.
  3. It’s good for the air. When food is landfilled, it decomposes without air, creating methane, a greenhouse gas that is 20+ times more potent than carbon dioxide, which is detrimental to the ozone layer and contributes to climate change.
  4. It’s good for resource efficiency. The food production process utilizes many resources on its way to our tables. Seeds must be planted and watered, and then the food is harvested, processed, distributed, purchased, prepared and eaten. In the United States, about 40% of this food is wasted between the farm and the table. That’s a lot of resources that could have been saved.
  5. It’s good for water conservation. The amount of water able to be reduced from using compost is significant. Compost assists in drought resistance and erosion control as it is able to hold on to moisture and nutrients for plant use much longer than soil depleted of organic matter. The more water that is able to be contained in soils reduces the volumes of water in stormwater management systems that need to be treated by municipalities, resulting in increased efficiency and lower costs to communities.
  6. It’s good for our economy. Food scraps can be recycled into a higher and better use, rather than ending up in a landfill. Compost is highly regarded by farmers and gardeners to provide plants with nutrients. By diverting food scraps and producing a valuable product, the economy will reap rewards as well. 

How much will food scrap collection cost my business?

It depends on a number of factors -- size of your collection bin, purchase of indoor bins, frequency of pick up, how many other businesses in your area are composting, and your contract with the compost hauler.  
As an example, Jewel grocery stores have successfully implemented food scrap composting at 169 of their stores in Illinois. There are only six company stores in the state that do not have access to this service at a reasonable cost. The program has been cost-neutral overall. Due to infrastructure, there are some variances in price from store to store for the service. The company does find value in this program and significantly reduces their volume of waste sent to landfill. Initial training was done in-house by the Environmental Sustainability Manager and has since transitioned to the managers in each unit to continue ongoing training efforts. 
Depending on the makeup of your specific food service location, there may be opportunities to take advantage of current compost pickup routes or work with other businesses to share the cost of collection. This provides efficiency for haulers (referred to as “route density”) and cost savings for food scrap generators (such as restaurants). 

Do I need to change my purchasing habits to compost? Is there a considerable cost difference?

No, you do not need to change your purchasing habits. However, there are changes in purchasing that can increase compost and decrease landfill waste.
Depending on whether your compost facility accepts paper/compostable dishware, it is recommended to use BPI Certified compostable utensils, plates, and container liners in your operations to optimize your compost efforts. The cost of biodegradable items continues to decrease as market demand increases, and savings may also become apparent through diverting costs away from landfill waste.  The items that are accepted depends on the composting facility receiving the material. But below are some resources about compostable products. 
FTC Green Guides
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission provides a program to ensure compliance with the agency’s recently revised Green Guides. The Commission publishes the guides to help businesses market their products accurately, providing guidance as to what constitutes deceptive and non-deceptive environmental claims. View the report here.
ASTM D6400: Standard Specification for Labeling of Plastics Designed to be Aerobically Composted in Municipal or Industrial Facilities

What companies are currently hauling food scrap in northeast Illinois?

Advanced Disposal, Collective Resource, Organix Recycling, Lakeshore Recycling Services, Prairie Land Disposal, Republic Services, Resource Center, Roy Strom Company, Social Ecologists, Waste Management. See the Service Providers page for contact information. 

My hauler doesn’t offer food scrap composting, now what?

In many instances, businesses can opt to use a separate hauler for compost service.
Refer to your service contract for limitations regarding this approach. Also, your community or local government may be able to assist your restaurant/institution through their contract bidding process or through a commercial waste franchise, should one exist in your area.

Is my restaurant too small to do food scrap composting?

No restaurant is too small to have a successful food scrap composting program. Operations large and small can benefit from waste minimization efforts! 

What about bad smells and animal issues?

This is a common concern when initially setting up a food scrap program. There are simple solutions to this issue.
  1. Increase the frequency of compost pickup.
  2. Place collection containers in a fridge or freezer until pick up if space allows.
  3. Build a fence around compost, recycling, and trash containers to minimize smell and deter pests. 
  4. Use tightly sealed containers and lock them to keep pests away.
  5. Fill compost toters ¾ full and fill the remaining space with paper or cardboard to dampen smell and absorb liquid.

Does food scrap collection work in the winter?

Food scrap composting does work in the winter months, but some hauling companies ask for special considerations to be made in the winter to avoid food scraps from freezing inside the containers.
Some hauling companies prefer to use biodegradable liners, as food scraps typically stick to containers, making it difficult for the hauler to extract the material from the collection bin.
In addition, plastic containers are easier for the food waste to slide out in cold weather, but in most cases they cost more than steel containers. Paper waste also works as a bulking agent and absorbs water in food waste to assist in easier extraction during cold months as well.

Any tips to minimize smell in the summer?

Keep the compost toter in a refrigerated area until collection day or ask for more frequent pick ups. Also see answers to question regarding bad smells and animal issues.

Are there any assistance programs to reduce cost?

Yes, the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) offers incentive grants at the state level for capital improvements such as purchasing bins, tippers, etc. 
This program is designed to support projects that will divert food scraps from Illinois landfills for composting, increasing the quantity of materials composted in Illinois. The Department encourages the submission of joint projects or applications that address regional or multi-jurisdictional composting approaches from any combination of two or more governmental, for-profit, or not-for-profit organizations.

Our food prep area/waste collection space is very limited. How can we work around this?

Small food prep and waste collection areas are not roadblocks to composting and can be overcome by using tall bins with a small floor footprint, using bins on wheels, increasing the frequency of pickup, and other alternatives.
  1. Use small food collection containers at the food prep area that can be taken to a larger container for collection (half pans, quarter pans or bane maries take up a lot less surface area and have a decent capacity). This could also prevent injury to workers from managing heavy containers.
  2. Consider collection containers on wheels to create flexible working environments. This may also reduce the amount of stationary waste containers needed by adapting to the needs of the kitchen at any given moment. This could also prevent injury to workers from managing heavy containers.
  3. Use a contained lined with a biodegradable bag for food waste and then dump it into a larger container. This container would take up the same amount of floor space as the traditional garbage can. The only behavior change would be a smaller can for product wrappings and containers that cannot be composted.
  4. Revisit best practices such as cutting techniques and first in/first out.

Our waste collection area has a small footprint. How can I work around this?

Businesses have implemented the following solutions to deal with small waste areas:
  1. Increase frequency of pickup
  2. Place toters/compost bins into fridge, freezer or another holding area until pick up if space allows
  3. Change size of current landfill container to accommodate space for a food scrap container

How do I train my employees? Does a service exist to provide training assistance?

Employee education is the key to a successful food scrap program. Please refer to the EATS: How To Guide section of the Restaurant Food Scrap Composting Toolkit for training tips.

How do I know that my customers even recognize these efforts?

There are a variety of methods, but it comes down to you promoting your environmental efforts to your current and future customers.
In a recent study (link here), 72% of consumers said they value a company’s sustainable business practices! It is crucial and beneficial to publicize your composting initiative to current and future customers.
There are several programs that recognize sustainable restaurants, including We Compost, a window decal program that promotes composting restaurants. See other business recognition program in the EATS: How To Guide (Scroll down to Step 4).

Food scrap is heavy. How do I protect my employees from injury?

Yes, food scraps are heavy, a full 65-gallon toter can weigh as much as 500 pounds. However, there are easy, accessible ways to keep your employees safe.
The solutions that are used to deal with weight issues are very similar to those used to overcome a smaller prep area: 
  1. Use small food collection containers so the weight won't get too heavy for an employee to carry it out to the toter. 
  2. Collection containers on wheels not only create flexible working environments, but also limit the amount of heavy lifting that has to occur. With this solution,  it is still important to not let them get too heavy, so an employee can still lift them into the toter. 
  3. Dehydration technologies also exist to shred food waste by using heat to evaporate moisture. This pulpy mass of dried food waste can still be composted, while reducing weight, volume and issues related to odors or animals. If you are considering using a food dehydrator, you should check with your local (city or county) government to determine whether there are rules and regulations that must be considered.

How do we deal with contamination?

Contamination is at the heart of successful food scrap collection programs. Producing clean compost is CRUCIAL for composting facilities because it affects the quality and marketability of the compost product.

This issue can be addressed through strong staff training and having a committed group of leaders in the kitchen who are persistent in reminding staff of what goes where.


We have extra food. Is it best to compost it?

In starting a compost program, many restaurants realize that they must reassess their ordering in order to minimize this waste. However, it is understandable that you will still have some food that goes bad, and you definitely can compost that food, but there are other alternatives.
Source reduction and reuse are effective ways of managing waste. Measuring and tracking waste can allow you to create preparation systems to minimize waste from the start. Consider tracking what volumes of each item you need to create your dishes. Over time, you will be able to ascertain what amount of each product to order. This type of approach is especially useful for buffets, catering, etc.
While leftovers and scraps that are not fit for consumption and donation can be composted, much of this “waste” is not waste at all, but actually safe, wholesome food that could potentially feed millions of hungry Americans. Local food pantries or the national Feeding America program are options for surplus food.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has created the Food Recovery Hierarchy to illustrate best practices for food recovery efforts.
The Good Samaritan Act  was created to protect donors from liabilities associated with food donations. Ultimately source reduction and reuse are effective ways of managing waste, but that waste can either go into compost or be sent along to food pantries or other local service agencies in your area.
The Food Donation Connection provides useful information on food safety and they help companies put their surplus food to good use.