Composting for Institutions

Institutions (i.e. hospitals, museums, jails) with food service have several options for composting food scraps. Explore this section for best practices and resources to start composting at your institution.

How Illinois institutions compost food

Institutions play a key role in:

•  reducing food waste
•  recovering/donating food
•  recycling/composting food scraps
•  educating staff and customers/ visitors/patients/inmates about reducing food waste


Understand where food waste is occurring and what the disposal practices are for the institution.  Use this information to identify opportunities and challenges for an institutional-sized composting operation.

•  In how many locations is food service provided (# kitchens, # cafeterias, etc)?
•  Which food scraps will be composted?

   Back of house:  Pre-consumer kitchen food scraps from meal preparation
   Front of house:  Post-consumer food scraps from uneaten food (plate scrapings) 

Pre-consumer food scraps are more easily composted because it is fairly simple to train kitchen employees about proper separation techniques. Post-consumer food composting may require additional monitoring by trained staff to reduce the risk of contamination. Keeping things simple at first, such as beginning with pre-consumer composting, allows you to establish a successful collection system more easily.

•  Are food scraps currently thrown away with the garbage and going to a landfill? If so, how much trash is being generated and how often is it collected? There are industry estimates to help estimate how much of this is food scraps.  Another way to estimate the amount of food waste generated is to measure all of the scraps produced in each area during a typical operation week and project this amount over time.


Decide whether to collaborate with an off-site composting operation or to invest in an internal, on-site program. Two general options exist for composting food waste once it’s been diverted from institution trash: 1) transport the material off-site to an approved composting facility or 2) establish an on-site composting operation. There are costs and benefits to each option.

On-site:  composting on the property or inside the institution (bins/tumblers; vermicomposting; in-vessel composter; dehydrator; anaerobic digester)
Off-site:  composting having food scraps hauled to a compost facility or farm (windrows, in-vessel or aerated container technologies)

          Photo credit to Jepson Prairie Organics        

To learn more about commercial composting businesses that provide service in your area, please see our page on Haulers and Processors.


The system for separating compostable’s at the source (kitchen, cafeteria, etc) and transporting the materials to a collection point  (loading dock, etc)  is a vital part of any institution food scrap composting program. It should be as convenient as possible. The primary objectives of the collective system are to:

•  Maximize the capture rate of compostable materials
•  Eliminate non-organic contaminants such as plastic wraps, rubber bands, glass, and metal
•  Minimize labor and space requirements

Collection systems in institutions vary according to the specific needs of each, space limitations, and general layout of work areas. In grocery stores and food service institutions, collection containers can be placed at workstations in the produce, deli, bakery, and dairy departments. In cafeterias, containers can be placed near tray and silverware recovery stations if collecting plate scraps, and in the kitchen where preparation scraps are generated.


Building a successful food scrap composting program relies on collaboration across many areas. The key partners that support the successful launch and maintenance of a composting program can include food service provider, custodial staff, hauler, compost processor, procurement and more. Each will play a role in launching and ensuring the success of your program.

What can be composted

The list below represents materials commonly accepted in commercial compost collection programs. Institutions should always get a detailed list from their chosen service provider, as these items can vary from processor to processor.

Compostable Material

  • produce-trimmings
  • spoiled fruits and  vegetables
  • day-old bread and pastries, excess batter, spoiled bakery products
  • dairy products-cheese, yogurt, ice cream
  • miscellaneous by-products
  • floral waste and trimmings/plants
  • leftovers that cannot be served again
  • frozen foods
  • coffee grounds/filters
  • tea bags
  • eggshells/ cartons
  • meat trimmings (some facilities prohibit the inclusion of large bones or bulk quantities of grease, oils, and fats in the compost. Although these products are biodegradable, they are slow to decompose and may attract rodents or other animals.  Local renderers are a better choice for handling significant quantities of this type of material)

Compostable Food Service Products

  • biodegradable service ware
  • paper trays
  • paper food wrappers
  • napkins/paper towels
  • wet or lightly waxed corrugated cardboard
  • paper plates and cups

Common Contaminants – NOT COMPOSTABLE

  • foil wrappers
  • Polystyrene foam
  • plastic gloves
  • plastic utensils (forks, spoons, knives, plates, cups, stir sticks, lids, etc.)
  • single-serve containers (condiments, cream, etc.)
  • plastic and wire ties
  • plastic food wrap
How much composting will cost

The cost of institution composting varies based on a number of factors:

– amount of food waste to be composted
– local infrastructure and pricing for hauling and composting

Amount of food waste to be composted – Before calling service providers, estimate volume/weight: One way to estimate the amount of food waste generated is to measure all of the scraps produced in each area during a typical operation week and project this amount over time.

Pricing – Disposal costs are usually billed to institutions by the cubic yard (a volume measurement). This may be based on container size and frequency of collection, or might be a direct measure of the weight of the food scraps:

Standard container sizes and their volume capacity include:
5- gallon container – .025 cubic yards
30-gallon container – .15 cubic yards
55-gallon container – .27 cubic yards

Volume-to-weight conversions for food waste vary considerably, depending on the type of food and its moisture content. If trash disposal at your institution is measured and billed by the ton, a standard container filled with representative samples of your institution’s food waste should be filled, then weighed for an approximate conversion between volume and weight.

 Cost savings on purchase of finished compost – You can often negotiate beneficial arrangements with a composting operation in exchange for providing your institution’s feedstock to them. For instance, if there is an annual giveaway of finished compost by a municipal program, your institution may be able to receive an amount of finished compost proportionate to the raw material supplied. A common arrangement with companies who sell their finished product is to buy the finished compost back at a reduced rate. Your institution may also be able to arrange “custom composting” where the processor creates the type of finished compost best suited for your needs (i.e. large, unscreened material for erosion control, finely screened material for flower beds, or compost blended with topsoil for landscaping).

Start composting checklist - IFSC EATS How to Guide

Engage…Ask…Tee it up…Shoot for the stars

Engage Owners, Managers and Staff

  • Talk with the owner or highest decision-making person early on in the process. Buy-in from the top is vital.
  • Do you have a Green Team that could take care of some of the research or planning tasks outlined below?
  • Consider appointing a compost champion to be the point-person to help ensure the longevity and success of your program.
  • As with any operational change, your compost program will be more successful with buy-in from employees. Get key employees involved early in the process and make sure your compost goals are clear.

Ask Questions (Do Research)

Contact your garbage/recycling hauling company. Call and ask them if they offer a compost program (sometimes called “food scrap” or “organics” program). Research other options. If your hauler does not offer compost collection, see the list of compost haulers on this website. You can either change your waste and recycling hauler to one company that provides all three services to secure package pricing, or add a new hauler just for compost pickup. Here are some questions to ask the hauler:

The Essentials

  1. What size containers/bins do you offer for composting?
  2. How frequently will the containers/bins be picked up?
  3. Will all containers/bins (Landfill, Recycling, and Compost) fit in the current dumpster area?
  4. What is the cost of the service? Will this cost be offset by an equivalent decrease in the cost for hauling garbage?
  5. When are you available for a walkthrough so I can assess how to set up a compost program for my business operations.

Additional Questions

  1. What type of food items are acceptable? Cooked food? Meat? Bones?
  2. What type of non-food items are acceptable? Napkins? Paper service ware? BPI certified compostable products?
  3. What compost related services do you offer (indoor bins, signage, staff training, waste audits)?
  4. Is using a specific type of bin liner (compostable bags) required?
  5. Do you have other customers in the area with a compost program?

    Tee It Up (Prepare for Launch)

    • Do a walk-through with your hauler and key staff members. Determine the following details.
    • Discuss and list the common food scraps being discarded. Meat scraps? Bones? Fruit peels? Vegetable scraps?
    • Discuss common non-food compostables. List other items commonly discarded that your program will accept. These often include: napkins, paper towels, waxed paper, and paper plates/cups.
    • Identify key locations of food scrap generation (such as prep and dish-washing stations). Make sure there is room to place compost, recycling, and trash containers and signage in each of these locations.
    • Set up signs and containers. Below are tips to set you up for success!
    • Start your compost program in the back-of-house areas first, where you have more control over operations and the add front-of-house once your employees are up to speed.
    • Create visual and color-coded signage. Include actual photos of the recyclables, compostable, and landfill items generated at your business. Have signs in multiple languages. The color-coding below is the most common and is recommended for all signage.
    • Make sure signs are placed at eye-level directly above the containers to which they apply.
    • Cluster the containers.  Always position the three bins together in “stations” to ensure proper items are placed in the correct bins. If you have multiple stations, set them all up in the same order. The arrangement displayed is in order of priority with compost first, recycle second, and landfill last in line! You will have more success if the compost bin is always paired with recycling and landfill bins. A lone compost container is likely to be treated as a general trash can!
    • Increase food scrap collection points by placing small counter-top collection containers that are transferred to larger collection points.

      STAFF TRAINING: Have a compost training and make it fun and engaging! Here are some ideas for you:

      • Connect staff to the “why” of composting. Tell them what goes where and the have them put it into practice with a “compost relay” either through a PowerPoint presentation or an actual relay where employees physically sort items into the three bins.
      • Designate a team leader for each work area to guide and remind staff of the proper way to sort.
      • Have “pop quizzes” at the beginning of each shift to ensure employees know what is compostable and what is not.
      • Have monthly goals on pounds composted. Share results with a compost “thermometer” posted in the kitchen or employee area of the progress made. Reward staff when the goal is reached.
      • Frequently share information with employees on common items improperly place in the compost bin. What non-compostable items are you finding in the compost bins?

      Shoot for the Stars (Next Steps)

      • Decrease garbage service: Collecting compost separately means less stuff going into your garbage dumpster. Assess the periodically and decrease the size and/or pickup frequency of your garbage container and save $$!
      • Monitor contamination. Have your Green Team or Compost Champion periodically check the compost containers for items that shouldn’t be there such as a plastic wrap, aluminum foil, and latex gloves.
      • Expand and improve the program. Continually gather advice from employees on how the signs and containers are set up around the restaurant. They are your most frequent users, and their feedback is invaluable!
      • If you started with back-of-house collection, expand to front-of-house.
        Do you have other locations or partner restaurants where this program might be a success?
      • Advertise your program! Post signage announcing your compost program. Customers will be impressed by your green efforts. A recent survey showed 71% of Americans consider the environment when they shop.
      • Get recognized. Consider pursuing these certifications and awards.
        Join the We Compost program
        Take the EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge
        Pursue Green Business Certification

      Close the loop! Purchase finished compost to use on your landscape and planters or give some finished compost to your employees as a thank you.

      This program is made possible through the generosity of the Serle Funds at the Chicago Community Trust.

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