Five Questions for: Jim O'Brien and Dave Apthorpe

Five Questions, Dave ApthorpeFive Questions, Jim OBrienMoving from small composting efforts to a full-fledged composting program can be a challenging endeavor. After a few attempts to get a full program going, 10,000-student Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, finally found a partner that could make composting a reality. Jim O'Brien, resident district manager for Bon Appétit at the account, and Dave Apthorpe, campus executive chef, talk about how their department made the transition.

When did composting first start at the university?

We’ve been trying to get it accomplished for at least four years and we did so with some success. We’ve been giving a small amount of compost to local growers and to the Cleveland Botanical Garden. But we weren’t contributing any significant amount because no one could handle the volume that we could produce. The transition to a larger program was a matter of meeting with the community to try to figure out a way to make a larger program work. At some point a local company, Rosby Recycling, came forward and offered us the best solution. It made sense because one of Rosby’s main concerns is construction recycling so they had all the infrastructure for composting—grinders, heavy duty magnets, trucks to transport. It was an easy way for them to expand their business and really fill that missing piece which had always been the biggest challenge for us in implementing the project.

How does the new program work?

One of our company initiatives that was already in place was to measure food waste, so now all kitchen scraps, both pre-and post-consumer, that we sort for weighing can be composted. We can also compost any excess cardboard. When our guys in the back are prepping food, we have buckets for the pre-consumer waste. In our dish return area, we have buckets where the guys scrape off the post-consumer waste. We collect it all and then Rosby offers their service three days a week. We store the compost in 95-gallon wheeled bins that have lids to contain the odor. We compost about 2,500 pounds of waste per week in our main dining hall. We also are composting about 500 pounds of waste per week in a smaller retail venue. Rosby brings us clean containers every time they come pick up. We have six or seven containers in use. Rosby sends the compost to be used in their landscaping business and they also sell some of it.

What were some of the challenges involved with making that transition?

The biggest problem we had was figuring out how to haul and transport our kind of volume. It’s very heavy and takes up a lot of space, plus we had to control the smell and vermin. When working with smaller organizations in the beginning, they were able to take some here and there but it wasn’t on the best schedule. Now we have the ability to control the process. Educating staff was pretty seamless because we are in our third year of measuring our waste so our staff was used to sorting the waste. One of the other challenges was finding a hauler with the special equipment. We used to have a farmer come to take some of the compost but it would be just him and his wife and there was no way they could haul one of these containers of compost up on the back of a pick up truck. We encouraged Rosby to develop special equipment to help transport this stuff, which really helped us.

What are your hopes for future development of the program?

We’re looking to expand the program to our other small retail outlet. We should have it in that location before the school year is over in May. Also, we are just starting to operate a campus farm, so at some point we may try to develop a process where we can process the compost ourselves and get it out to our farm, but that’s a few years away.

What kinds of advice would you give to other operators who might want to do something similar?

I think the biggest thing for us was staying very persistent. We had to keep after vendors and operators and say ‘I don’t want to stop. I want to keep doing this and you need to partner with us, get the correct equipment and facilitate a pickup schedule. If you say your going to do something, do it.’ It’s really about finding a partner that’s willing to work with you to fulfill the requirements of the program such as multiple weekly pick-ups and secure containers. It just so happened that Rosby had the equipment and the infrastructure so it was a pretty seamless transition for them. We’re looking at it as a pretty cost-neutral program because there is a fee for the waste to get hauled away but we’re not paying our current hauler to take as much waste.