Catering Company Achieves 85% Diversion Rate using Commercial Composting: Ranks with Whole Foods

By September 15, 2014
zero waste events

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the meeting and event industry represents the second most wasteful industry in the country behind construction. Additionally, waste audits conducted by the Northeast Recycling Council, Inc. (NERC) through a USDA-funded project, found that more than one pound per person of food waste is typically generated at meetings and special events. When people gather at special events, waste is inevitably generated. Right?

Wrong. Event companies across the country are increasing their diversion rate and moving towards “Zero Waste” events because it’s gotten to the point where it just makes good business sense.  Reducing and diverting food waste not only cuts greenhouse gas emissions of an event, but can also: lower management costs, contribute to a cleaner event, attract sponsors, enhance event profile, provide advertising. . .and the list goes on and on.

We recently caught up with Vice President and Co-Owner of A Spice of Life, Dan Bruckner, to learn about composting in the catering industry and how it’s helped his company achieve an impressive diversion rate, score some high profile event clients, be a runner-up to Whole Foods and boost his business throughout Colorado.

A Seed is Sown

Best friends in college, Dan and David Rubin followed separate paths in the restaurant and hospitality industries before both ending up in Boulder, CO working at a catering company called A Spice of Life. A few years later they teamed up once again and took over A Spice of Life in 1995. At the time,  the company was already recycling glass, plastic and cardboard at their events.  The special occasion that changed everything, however, didn’t happen until years later.

In 2005 a company called Eco-Cycle hosted an awards function at A Spice of Life’s event center. Eco-Cycle is one of the largest non-profit recyclers in the country and was the driving force behind the Boulder recycling program that started in 1976 when it became one of the first communities to offer curbside recycling in the country.

After the event, Dan was approached about composting and Eco-Cycle’s pitch was simple and hard to ignore. “The next thing that you can do is you can start to compost. With commercial composting, everything is composted at a higher temperature which means that we can even take meat and bones and dairy. We put another dumpster in your parking lot, come up with another truck, and all you have to do is separate that stuff. We come and take it away, that’s it.”

Commercial Composting- Why It Matters

From speaking with Dan, it’s immediately clear that he has become a wholehearted ambassador of Eco-Cycle and commercial composting within his business and his industry and here’s partly why. According to Compostable Organics Out of Landfills (COOL), biodegradable materials such as paper products, food scraps and yard trimmings amount to half of our discarded items. When buried in a landfill, they don’t just break down as they would in a compost pile. They decompose without oxygen, and in the process become the number one source of human-caused methane. Methane is now understood to be 72 times more potent than CO2 over a 20-year period, which means our landfills emit the greenhouse gas equivalent of 20 percent of U.S. coal-fired power plants every year!

Commercial composting allows businesses to compost things that would normally not be possible in a back yard compost pile. Compost from events is picked up and taken to an industrial composting facility where huge piles can reach 150 degrees, allowing them to break down more items and destroy pathogens. This makes it safe to compost paper towels, tissues and raw meat. Four months later that event waste is returned to the Earth to feed plants or improve degraded land. Garbage becomes a nutrient-rich additive that restores farmland and encourages sustainable agriculture which replaces “polluting petroleum-based, energy-intensive, greenhouse gas-generating fertilizers used to produce crops on declining lands.”

Dan elaborates, “It’s just not that hard to do. The science behind it will show it’s important. And if we can make it as common as recycling. . . we can make a gigantic impact.” In the commercial composting set-up it’s easy to do because  all food is compostable, there’s no need to throw any of it in the trash.” Composting biodegradable items is also one of the cheapest and most effective ways a business can immediately reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. And with Eco-Cycle and other commercial composting providers, it has become as easy and cost-effective as traditional trash removal.  Wendell Simonson, Vice President of Marketing for Eco-Products adds, “What better time to reach people than when they’re relaxed, taking in a concert and having a beer?  They’re holding a cup and seeing that they can place it in something other than a trash bin.”

Cost- Benefit Analysis

For businesses looking to reduce costs and increase sustainability, Dan recommends looking to your local recycling center or trash company. Ask yourself “How much would it increase my monthly waste service costs?” Then, Dan recommends, “Crunch the numbers and see what your impact would be for the year. I think it’s offset by the press coverage, goodwill from clients, and new business from those who have made this a priority. In the end, you are doing the right thing.

Small steps go a long way, and sometimes just being able to measure something is very powerful. Dan comments, “Start measuring your diversion rate and how you can impact it. You’ll probably end up surprising yourself, I know we did. We were shocked. That became the catalyst and just kept getting better and better.”

First Dan investigated the additional costs that were associated with commercial composting. At the time, compostable, disposable products such as forks, plates, napkins and trash bags were just starting to become available, so everything was slightly more expensive. What Eco-Cycle helped Dan realize was that most of their waste was either compostable or recyclable. A Spice of Life did the math and decided that as a company it was important that they take on the additional expense. And so A Spice of Life shifted the way it operated in its pursuit of Zero Waste.

  • Price of Compostable Products: Dan claims the only thing still slightly more expensive than its non-compostable alternative is the compostable trash bags.
  • Disposal Fees: For A Spice of Life they are basically just offsetting trash weight for compost weight. As far as their waste removal expenses, they’re pretty much the same.

How They Do It

As in the early years of recycling, it’s really an education issue. By keeping things simple A Spice of Life was able to quickly and effectively integrate composting into its everyday operations. Take notes people.

  • Equipment: In their production kitchen, A Spice of Life has two trash cans next to each other. One for waste that can’t be composted and a larger one for most of their waste which is compostable.
  • Process: At the end of the day they bring it out to four dumpsters in their parking lot area. One for cardboard, one for co-mingled recyclables, one for trash and one for compost.  For off-site events, the company sends out two sets of trash cans. Recyclables go in one, compostables go in the other. Afterwards, they bring them back to their lot and put everything in their dumpsters.
  • Education: The company was able to simplify it into a slogan that everyone could understand. “If it once lived, it’s compostable,” (at least in Eco-Cycle’s commercial composting set up). They broke it down into very simple terms for their staff and since the bulk of their business is off-premise catering, it was very easy to teach their staff out there how to do it too.
  • Continuous Improvement: A Spice of Life made small changes to make their program even more successful. They changed to wooden stir sticks for coffee and paper plates when reusable china isn’t possible. So, all the disposables they use are compostable: plates, napkins, cups and utensils made of plant starch. The company hasn’t once ordered the plastic disposable products since the composting program started in 2005.

The Proof is in the Pudding: Getting Results

“It’s really cool, Eco-Cycle puts it in laymen’s terms for you. They weigh each dumpster and then they turn it into how many trees or how many gallons of water saved., . It’s something you can look at and say, ‘we’re really making an amazing impact here.’ . . . It’s an incredible  achievement and so we distribute this information company..” Last year A Spice of Life’s Diversion rate hovered between 72-85% and by the end of the year the company had saved over 155 tons of greenhouse gas emissions, 219 lbs of water pollution, and 519 lbs of toxic air pollutants.

Zero Waste and sustainability is very prevalent in A Spice of Life’s marketing and sales pitches because Dan explains,

“it’s important to us, it’s important to people out here and it definitely gives us an edge.”

And their hard work has paid off. The company has won numerous awards including: “Best of Wedding Caterers” by in 2007-2011/2013 and the “Editor’s Choice Award” by Colorado Home & Lifestyles Magazine in 2008. Also in 2008 Eco-Cycle awarded A Spice of Life for their outstanding efforts to becoming a Zero Waste Catering Company. Since, they’ve received Runner-Up to grocer and caterer, Whole Foods of Boulder. Dan beams, “It’s nice to be mentioned in the same brass as other industry leaders that have entire departments dedicated to it [sustainability], like Whole Foods.”

Boulder recently hosted the Ironman Triathlon which A Spice of Life catered several events for. For the Ironman folks sustainability was a deciding factor. Dan comments, “It’s very relevant and it definitely helps us win business. It pushes us over the hump against someone else who’s not really doing it. . . we make it known that this is a priority that we pride ourselves on.”

Going Further and Looking Forward

A Spice of Life concentrates on Zero Waste events and their diversion rates, but they are also pursuing other sustainability initiatives, both for the near future and in the long run. Right now, their Farm to Table program offers a monthly special menu during the growing season that is 100% locally sourced, as well as several events at local farms. For a catering company, using local produce can be a challenge. “The challenge is that we have events in January and people in Colorado want pineapple from time to time..” Despite seasonal availability Dan has noticed a silver lining of cost savings. “It’s more cost effective to use ingredients that are available seasonally and locally, and you’re going to have better quality. . prices fluctuate a lot less on locally sourced products when  in season compared to conventionally grown products which are available year round, those tend to fluctuate much more.”

In the near future, A Spice of Life’s next big sustainability project revolves around equipment and the construction of a new commercial kitchen. Dan hopes to construct the new kitchen using newer technology that saves energy and resources, and will hopefully procure additional green certifications for the company.

Further down the road, Dan hopes to see the availability of biodegradable products expand with the help of new technologies. A Spice of Life is constantly watching out for new products.  Dan dreams, “our biggest volume of trash at off premise events is saran-wrap.. It’s not recyclable and is often dirty so it has to go into the trash. For years we have been waiting for a sugar, corn or plant-based saran-wrap to come out but I don’t think it can hold up to the heat. If someone could invent that I bet our diversion rate would go up by another 5%.”

There was a time when recycling was almost unheard of, but through education and exposure gradually people and then communities started to make an effort. And efforts became habits until recycling became custom. Dan’s strong belief in our ability to do the same with composting, especially in the food industry where we can make such an impact, is inspiring.

“It’s education, once most people see how easy it is to do.

It’s not more work.

It’s not a burden.

It just becomes commonplace and easy.”