Seattle’s Mandated Composting Program Enlists Restaurants to Reduce Waste, Improve Efficiency, and Enhance Community

In 2015, Seattle mandated commercial and residential composting in an effort to reduce landfill waste. The ordinance enjoyed 74 percent approval.

“Seattle is a national leader in recycling,” Tim Croll, solid waste director of Seattle Public Utilities, told the Washington Restaurant Association. “Most of our city’s businesses and residents are already composting. This requirement is a progression of our collective efforts that help our city become even greener.”

For restaurant owners, the popular compost program provides some unexpected benefits. Here, Foodable talks with Seattle industry leaders about how Seattle’s composting program helps restaurants reduce food waste, enhance community, and improve the bottom line.

Enlist

According to Pat Kaufman, the recycling and waste prevention specialist for Seattle Public Utilities, composting has been available to restaurants awhile, which is why Seattle felt comfortable going forward with the mandate.

“Most of the calls I get are from businesses and citizens who say, ‘I am already a great recycler, but how can I do better?’" said Kaufman in Washington Restaurant Magazine.

Participants include big names like Tom Douglas, who takes the diversion program very seriously, as well as Elliot’s, Ivar’s, the Sheraton Hotel, and Canlis. Fourteen years ago, the city of Seattle enlisted local chain Pagliaci Pizza to participate in a pilot project on recycling. Pagliaci Pizza emerged as Seattle’s first multi-unit restaurant to implement composting, including a hugely successful promotion featuring their recyclable pizza boxes.

“We started out working with the City of Seattle because we wanted to do a better job recycling,” explained co-owner Matt Galvin.

Today, Pagliaci’s program is a benchmark for other restaurants implementing their own composting plans of action, and a cornerstone to the pizza empire’s new employee orientation.

"When people are proud of what they’re doing at work, they feel better about where they work. They understand the big picture,” observed Galvin, citing an increase in employee retention as another side benefit of composting. Less employee turnover results in less costly new hire training. Galvin concluded, “If you buy into the ethos of buying locally, then you buy into the ethos of composting. It’s all about doing the right thing.”

Educate

Kaufman reported that restaurants realize a 30-33 percent reduction in garbage after diverting waste to compost. A reduction in garbage means a reduction in landfill, as well as a reduction in weight-based garbage charges. Conversely, an increase in compost results in greater nutrient-rich, water-retentive soil amendment materials.

“Composting tells a story,” contended Kaufman. “Once a restaurant starts diverting compost waste from garbage, they begin to see more clearly what’s in there—what customers aren’t eating, volumes of food they made that can be adjusted. Composting helps them track and collect data.” Data that helps reduce cost, and increase food recovery, food which in turn can be donated to food banks.

For those chain and independent restaurants still struggling with composting challenges, Seattle Public Utilities offers training programs for first-time enrollees. This includes stickers, posters, green Rubbermaid bins, and sit-down sessions. Haulers contracted to provide recycling and composting services with the city of Seattle also help with education. Waste vendors vary according to geographic area, and include Cedar Grove, Waste Management, and CleanScapes.

Bon Appétit Management Company (BAMCO), a nationally recognized full-foodservice management company and long-standing Seattle Public Utilities composting participant, echoes the views of Kaufman.

BAMCO Company Waste Specialist Claire Cummings shared, "We’ve been composting at all our cafés in Seattle for a while, as part of our longstanding company-wide efforts to divert food waste from landfills. (We also donate our excess, edible food to people in need through a partnership with Food Lifeline.) The biggest problem we have with composting is non-compostable items ending up in the green bins. We hope that once Seattleites get used to composting at home, they'll be better able to handle it in our cafés.”

Cummings continued, “At SODO Kitchen in Seattle, we’ve composted for several years, so it was hard for General Manager Rick Stromire to remember exactly the way things were before.”

“However, Rick did offer some interesting insights,” she revealed. “He said that as part of Bon Appétit’s food waste initiative, they keep a close eye on their compost bins, and doing so has taught the SODO team a lot about minimizing their food waste. When you look in a compost bin, and you see a trend with what’s filling it up, it can often turn into a teaching opportunity in the kitchen.”

“For example, if the bins is full of the tops of bell peppers, we may be able to teach whoever was prepping that ingredient that to cut the peppers differently, so less of the top goes to waste,” he said.

And on the post-consumer side, "When dishes with leftover food are scraped into compost bins, we can see trends of what our guests are’t eating, and adjust future portion sizes accordingly. For example, if we're serving six ounce portions of quinoa, but most people are only eating four ounces, we’ll downsize the quinoa the next time.”

Outreach

“This has been an option for many years. Now it’s a mandate,” stressed Kaufman. “Our main message to restaurants is that they can save money on their garbage costs by recycling and composting. Our goal is help them get set up and compost and recycling. We have the tools to help them. Once they get set up, they’re on their way.”

Failure to comply with the composting ordinance results in SPU-issued citations, colloquially called ‘scarlet letters’ for their bright red color, posted prominently on garbage bins containing more than 10 percent food or compostable. Those who do not comply after the initial warning are subject to a $50 contamination fee According to Kaufman, random inspections occur constantly to ensure not only compliance, but that the hauler is doing their job, and to assist with problem solving. Luckily, no one in his department has had to issue a fee yet.

Clearly composting offers far more benefits reduced garbage fees, increased employee retention and productivity, and an enhanced community profile.