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USDA is Composting, You Can Too!

Posted by Lara D’Amore, Management Analyst, Food Safety & Inspection Service, Office of Outreach, Education, and Training; Don Ackerman, Regional Public Health Officer, Food Safety & Inspection Service, Office of Outreach, Education, and Training; Marianne Gravely, in Conservation Initiatives
Sep 12, 2013

As part of the Food Waste Challenge USDA employees are working together to reduce the amount of food waste at our Headquarters office in Washington, DC. Currently 2,400 pounds of food and paper waste is recycled from our cafeteria each week. Our goal is to increase that by 5% to at least 2,520 pounds of waste by the end of Fiscal Year 2014.

Food is the single largest component of municipal solid waste going to landfills, accounting for over 20% by weight. USDA headquarters employees are reducing food waste every time they eat in the cafeteria. Many of the items they use, such as plates, bowls, trays, paper cups, napkins, utensils and clamshells, are compostable.  The headquarters cafeteria and hallways are equipped with compost bins that are specially designed for all food waste, including meat and dairy products. The bins are emptied several times each day and the waste is transported to a waste pulping system in the basement.

Here’s How It Works: Foodservice waste enters the pulper and mixes with water to create a slurry (95% liquid, 5% solids). The slurry is transported to a water extractor, and then the semi-dry pulp is collected and sent to a commercial composting facility. The extracted water is recovered & returned to the pulping tank for re-use. Removing the water reduces waste volume by 87%.

Some of the department’s food waste, as well as coffee grounds, paper products and even newspapers, go outside to USDA’s People's Garden. The waste is collected in a compost tumbler, an aerated drum set on giant rollers which turns food waste into compost. Our tumbler also collects compost tea, a nutrient rich liquid produced by soaking the compost materials in water. Compost tea is used as a fertilizer and can be sprayed on the foliage or root system of plants.

You may not have a pulper or hydra-extracter at home, but you can still compost food, paper and yard waste. Composting can divert as much as 30% of household waste away from the garbage can. Compost adds rich humus for lawn and garden applications, which add nutrients to plants and helps to retain moisture in the soil. Microscopic organisms in compost help aerate the soil, break down organic material for plant use and ward off plant disease. Composting also offers a natural alternative to chemical fertilizers.

You can collect food waste in a covered bucket in your kitchen, then start a compost pile on bare earth (or purchase a composting bin similar to the one at the  People’s Garden) with leaves, yard waste, food waste (egg shells, coffee grounds, tea bags), and wood ashes.  VA Tech Extension has information on Making Compost from Yard Waste.

Category/Topic: Conservation Initiatives