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EnviRelation tackles D.C. hospitality industry waste through composting

EnviRelation tackles D.C. hospitality industry waste through composting

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A Washington entrepreneur picks up biodegradable waste from the city's restaurants, hotels and hospitals and says the organic nature of composting gives it a 'unique sex appeal.'

Like many of my friends in Washington, I’ve been thinking about composting for years but haven’t started a program. I usually get overwhelmed at the first step—buying the container. But if I were a restaurant, hotel, school or hospital in D.C., I could just pick up the phone and call EnviRelation, which offers food composting services for hundreds of clients in the region, including Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, Sodexo, University of Maryland and Alexandria City Public Schools.

Walker Lunn founded EnviRelation in an effort to help the hospitality industry reduce its carbon footprint, a project he started while at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. I spoke with Lunn last month.

You started EnviRelation in 2006, but it evolved out of a project at Cornell?

Yes, while I was an undergraduate I got involved with some folks at the World Bank. They were interested in having a composting program for their offices in Washington. So while I was at Cornell I consulted for them and hired a vendor and trained their staff. When I was graduating there were more opportunities at hotels and restaurants. I realized I could go into a hotel and try to get the hotel to be green from the inside. But I knew the products and services weren’t there to do it, so I decided to do start this business.

What are you finding with your clients in terms of composting being something consumers are aware of, versus something done behind the scenes?

In most cases it's behind the scenes, especially at hotels. At a Hyatt, for example, their policy is to do as much of it behind the scenes as possible. But something like a Sweet Green, a smaller restaurant with organic positioning, they have the customers separating their own waste.

Do you think guests at high-end hotels aren’t quite ready to see a composting operation?

At full-service hotels, the guest isn't required to throw a lot out to begin with. When they dine, they don’t clear their own plates. So it’s not that big of a piece. But you can see it at some high-end restaurants that promote the farm-to-table concept; they see this as table-to-farm.

For some of the hotels, they’ll pursue a composting or recycling program as part of a certification program, and they use that to communicate to their guests what they are doing. Others will compile a sustainability report.

Walk me through the process with one of your clients.

We operate pretty much every other day. Clients put compost into containers we give them. We take it to a composting facility. We use Recycled Green Industries in Woodbine, Md., and Topsoil Inc. in Curtis Bay, Md. We pay them per pound, but less than we’d pay to take it to a landfill. They mix it with other materials, like leaves or twigs, and compost it over 90 to 120 days. They screen it to take out impurities, such as any plastic that’s managed to get its way in, and then they have this high quality compost.

How do you train your clients’ employees how to compost?

We give them a poster that shows pictures of what can and can’t be composted. It’s in English and Spanish. It becomes very innate, because we all know what was once a growing, living thing, and what wasn’t. Our clients can compost meat and bones and dairy and fish, which is what most people can’t compost in their own backyard composting piles. At our scale, we can.

Are your clients more motivated by saving money, or by environmental responsibility, or both?

Both. We make sure our clients are saving money, which has been important to our growth. Even with the recent economic climate, we were growing very strongly.

Also, they look back and see that with composting and recycling, they have very little waste. They are motivated because they believe in it and know it’s the right thing to do ;

People get confused or alienated when you start taking about greenhouse gas emissions. Composting—they get it. It’s so real. Because it is so real, and it’s a living thing, they think of it less than a trash service and more of something that you can use for gardens and growth. It has this unique sex appeal because of that.

Are any of the businesses you have as clients more challenging to work with in terms of getting a composting program up and running?

For us, the pick-up part is the same. Internally, getting the things into the containers is very different for every client. Dealing with a high school is really different than a grab-and-go salad restaurant.

They all have their unique issues. When we do work with an elementary school, usually a PTA person gets involved, or a science teacher incorporates a lesson around it, and they patrol lunch for a few weeks until everyone gets a hang of it.

But if we do National Geographic’s office cafeteria, they do less with that and more with signage and their biodegradable products.

So they can compost things like forks and bowls. Very cool. What else can be composed that most of us might not think of?

Milk cartons, orange juice cartons, meat, bones, fish, dairy. The biodegradable products can be made from corn starch, soy starch or potato starch. People put a lot of thought into some of these products, but it’s easy to forget that regular paper cups and plates can also be composted.

And a lot of people get excited about the waxed cardboard. You can’t recycle waxed cardboard, like pizza boxes, but you can compost it.

How much are your clients cutting down on waste now that they are composting?

If you look at just restaurants, we expect to see a minimum of a 60 percent diversion. For a hotel, it’s a little different because they also have things coming from places that are not their restaurant; they may have trash from the guest rooms or from a renovation.

The EPA says about 12 percent of our total waste is food waste. At restaurants, almost all of it is recyclable or compostable. You can expect a large conference hotel to compost a ton of food waste a day, and a large restaurant can compost about 1,000 to 1,500 pounds a day.

Have you heard any anecdotal evidence of your clients’ employees being inspired to start composting operations at home?

Just the opposite--a lot of them already do it. It’s a pleasant surprise. Usually they say, “This is awesome, I can stop taking this home with me to compost.”

Many chefs say we don’t need this service, and they say they are just taking it home to compost, and I’m like, there’s no way you’re actually taking this all home. It’s really heavy.

What’s the next step with your business?

In January we are going to be announcing an oil collection service to work with a local producer of biofuels, DC Biofuels. They will use the oil to create fuel that will be used by D.C. Public Schools and D.C. Public Works. It addresses the energy issue and localization issue. Right now, the oil is being reused—for cosmetics or animal feed--but we think this is a better use. It’s local, and by addressing this energy question it can be part of the solution for global warming. We’ll probably start that in February.

What else?

It’s interesting to talk about this industry and what’s happening environmentally. Particularly in D.C. there are some interesting nuances. The food code says all food waste goes into the sewer system. Our sewer system is a combined sewer system, and when we have really heavy storms we have sewer overflow into the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. So by composting, one, we avoid that, and two, we avoid the landfill. Then we make the compost, which is in between mulch and fertilizer as far as what it is and how it’s used. So it’s going to retain a lot of nitrogen, which will slow the nitrogen runoff into the Chesapeake Bay. People don’t think about this, but when we take your compost, it helps downstream.

You said these establishments are required to put their food in the sewer?

I’ll read it to you. The District Food Code Regulation Section 2607.2 says each food establishment served by a sanitary sewer and conducting any activity or activities which generate food wastes has to have and use one or more food waste grinders that are conveniently located near each such activity and which have adequate capacity to dispose of all readily grindable food waste produced.

Is really this happening?

They are technically required to, but they don’t. You’d have to have a full-time guy with a shovel.

What kind of composting do you do at home?

I have to take it into my office with me. My condo board won’t let me put a container out back.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure