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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Zero Food Waste Journeys: Successes, Challenges & Lessons Learned

In June 2015, Elemental Impact and the Les Dames d'Escoffier International (LDEI) Atlanta Chapter agreed to partner on a zero waste food journey for their prestigious Afternoon in the Country (AITC) fundraising event. Event Producer Sue Anne Morgan, ideaLand owner, was excited to learn how to orchestrate zero food waste events along with keys for success. The ZWA Blog article, Afternoon in the Country embarks on a zero food waste journey, announces the Ei | LDEI partnership for zero food waste at AITC.

Known as one of Atlanta’s most unforgettable food and wine-tasting events, AITC is a fund-raiser for local non-profits and scholarships for women in the culinary profession. The November 8, 2015 AITC is the event's 15th Anniversary, perfect timing to embark on formal zero food waste practices.

Inn @ Serenbe
Hosted by the Inn at Serenbe within the Serenbe Community, the AITC is held in an idyllic setting where nature, passion, creativity and community are valued. With over 1800 guests tasting delicious food samples served by over 90 prominent restaurants, hotels and caterers, there is a significant amount of food waste generated at the event. In the past, food waste was landfill-destined.

The zero food waste Ei | AITC partnership aligns with the Ei Sustainable Food Court Initiative (SFCI) focus. In mid-2014, SFCI Co-Chairs Scott Seydel and Doug Kunnemann of NatureWorks proclaimed: 
The primary SFCI focus is post-consumer food waste collection.
Two challenges are prominent in post-consumer food waste programs: 1> food & beverage (F&B) packaging and 2> consumer responsibility for food waste disposition.

The Ei task force SMAT – Sustainable Materials ACTION Team - provides SFCI support for food & beverage packaging. At the present juncture, SMAT recommends all single-use F&B packaging is BPI Certified compostable to avoid contamination in the food waste stream.

Challenges abound at food courts for implementing effective material management systems:
Scott with the RayDay
three-bin waste|recycling system
  • Common property waste and recycling contracts for the entire property.
  • Landlord | tenant relationships with contractual legal restrictions and obligations.
  • Franchisee | franchisor relationships with contractual legal restrictions and obligations.
  • Consumer disposition and separation of food waste, recycling and trash.
  • Third party products brought into the food court not purchased from the Quick Service Restaurants (QSR) or retail outlets.
  • Food may be prepared in a commissary or off-site kitchen and transported to the QSR with minimal on-site preparation.
  • Multiple packaging items used in the front and back-of-house by QSR’s and the landlord or property manager.
  • Contracted custodial services by the landlord or property manager.
  • In addition, each food court category has its own unique challenges.
For a quick recap of the post-consumer food waste program status at each of the SFCI Pilots - SFCI Atlanta Airport Pilot, SFCI Concord Mills Pilot & SFCI Georgia Dome Pilot - visit the Ei Post-Consumer Food Waste Focus website page. The ZWA Blog article, SFCI targets post-consumer food waste, announces the focus along with substantiating the existing food waste foundation.

In addition to many of the overall food court challenges listed above, annual events experience the following unique challenges:
  • Annual event – by their very nature, it is difficult to shift event practices on a one-time per year basis.
  • Fundraising-oriented – many annual events are fundraisers for a non-profit and | or cause with a primary focus on raising money versus sustainable practices.
  • Volunteers – many annual events are produced by a committee of volunteers who change each year.
A zero food waste plan breaks down into three main categories, each equally important for an effective plan:

F&B Serviceware:
  • Compostable packaging – single-use F&B serviceware must be BPI Certified compostable; an exception is pre-packaged beverages in recyclable containers, such as bottled water. 
  • Education – event foodservice providers must be educated on the WHY, WHAT & HOW to serve F&B in compostable packaging; includes support with purchasing unique serving items.
  • On-site Monitoring – volunteers | event staff visit foodservice operators upon arrival at event to observe any F&B serving or other items provided by the establishment that may contaminate the food waste stream.
Eco-Products signage
for event food waste bin
Food Waste Collection:
  • Waste | recycling bins – in the beginning, a three-tier bin is used:  1> Food Waste, 2> Recycling, 3> Landfill; at future events the system evolves into a two-tier system: 1> Food Waste, 2> Recycling.
  • Clear signage – the bins must be supported by clear signage designating proper disposal; visuals are most helpful.
  • Monitor attendee disposal – volunteers | event staff assist attendees with disposal of items into proper bins to prevent contamination.
Food Waste Destination:
  • Donation – ensure a plan is in-place for donation of leftover food in accordance with the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act.
  • Compost – deliver remaining food waste, back & front-of-the-house, to a composting site operating within state food waste permit regulations.
  • Animal feed – when compostable packaging is mixed with food waste it is not fit for animal consumption; food waste generated under the same roof as meat is often not permitted for animal feed pursuant to respective State Department of Agriculture regulations due to past disease outbreaks.
Working under the guidance of Doug and Ei Founder Holly Elmore, SMAT members moved into action mode to craft a working pre, during and post-event plan. It was empowering to witness the teamwork in-place necessary for success.

F&B Compostable Pkg
Education Session
Ei Partner Eco-Products stepped forward as a key in-kind event sponsor for BPI Certified compostable plates, flatware and beverage cups. In addition, Ken Fraser with Eco-Products played a vital role in education support and created clear signage for event food waste bins. Compostable bags were provided by Ei Partner NaturBag thanks to Rick Lombardo's team spirit.

On August 20, the SMAT hosted a two-hour Compostable F&B Packaging Education Session for the AITC Sustainability Task Force; the session was a modification of the April Georgia World Congress Center-requested education seminar for Levy Restaurants. The ZWA Blog article, Compostable F&B Packaging: integral to zero waste programs and soil rebuilding, gives an in-depth overview of the session.

Myron @ AITC
Establishing an excess food donation program was an action point from the education session. Second Helpings stepped to the plate as the excess food donation team member. Myron Smith with Second Helpings agreed to educate AITC attendees on the importance of food donation and collect the excess food for delivery to local shelters.

In the meantime, Sue Anne confirmed Serenbe was open to adding post-consumer food waste & compostable packaging to their farm waste compost pile. Holly & Boyd Leake with Community Environmental Management secured a Letter of Interpretation from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division stating the AITC food waste falls into Category I of the permit regulations; thus, a formal composting permit is not required within the regulations.

With on-site composting, the carbon footprint associated with food waste composting was reduced from over 100 miles to the nearest state-permitted facility down to zero! The intent is to set-up on-site food waste composting for Serenbe's many weddings and other smaller events hosted throughout the year. In addition, the Serenbe community has several restaurants, including one within the Inn @ Serenbe.

Serenbe site visit
Ei contracted with Ei Supporter Let Us Compost to orchestrate the on-site food waste compost operations at AITC along with post-event follow-up. A Serenbe site inspection was essential to understand the site circumstances and develop a rapport with the farm personnel.

The ZWA Blog article, Atlanta Food Waste Heroes: the journey continues ..., details the extensive planning implemented in the months leading up to the AITC event day. 

As the Event Producer for RayDay hosted at Serenbe, Sue Anne secured the zero food waste commitment from the Ray C. Anderson Foundation. With the team in-place, Ei quickly pulled together an effective plan for the third annual RayDay. It was a perfect opportunity to test the AITC zero food waste plan.

On October 11 over 1400 guests celebrated Ray's legacy, learned at the plethora of educational booths and enjoyed excellent cuisine served by The Food Movement (TFM) food trucks. Key note: TFM was the sole foodservice operator via their fleet of food trucks. Prior to the event, Sue Anne & Holly met with TFM owner and secured complete support for the RayDay zero food waste. EcoProducts provided the compostable food serviceware; beverages were served in a reusable keepsake cup.

Holly next to sign
photo courtesy of Scott 
Ken arrived early to RayDay and met with each food truck manager to go over the use of compostable packaging at the event. In addition, Ken placed laminated signs for the packaging on each truck to educate the event guests.

With 1200 pounds of food waste composted on-site , RayDay was zero food waste! TFM brought their prep waste to the event, closing the food waste loop. Thanks to the Waste Ambassadors (paid event staff) monitoring the three-bin waste | recycling centers placed throughout the event site, the food waste delivered to the compost site was CLEAN. The only contaminants were two latex gloves.

Added Bonus: Ei Chair Scott Seydel attended the event as a guest! The ZWA Blog article, Simple, easy, proven steps culminate in zero food waste success, recaps the RayDay zero food waste success.

The following are several lessons learned at RayDay:
  1. Only grind the compostable forks for the pile; it is time-consuming and not necessary to grind the plates.
  2. Coordinate with event staff to bring food waste throughout the event, versus the majority of bags arriving to the compost area as the event closes. 
  3. Weigh the food waste bags upon arrival at the compost area, versus estimating the weight based on prior experience.
Muddy seating area @ AITC
photo courtesy of Doug
While a perfect scenario came together for RayDay: great, dry weather, paid Waste Ambassadors and one caterer, AITC was riddled with extraordinary challenges on event day. A rainy event day, coupled with ten straight days of rain prior to the event, greeted organizers, participants and guests with tremendous mud during set-up and throughout the festivities. 

Of the 20 committed volunteers, only four showed up ready-to-work in the extreme conditions. And work they did! Cardboard waste | recycling bins disintegrated into the mud. The farm tractor promised at 11:00 a.m. was finally delivered at 4:00 p.m. as the event closed. Note the tractor was necessary for the compost pile construction. ... and there were 90+ chefs | restaurants participating at AITC!

The Ei Team - Doug, his lovely wife Rebecca, Kim, Ken, Holly, Boyd and Sarah Martell with Innovia Films - rolled up their sleeves to pinch hit within the challenges and created success amidst abundant lessons learned. 

Superhero Kristen finishing
the compost pile construction
Thanks to SuperHero Kristen Baskin, LUC owner, along with her associate Corey Helms, 1800 pounds of clean food waste was included in the on-farm compost pile. Throughout the day, Kristen kept the volunteers efficient weighing food waste bags as they arrived at the compost area, cleansing the food waste of contaminants and sorting flatware for grinding before added to the pile. Boyd was instrumental to building the compost pile, using his extensive composting experience.

At AITC there was approximately 90 pounds of contaminants delivered to the compost area within the food waste bags. Most related to non-compostable F&B serviceware brought to the event by the chefs and beverage companies.

Rainy, muddy conditions played a valuable role for showcasing lessons learned necessary to build a solid, effective zero food waste template for annual events. The majority of lessons learned relate to stronger communication ranging from waste | recycling signage to Waste Ambassador training to the event compostable F&B packaging policy.

Condiment container contaminants
Many of the restaurants were not aware of the compostable F&B packaging requirement; most were happy to switch once compostable packaging was delivered to their table. A handful of restaurants brought prepared condiments in plastic containers causing contamination in the food waste. Several beverage companies brought branded plastic cups while the liquor stations used plastic shot glasses.

Post-event there was a significant amount of food waste left on seating tables and restaurant stations sent to the landfill by the clean-up crew. At future events, the Waste Ambassadors can easily scour the event for the food waste sitting on tables before the clean-up crew breaks down the area.

Thanks to the two tents along with several lights in the compost area staging, the food waste cleansing was effective in the rainy, muddy conditions. LUC brought a total of three tarps to AITC, versus one to RayDay; three tarps were necessary for efficiency in the rain and delayed compost pile creation.

Although it was scheduled for an 11:00 a.m. arrival, the tractor necessary for building the compost pile did not arrive until the event ended at 4:00 p.m. After repeated requests, the Serenbe farm hand finally brought a wheel barrow to pinch hit with the pile building at 3:30 p.m. The LUC crew was resourceful, creative and cheerful throughout the challenging process.  ... and the compost pile was complete before dark (barely)!

Final compost pile with
tree branch garnish
Stellar teamwork coupled with strong pre-planning brought impressive success amidst the profound challenges at the 2015 AITC.

The Ei FB album, Afternoon in the Country, a zero food waste journey, is a pictorial recap of the pre-event planning along with the event day challenges and successes.

RayDay and AITC zero food waste journeys are the topic of an Ei panel at the 24th Annual U.S. Composting Council Conference hosted in Jacksonville, FL on January 25 - 28.

In addition, NatureWorks intends to document a formal zero food waste case study on the event successes, challenges and lessons learned. Ei plans to craft an Annual Event Zero Food Waste Template consisting of pre, during and post-event best practices.

... and so the journey continues!

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