In the lull between breakfast and lunch, staff at the Grapevine Cafe at Providence Milwaukie Hospital chop onions, remove wide trays of chicken thighs from the oven and hoist large pans onto burners.
They’re making the chicken and shrimp Veracruz listed on the chalkboard near the cafeteria’s counter. They move rapidly around each other in the tight space. It’s the type of choreographed routine you might expect in any commercial kitchen.
Until you see where the scraps go.
In this kitchen, “trim is not trash,” says executive chef Martin Pedersen. Instead of scraping those onion peels and the chicken bones into bins of garbage that end up in a landfill, the scraps at the Grapevine are tossed into separate bins, and from there, get turned into compost.
It’s something more than 1,000 businesses in greater Portland do, and it’s something Metro Council would like to see more of. At a work session last week, the council directed Metro staff to explore possible requirements on businesses to keep even more food out of the garbage. Policy options would focus on the inedible food scraps, from peels to plate scrapings, which come from large restaurants, cafeterias and grocery stores.
Nearly a fifth of the garbage generated in the Portland metropolitan area is food – enough to fill 5,000 trucks every year. More than half of that food comes from businesses.
Food in the landfill is a problem because as it rots, it produces methane gas, which contributes to climate change, explains Matt Korot, resource conservation and recycling program director at Metro. “It’s a waste,” he says, “and it goes against the Oregon ethos.” Pulling food out of the garbage can not only reduce climate impacts, Korot says, but it can also turn that trash into something useful. Compost. Fertilizer. Energy.
In fact, to some extent, that’s already happening. Last year, about 28,000 tons of food scraps were processed into products in Oregon through voluntary participation of businesses. But with about 200,000 tons still going to the landfill, Metro councilors say it’s not enough.
“We need to stop poisoning the environment with our waste,” Councilor Craig Dirksen said at the work session. “It’s a resource. We need to stop wasting it.”
For some businesses, separating food scraps makes sense
Six of Oregon’s eight Providence healthcare facilities separate food scraps from the rest of the trash. For Providence sustainability manager Mike Geller, it was a no-brainer.
“Last time we did a waste sort, food was 23 percent of our total,” he says. “That’s a big piece of the pie so that’s what we went after.” For Providence, the cost to dispose of food waste is half the cost of garbage disposal.
The Grapevine Café at the Providence Portland Medical Center serves 300 meals a day. In the kitchen’s food prep area are several narrow, space-saving bins to collect trimmings for composting. There are also bins at the dishwashing station for plate-scrapings.
Pedersen says at first he worried that kitchen staff might be reluctant to incorporate the extra sorting into their routine. But, he says, they’re on board. Each week, they collect about 300 pounds of food scraps. From the kitchen, the scraps go to roll carts out on the loading dock. Food waste is picked up once a week, garbage every three weeks.
Cost, training, space: Separating food scraps isn’t always a picnic
But for some businesses, it can be difficult to manage food scraps as a separate type of waste. It’s heavy, wet, and sometimes smelly, and it can attract insects and rodents. Some businesses have struggled to fit more bins, staff time and expense into kitchen routines.
Jodenne Scott, director of financial support services and energy sustainability at Shari’s Restaurants, says the Tualatin location tried separating food scraps for a couple of months, but it didn’t make financial sense for the company.
“We take great care to prepare the right amount of food and don’t have a lot of food scraps,” she says. Not enough scraps, in fact, to trigger a reduction in garbage bin size or number of garbage pick-ups. “We need frequent food scrap pickups to ensure that odors and (rodents) don’t become problems and we have no way to justify or offset that cost.”
And the extra costs are not limited to hauler fees. She says biodegradable bags sometimes used for food scraps can cost much more than regular trash bags. Having staff rinse the bins instead of using bags adds to labor and water costs. “I think it’s a good program, but we need to find solutions that work for everybody.”
At Hayden’s Lakefront Grill in Tualatin, a big space with bar and restaurant seating for 200 as well as four banquet rooms, staff training was an issue.
“We tried collecting food scraps several times,” says assistant general manager Matt Goode. “We put bins in the kitchen everywhere there was a trash can. But the staff have every move down already. They have such a routine, trying to decide what scrap goes in each bin was much more difficult than we imagined.”
And then there is space, which comes at a premium at Cassidy’s, a small restaurant in downtown Portland. Owner Bob Cassidy says it would be hard to find room for extra bins in the kitchen, and outside, there’s no space to store the separate food scrap containers.
“We’d have to keep them inside till pickup. And if we did that we’d be running into trouble with the health department,” he said. Think odor. And rats.
Separating food scraps, he says, makes much more sense for grocery stores, and large institutions such as school districts and hospitals.
“I definitely see some challenges,” says Jess Tannenbaum, retail operations manager at Grand Central Bakery. She also cites the cost of compost bags and adjustments in staff routine, as well as rule changes during the life of the program.
But Grand Central has been able to work out the major kinks over the seven years it’s been separating food scraps, says Tannenbaum. At the location on Hawthorne Boulevard in Southeast Portland, there are food scrap bins near the dish pit for scrapings, at the sandwich prep station for scraps, and near the espresso machine for coffee grounds. Each of the seven locations has a slightly different system but at this point, she says, collecting food scraps fits seamlessly into kitchen routines.
Some voice concerns about a requirement
The Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association is supportive of efforts to get more food out of the garbage, but wary of any business requirements. Greg Astley, the association's director of government affairs, says that food scrap collection works better when it’s voluntary. “Another rule or mandate could be crippling to our members in the hospitality industry,” he says.
Astley says any new rules should be enforced consistently, and shouldn’t conflict with existing requirements. A case in point: Portland requires downtown restaurants to maintain a certain number of parking spaces outside their premises. But they also need outside space for garbage and recycling containers. Add food scrap containers, says Astley, and satisfying all requirements becomes very difficult.
Association executive director Jason Brandt stresses the need for a robust infrastructure – that means trucks, hauling schedules, processing – “to handle the load that food scraps would have on the system for both collection and storage."
Providence’s Geller knows that infrastructure is key. “We self-haul our food scraps to Portland from our Oregon City location, because there’s no municipal program,” he says.
Policy options Metro staff present to Council as early as next spring are likely to address a variety of business concerns, such as costs and needed support for potentially affected businesses. Metro conducted a survey of suburban businesses about food scraps collection and expects to do more outreach to inform a direction.
“Stewardship of the earth is a core value for us” says Geller. “And this is just about small changes in habits.”
Metro is currently resolving issues with closed captioning. Please click below for a transcript of the video.