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  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Separating the peelings from garbage, kitchen employee Jeni Bergeron of Nashua prepares lemons at St. Joseph Hospital Friday, April 15, 2011. The compostable kitchen scraps from food preparation are picked up and delivered to a composting farm.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Staff in the kitchen at St. Joseph Hospital are encouraging patrons of the cafeteria to separate garbage from compostables and biodegradables.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Opening one of the collection bins for kitchen compost, Mark McKenna, director of hospitality services at St. Joseph Hospital explains how food is composted during a tour on Friday, April 15, 2011. McKenna is wearing a haircut because he had just been in the kitchen.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Food waste for composting is stored in bins outside the kitchen at St. Joseph Hospital Friday, April 15, 2011.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Director of Hospitality Services Mark McKenna talks about the kitchen's composting program at St. Joseph Hospital Friday, April 15, 2011. He is wearing a hairnet as part of health and safety regulations.
Friday, April 22, 2011

Hospital turning tons of food into compost

Hospitals are known for having sick people but they contain even more hungry people: In the case of St. Joseph Hospital, 100 beds worth of them, plus hundreds of staffers and volunteers.

The result is lots and lots of food thrown out, which really annoys Mark McKenna – who, among other things, oversees the hospital’s trash-disposal budget.

“We’ve been recycling since 2009, and this just seemed like the next natural step,” said McKenna, director of hospitality services.

In November, the hospital began a food-composting system, separating all food scraps during preparation in the kitchen so they can be picked up and turned into natural fertilizer instead of landfill filler.

“It was maybe a little bit difficult in the beginning, but not any more,” said Elena Kharina, a cook, gesturing at a “slim jim,” a type of trash can. “We throw all food there.”

The result is good for the environment – and doesn’t hurt the bottom line, McKenna said.

Waste that’s sent to a Haverill incinerator costs $78.50 a ton to get rid of, plus a $121 hauling fee; compostable food costs $35 a ton to get rid of, with a $40 hauling fee. This isn’t much money in the scheme of the $950,000 food budget, since the hospital generates about 1 1⁄ 2 tons of food waste a month, but every bit helps.

The result shows in another way, he said: “The waste used to be picked up twice a week; now, it’s once a week.”

An unexpected advantage is that the separation made the amount of food waste clear, providing an incentive to waste less.

“We look at ways to reduce what gets wasted,” McKenna said. Instead of automatically tossing fruit that isn’t picture perfect, it might get turned into a fruit salad, or stale bread might get turned into croutons or bread pudding.

McKenna says he worked on the project for close to a year before it could be started, largely because it was hard finding somebody to pick up the separated food.

The food is picked up once a week by New England Solid Waste Consultants Inc. in Rowley, Mass., which handles similar pickups for a number of institutions, including the cafeteria of Oracle’s Nashua facility, several dozen Hannaford supermarkets and a bunch of nursing homes, hospitals and private schools between central Massachusetts and Portland, Maine.

“My father and grandfather were pig farmers. We used to pick up garbage and feed it to our hogs,” said Roy Ferreira Jr., the firm’s owner. “About five years ago, a local farmer asked me, would you haul organics? That’s how it started.”

Food waste now makes up nearly 20 percent of business for the company, which is the only major hauler for it in the region.

Over in Portsmouth, a two-man company called EcoMovement Consulting & Hauling has picked up food waste from restaurants and other facilities for almost two years. It takes it to Seacoast Farms in Freemont .

“If you think about traditional hauling, they go from a to b the fastest way they can do it. The logistics in composting is a lot more complicated; you need a lot more education,” said EcoMovement co-owner Rian Bedard.

That includes educating customers about what can and cannot go into compostable food waste.

“In the beginning, it’s a change for them. A big part of what we do is include staff training, signage, continuing education. … We look through the bags, give a lot of feedback, take pictures and send e-mails when we find contamination,” he said.

Behind the shortage of haulers is the real bottleneck: A shortage of places to take food waste so it can be turned into compost.

A number of locations in New Hampshire are licensed to take as much leaf and yard waste and manure as they want, but no place is licensed by the Department of Environmental Services to be a “large-scale” food-waste composting system, a category that allows it to take in more than 30 tons of food a day.

Commercial composting is more complicated that it might seem. The state’s administrative rules, for example, specify “a minimum of five turnings shall be required during a period of 15 consecutive days when the temperature of the mixture shall not be less than 55ºC (131ºF) at 6 to 8 inches below the surface of the pile,” and things can change depending whether you use windrows, “aerated static pile composting” or “enclosed vessel composting.”

Food composting is even harder and needs more careful handling that leaves or animal waste because of concerns about smell, animals and possible pathogens. To make good compost, with the right carbon/nitrogen balance, it also needs to be mixed with yard waste or manure in the proper ratios.

The state’s administrative rules for composting facilities allow a simple permitting process called “permit by notification” for facilities that accept less than 30 tons of food a day, but they can’t take dairy or meat, which limits their effectiveness.

New England Solid Waste hauls its waste to Brick End Farms in Raleigh, Mass., which has been composting for decades. If food composting really took off and Brick End Farms couldn’t handle more, however, Ferreira says he’d have to turn away customers.

“That is the biggest problem: There aren’t enough facilities to take it; there aren’t enough people who want to do it,” he said.

Part of the reason for the lack of food composting operations has been the decline in farms, which are the sort of customers who can buy tons of compost at a time. However, this decline appears to be changing, boosted by a push for local food and small-scale farms in New Hampshire, leading to the possibility that market forces will make it financially worthwhile for large-scale composting operations to start up, prodding more haulers to accept food and more people to compost it.

At St. Joseph Hospital, McKenna hopes so because he’d like to take the next step: “Post-consumer” – that is, composting the scraps left over on food trays after people eat. That would be a lot more work but would keep even more food out of the waste stream.

“When I started, we were doing 18 percent recycling (of all waste by weight). Last time we calculated it was 28 percent, hopefully it’s over 30 percent now with the food,” McKenna said.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.