Energy from restaurant waste unites downtown Kitchener, writes Andrew Coppolino

A pilot project in downtown Kitchener has reduced the amount of food waste from the food industry sent to landfill: the Organic Waste Diversion Pilot, initiated by the downtown Business Improvement Area.
Lauren Fletcher dumps used coffee grinds into a compost bin in Matter of Taste, a coffee shop in downtown Kitchener. The grinds will be picked up as part of a pilot project that is turning organic waste from downtown businesses into energy at a plant in Elmira. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

There's a saying about saving the environment that if food waste were its own country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.

I'm not sure where that fact came from, but it is true that, according to Second Harvest, the cost of Canada's annual food waste is $49 billion.

That is a very big number, and a pilot project in downtown Kitchener has reduced the amount of food waste sent to landfill: the Organic Waste Diversion Pilot, initiated by the downtown Business Improvement Area (BIA) began this past July and is scheduled to run until July 2020. So far, it's had success.

Mostly restaurants, 13 businesses in the BIA (essentially the downtown core area) are participating in the pilot. Each business separates their organic waste, both from kitchen production and food not eaten or taken home by customers, and store it in specially designated bins for collection.

The anticipated cost of the pilot is about $50,000, most of it borne by the BIA, includes paying for training, collection by The Working Centre, haulage and equipment.

"This pilot is about supporting a circular economy by using local partnerships and expertise to provide local jobs and solutions to a global problem," according to Linda Jutzi, executive director of the BIA.

83 tonnes of waste

The individual bins are collected by Working Centre Job Café staff three times a week. The waste is then hauled to a processing plant in Elmira where it is turned into green energy through anaerobic digestion.

Sustainable Waterloo Region is involved with training and expertise for the pilot, which is also supported by the City of Kitchener.

So far, the program has collected over 83 metric tonnes of food waste — enough to power 36 homes for a month.

When the pilot ends next summer, Jutzi says they will be looking for grants and other ways of funding the program. She hopes that a model and process develops out of the pilot that can be repeated here and in other regions.

Grand Truck Saloon chef Rich Hodge says working to redirect food waste is manageable even for for a busy kitchen.

Both smaller food businesses like Legacy Greens and medium-sized restaurants like Grand Trunk Saloon are participating, as well as a tech start-up and a florist.

Jordan Dolson at Legacy Greens has found the pilot convenient.

"Our partners at the Working Centre pick up our organic waste three times a week and we just have a different receptacle for things like food scraps and any food waste," Dolson says.

At Full Circle Foods, another participant, co-owner Julia Gogoleva says the pilot has a good system in place.

"It's convenient to have our own bin that we keep, and it's lovely to have the program workers come around to collect the compost," Gogoleva says. 

While she admits that it is a bit of extra work, Gogoleva adds, "it's well worth it."

With their philosophy and bulk-food purchase area, Full Circle is attuned to the idea of sustainability and reducing waste.

Extra work worth it

In terms of amounts collected, that depends on the size of the restaurant involved. To take the Grand Truck Saloon example, chef Rich Hodge says the process is manageable for a busy kitchen to take a few extra steps from guests' plates to the waste from the kitchen.

"Each step takes only a few extra minutes to separate anything organic that goes into one bin from anything non-organic going into our regular waste," says Hodge.

The leg-work and scraping done, he estimates that the amount they divert from landfill for the 55-seat restaurant and bar is three bags of organic waste from the kitchen and two from front-of-house waste. That he says adds up to roughly a 180-litre wheeled dumpster leaving the restaurant every day.

At bigger restaurants, there's even more organic waste in the region.

"It's a lot of waste," says Hodge. "Take all the guests in our restaurant every day all year and that's a lot of organic waste being diverted and going into a separate bin, and not into landfill." 

These are significant amounts, and they could be much larger if such a program could expand across the region. With a sense of humor, Hodge advises customers to be patient because of the work involved in organizing what waste goes where.

"There's a little bit of extra time in the back so if your waitress or waiter isn't around at your table, part of that time they're away is because they're saving the world."

That's time well spent.


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