Restaurant Vermicomposting Post Mortem

After 3 very interesting months of large-scale food waste vermicomposting, I decided to pull the plug on the project (see Restaurant Food Waste Vermicomposting to learn more about said ‘project’). I have far less time this fall for collecting and handling large amounts of wastes, and my capacity to process all the wastes in the systems I’ve set up (here and on my dad’s property) seemed to be dwindling by the day. With cold, wet weather of fall and even harsher conditions of winter on the way, it’s probably better that I stopped now anyway.

Naturally, I can’t help but feel guilty about my inability to continue, since the restaurant will once again be sending all their food waste to the landfill. They also might not be nearly as open to the idea of letting people take their wastes from now on, thinking that it will end up being more hassle than it’s worth. I actually asked if I could switch to only taking coffee grounds/filters and they decided it wasn’t worth the bother. The irony of their new perspective is that it was coffee grounds and egg carton cardboard that I had originally approached them about (and was met with enthusiasm). Oh well – lesson learned.

Beefsteak Tomatoes

Looking back, I am definitely impressed with what’s been accomplished – all that ‘blood, sweat and tears’ certainly wasn’t a total waste. I was able to divert literally tons of food waste that would have otherwise ended up in the landfill, and was able to put it to very good use. The materials have served as a massive supply of organic fertilizer (not as in certifiable, but in the literal sense of the term ‘organic’) for my gardens and major food source for a lot of composting worms! Even now with the supply cut off, the plants and the worms will continue to benefit from the materials for quite some time.

The project has also certainly provided me with an excellent opportunity to test out various composting methods. My most exciting discovery of course has been the value of vermicomposting trenches as all-natural fertilization and watering system.

Monster Zucchinis

Continuing on the positive side, I can’t tell you how nice it is now not having to constantly think about going to make waste pick-ups. To their credit, the owner and manager of the restaurant were quite accommodating towards the end when I expressed some concern about the pick-up schedule (up until then I had been making pick-ups 6 days a week), agreeing to simply put the bins outside so I could pick them up whenever I had time, rather than during a specific time window at the end of each day.

While I no longer have a steady supply of wastes to feed my worms, the quantity added to my systems up until now should keep the worms going for a while (as mentioned), and I have little doubt I’ll be able to secure plenty of waste from other sources.

For those of you thinking about starting a similar project with a local restaurant, here are some recommendations:

1) Start small – Tame your excitement (and the potential excitement of the restaurant owner) and start by taking small to moderate amounts of waste for a number of weeks or months to make sure you don’t end up biting off more than you can chew.

2) If taking decent quantities of waste on a regular schedule, be sure to fully plan out the project and discuss possible contingency plans with the restaurant staff – the last thing they want to deal with is a large quantity of rotting organic waste that you were supposed to take off their hands.

3) Make sure you have the time, equipment, and space to do the job properly.

4) Keep the channels of communication open at all times – don’t be afraid to let the restaurant know that some particular aspect of the project is not working smoothly for you. This sort of arrangement needs to be ‘sustainable’ from more than just an environmental standpoint.

5) Give lots of notice for any major changes or if you need to stop taking waste. This is especially important when dealing with larger operations (and more food waste) – remember, there is a full staff of people that needed to be notified and educated about this in order to get things off the ground in the first place, so don’t just pull the plug and leave them to deal with the resulting headaches on their end.

6) Try to get the restaurant staff as involved and excited about the project as possible – this way it becomes more of a team effort, and there is a greater chance that some workable solution can be found any time problems arise. If all the burden rests on your shoulders it won’t be nearly as enjoyable, and you likely just end up really stressed out.

Obviously most of these aren’t really an issue if you are only picking up some waste materials occasionally – they are more geared towards project involving a more regular pick-up schedule, and when more wastes are being taken.

In case you are wondering, these are NOT all things I failed at with my project (haha) – just things that have come to mind during the process. I certainly fell short in some ways, but all in all I think I handled everything reasonably well.

Bottomline, it was a very cool experience and I’m really glad I did it. I’d like to start something like this again, but would likely wait until I had a truck and a larger, rural property.

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    • Jeff
    • September 8, 2008


    I know exactly what you are talking about, I have been doing my Resturant composting for about a year now. It is alot different when you live on a farm, and the resturant I am dealing with is owned by a family member…Haha..(owners little more understanding) if you can’t get there that day to pickup the waste..


    • Bob Packard
    • September 8, 2008

    Hi Bentley, looks like it is working now.

    • Kim from Milwaukee
    • September 8, 2008

    Bentley, I think it’s very commendable that you took on such a project in the first place, and that you shared your results with us is very much appreciated. I’ve been mulling over ideas about vermicomposting on a city-wide scale for awhile now, nowhere near starting such a project yet, but your feedback and recommendations certainly help.

    So…am I clear in thinking that the main obstacle you encountered was room to process (compost) all the food wastes? Secondary was the pickup arrangement, right?

    I wonder how Terracycle does it……..doesn’t sound like it’s even feasible on a small scale…it’s either trench at home or mountains once things get rolling and word gets out. 🙂

  1. I what would someone do if they wanted to collect restaurant waste in the winter?

  2. Any chance the restaurant or any of its employees might have gotten excited enough about your project to pick up where you left off? You are to be commended for the amount of food waste you diverted from the landfill during your experiment. Who knows who else you may have inspired?

    I plan to try a vermicompost trench in my garden in the next week or so. My garden is about through for the summer but I’m curious to see if the waste will process enough during the winter to improve the soil for next season. I have a healthy earthworm population out there so we’ll see.

    Thanks for you do to keep me excited about my worms!

    • Bentley
    • September 8, 2008

    Hey Jeff – yeah, it sounds like you’ve got it made for your arrangement. I can’t wait until I can move out into the country.

    Kim – my main obstacle was the time an energy required to collect and handle the wastes – it was like a part time job with a lot of hours – yet i didn’t make a dime (actually COST me quite a bit of money, not even considering the time spent). If I had a lot more time and didn’t have to worry about earning a living (haha), I could have easily continued – I likely would have set up new systems at my dad’s place. Space for processing was certainly an issue, but when time is unlimited you have a lot more options.

    Terracycle and other larger businesses could easily do this by using their hired staff and vehicles, and by using large vermicomposting systems. If I had a rural property and a truck I would be laughing since a lot less time would be needed (far fewer concerns about offending neighbours) and transportation would be very easy.

    Matt – if I had continued into the winter I simply would have used large outdoor systems, which would have generated warmth via microbial activity. With a large enough volume of organic waste you can easily compost all winter long even in pretty cold regions.

    • Bentley
    • September 8, 2008

    Hi Mary (think I posted my previous msg at the same time as you),
    While I’m pretty sure some of the staff were interested in what I was doing, I suspect that the volumes of waste produced by this restaurant (in the range of 12-15 large garbage cans full of very heavy, water-rich waste per week) would simply be too much for even the most enthusiastic composter (and I didn’t get the impression that any of them were even beginner composters). I was hoping to get some university students involved this fall (since it would make for an excellent project), but that obviously didn’t end up happening.

    Anyway – thanks for the kind words. Hopefully my efforts will inspire others, or at least educate people about the pros and cons of this type of project.

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