February 23, 2010 | General

The Business Of Food Waste Composting

Greenco food waste cart tipperBioCycle February 2010, Vol. 51, No. 2, p. 16
Greenco, the first permitted commercial food waste facility in Georgia, services generators in the greater Atlanta region. Continued expansion depends on sourcing greater volumes of carbon amendments.
Molly Farrell Tucker

BEING the first at anything is almost always a challenge, and becoming Georgia’s first permitted commercial food waste composting facility was no exception. Greenco Environmental, which composts food waste, yard trimmings and wood at its 32-acre facility in Barnesville, Georgia, jumped through many hoops including finding an approved site, obtaining local and state permits, and sourcing enough carbon to compost with the food waste.
Tim Lesko, president of Greenco, didn’t start out planning to open a food waste composting facility. Lesko was president of Sebia Inc., a French-owned medical supply distribution company in Atlanta. “There was a change in the board of directors and we didn’t see eye to eye, so I cashed out my stock in January 2006,” he says. Lesko, a self-professed green thumb and backyard composter, decided to go into landscaping. He made an offer to buy a landscape company but the deal didn’t close. “Through that experience, though, I learned that the company’s owner spent $150,000 each year to have yard trimmings hauled away,” Lesko notes, “and that landscape company was just one of 100 medium-sized firms in Atlanta. Hauling is a big issue for individual landscapers, who want to get rid of yard waste.”
His next plan was to collect and compost landscapers’ yard trimmings and sell the compost back to them the following season. “Then I learned that no one in Georgia was composting food waste, so I went from buying a landscaping company, to composting yard waste, to starting a food waste composting business,” says Lesko.
Commercial food waste pile
Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources permits food waste composting facilities through its Environmental Protection Division’s (EPD) Land Protection Branch, which also permits landfills and transfer stations. Before Greenco could begin the state permitting process, EPD required a letter of zoning from the local municipality or county where Greenco planned on siting the facility, as well as a “letter of consistency” from the county stating that Greenco was in compliance with the county’s solid waste management plan.
Lesko started looking for agricultural land for the facility in August 2006. “We went from county to county and tried to get several different locations approved,” he says. “When we told county officials that we wanted to compost food residuals, they said that we would be operating similar to a landfill because we would be bringing in truckloads of food waste and we would need land zoned ‘heavy industrial.’ At the time, it was taking up to eight years to permit a new landfill in Georgia.”
In order to get the letter of zoning, Greenco was advised by legal counsel to buy land that was zoned heavy industrial rather than seek a change in the agricultural zoning, which would have been a lengthy process. “So we opted to buy land already zoned heavy industrial,” recalls Lesko. “We were looking for large acreage (50+ acres) as close to Atlanta as possible. We finally found 32 acres in Lamar County, 47 miles south of Atlanta.”
In April 2007, Greenco sought approval from the Lamar County Industrial Development Board to purchase the land and build the facility. After Greenco received that approval, it purchased the site in July 2007 and obtained the letter of consistency from the county two months later.
The next step was obtaining a solid waste handling permit and an operating permit from the EPD. Greenco spent $85,000 in design and engineering costs for the permits. Construction couldn’t begin until an EPD operating permit was approved, which entailed environmental studies, soil and water sampling and other tasks. Greenco received permission to start construction while it obtained the operating permit; work on the site began in July 2008. The solid waste handling permit was approved in October 2008 and operations began in early December 2008. The company has 14 employees, including Lesko’s wife Melia, and his brother Russ.
The company built a buffer around the entire 32-acre site and developed 20 of the 32 acres. Fourteen of the 20 acres were selected for active composting. On the remaining six acres, the company built an office, scale house, storage area and three storm water ponds that collect runoff from the site. The facility was permitted to handle 40,000 tons/year of food waste, and up to 160,000 tons of feedstocks including carbon and nitrogen sources. “Our permit specifies that we won’t take in biosolids so we don’t have to do groundwater monitoring,” says Lesko.


Greenco currently has 40 generator customers. Food waste generators include meat, seafood, fruit and vegetable processors; bakeries; supermarkets; food service operations; hospitals; restaurants; and schools, universities, and colleges. Yard trimmings and wood waste generators include large and small landscapers, municipalities, and lumber mills. Greenco provides its services in a 90-mile radius from its facility. It does 90 percent of its own food and wood waste hauling, with the rest hauled by Closed Loop Organics of Atlanta. “By holding our own contracts and doing our own hauling, we tend to have more control over the amount of contamination,” says Lesko.
Greenco’s first generator customer, Ready Pac (who signed on a year before the facility opened) produces prebagged salad mixes. It hauls and composts lettuce, cabbage and carrots from Ready Pac’s automated processing line. Greenco also collects produce from Whole Foods’ distribution center in Braselton, Georgia twice a week. “Apples and oranges tend to roll so a shredder bucket is used to break the fruit into smaller pieces, but no other grinding of the food waste is necessary,” notes Lesko. Greenco subcontracts with a company that has a large mobile grinder to process the wood waste either at the customer’s site or at its facility.
Sodexo, a nationwide company that manages food services at several corporate cafeterias and universities in the Atlanta area, has hired Greenco to collect food waste from some of its customers including Emory University and Georgia Tech. The company also receives about 35 tons/week of organics from hotels, including the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, InterContinental Buckhead Atlanta and Doubletree Hotel Atlanta. Corn-starch based cups used by visitors to sample 60 different Coca Cola products at the World of Coke’s 92,000-square-foot visitor center also are brought to the site for composting. “We composted them in a pilot windrow with our regular feedstocks and had no problems,” says Lesko. Georgia has a large state farmers’ market in Forest Park, 40 miles from Greenco. Twelve tons/day from two generators at the market are collected; the state pays 20 percent of the cost of hauling.
“It has not been difficult to get generator customers for food waste,” notes Lesko. “Part of our success is that we got some good press about our participation in Atlanta’s Zero Waste initiative. The sponsors, Green Foodservice Alliance, Atlanta Recycles and U.S. EPA are all on board with our program and have gotten us a lot of free PR.”
The key motivator for Greenco’s generator customers is financial, he adds. “They tend to pay less for our hauling and disposal than they would to have the food waste brought to a transfer station or landfill.” Tip fees in the metro Atlanta area range from $33 to $45/ton per ton. Greenco’s tip fee averages about $30/ton. For some customers, pulling food residuals out of the dumpsters and compactors allows them to stretch their solid waste spending by fewer numbers of pulls and lighter tonnages.
So far, Greenco has had a problem with only one feedstock. “During the summer of 2009, we tried composting currency fines – old bills that were pulled out of circulation by the U.S. Federal Reserve and shredded,” says Lesko. “The fines measured about one-half inch long and one-quarter inch wide. They didn’t break down quickly enough in our composting timeline. Usually, food waste provides enough liquid, and sometimes too much, but that summer we went 45 days without rain and our three storm water ponds dried up. The piles got too dry before we could rectify it.” Greenco plans on trying again. “When we had the pilot going, visitors to our facility thought that it was a great idea to compost old money,” he adds.


To collect food waste, Greenco purchased a Peterbilt front-loading packer truck in July 2009 and modified it. “Food waste is already dense so we took out the compaction and sealed the front end of the body,” says Lesko. “We also added a Carry Can cart tipper, which is a three-yard container that rides on the forks of the truck. It picks up 32-gallon containers from the customer’s dock, whether at ground level or dock level. We plan on purchasing a second similar vehicle to expand our route coverage.”
The 32-gallon containers are tipped into the larger carry can container at the customer’s site so the drivers can check for contamination. “This way, the contamination doesn’t get buried,” he explains. “The average grocer has 12 carts that are collected three or four days a week. If there is a latex glove or beer bottle, there is a much better chance of finding it in a smaller load.”
Plastic is the primary source of contamination, but it varies from customer to customer. “Some restaurants use Styrofoam cups for their staff’s drinks, and hotels and restaurants that serve beer and wine may have a large-scale glass problem,” he says.
Greenco’s service contracts with its customers include a surcharge of $2.00/piece of contamination. “The surcharge is pretty steep, and so far, we have been able to work with the customers and haven’t had to impose it,” notes Lesko. “We approach all our customers by saying that this is important, because plastic, glass, metal and Styrofoam will never compost. When contamination is found, we usually follow up the next day and are very specific about what we found and where it came from.”
Some of the larger cart customers such as Georgia Tech have more than 40 carts between two kitchens. “We color-code the carts according to whether they are in the food prep area, the serving line or the wash area,” he says. “That allows us to go back and say that we found contaminants in the red area. If 80 percent of the kitchen staff are doing it right, we only need to focus on the 20 percent that need additional training.”
Compost turning
When food waste arrives at the facility, it is mixed with the ground yard and wood waste using a Komatsu front end loader. The blended materials are assembled into outdoor windrows and composted and cured for a total of 90 days. Windrows are turned daily with a Midwest BioSystems PT-120 tractor-pulled turner until the temperature drops below 131°F. “Then we turn them every third day,” says Lesko.
The windrows start out 10 feet wide, six feet high and 650 feet long when built. “We realized that we were getting 75 percent shrinkage during composting, so we began pushing two piles together to maintain size,” he adds. Windrows are turned every 10 days while the compost is curing, and then screened with a Star Screen USA to produce the finished product.
Finished compost
Greenco could take on many more food waste customers if it could find more sources of carbon. The greater Atlanta area generates 400,000 tons of food waste each year, which is half of the state’s total, according to the EPD. “We actually had to put the brakes on growing the business because we did not have enough steady supplies of carbon,” says Lesko. “When we first started we were bringing in a couple of tons of food waste a day. We had a stockpile of 1,300 tons of yard waste from clearing our land and our first wood waste and yard waste customers. I thought we had enough for up to 40 tons of food waste, but it didn’t last very long. We never estimated how difficult it would be to bring in additional sources of carbon. The majority of yard and wood waste here and around Georgia is going to power generation. We could buy it from a nearby lumber mill but that’s not in my business plan.”
The best option for Greenco has been to work with public entities. “Two counties, Rockdale and DeKalb, collect and grind yard and wood waste and we haul it to our facility,” he adds. “The remaining yard trimmings come from landscapers and local municipalities.”
Initially, all the finished compost was sold to a landscape supply and a local farmer. Greenco has added other farmers and landscape suppliers. “In addition, a smaller bagger who sells organic fertilizer will bag our product under its name,” says Lesko. “The bagger is doing prespring sales and taking orders.”

Molly Farrell Tucker is a Contributing Editor to BioCycle.

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