One Man's Journey to Turn Food Trash Into Compost Treasure

Photo from Wayne Koeckeritz

While supervising a recycling and waste disposal program, Wayne Koeckeritz was so bothered by all the food waste he saw destined for the landfill that he decided to do something about it. He quit his job as a facility manager of a luxury hotel in South Carolina, cashed out his savings, bought a used garbage truck and set out on his own to turn food trash into compost treasure with his hauling company, Food Waste Disposal (FWD).

With a background in logistics gained through working in the military and the hotel industry, Koeckeritz knew there were significant inefficiency and environmental problems associated with managing the sheer volume of food and organic waste generated by many businesses. It occurred to him that these problems offered an unmet opportunity to work with restaurants and other operations, from universities to grocers, in the Charleston, South Carolina metro area. By focusing on commercial and institutional businesses, he could have a direct impact on keeping food waste – a major and unnecessary contributor to landfills – out of the waste stream, and put it to good use through composting. Koeckeritz views FWD’s “table-to-farm” approach as an essential component to closing the overall food system loop that complements its better recognized “farm-to-table” segment.

Koeckeritz acknowledges that reducing the food waste epidemic in the United States means reconsidering consumer behavior, portion sizes and public policy. Nonetheless, these businesses will always generate organic waste in the sale and production of food (think onion skins, chicken bones, biodegradable paper products, etc.). To that end, there will be constant demand for food waste hauling and composting within the food industry, especially since the service reduces the total cost of waste disposal in some cases. The other benefits provided by FWD are decreased methane emissions from landfills, the ever-valuable and marketable resource of compost to farmers and community recognition. Plus, there is a bonus to FWD customers: They get compost credits which they can use or pass on to gardeners or farmers, to be redeemed for fresh compost!

Recently, we caught up with Koeckeritz at his home in Charleston. Our conversation was as entertaining as it was broad and included subjects like the city’s unique composting program, what it takes to attract customers and the future of food-to-farm initiatives in his region and around the United States. We also delved into the food, water and energy “nexus,” one of our favorite topics here at GRACE and Ecocentric, and one that wasted food embodies.

For this and more, check out the transcript of our conversation. Below is a selection of what we discussed.

On what led Wayne to start his company, Food Waste Disposal.

Really what it is, it’s a hauling business. And the reason is, here, in Charleston County there were no facilities to do any commercial composting. And the county themselves, probably about 18 months to 24 months ago began a pilot program with the Department of Health and Environmental control to do commercial food composting, because there continue to be no regulations in the state of South Carolina that governs anything like this. And so in order for the county to do it they had to work very closely with the state.

What’s really rewarding to see is when local farmers who have been going up to the county facility and loading up on four or five, six tons of compost to bring back to their fields, to use that compost in the growing of their produce which then gets turned around and put back into the local restaurant. If you want to talk about closing the loop, there it is.

And they now, the county is now the only site in the state of South Carolina that is permitted to do commercial food composting. And what that did though was created a market, created a market for somebody to transport all of the compostable food and organic waste. And that is really where I saw an opportunity to start a business to do that. And the traditional MSW [municipal solid waste] haulers have sort of sat on the sidelines a little bit and watched and recognizing that it’s still quite a niche market, very early in its stage of growth and development.  So that, again, is kind of the impetus for really getting out there now and trying to gather market share and spread the word.

And what led me to this was - I had been in hospitality for fifteen years, prior to starting this company. And I had always been on the facilities side of hotels. I was in the maintenance department. And typically in the facility operations I oversaw recycling and municipal solid waste. So recognizing how wasteful hotels are in terms of energy, in terms of food, and water. All of those things. There was obviously a desire to try to change that, not to the detriment of the guest experience, but many more about what can we do on the back side. If we are going to consume a lot of these things, what can we do on the backside to at least soften the impact of that consumption? And so that’s really where I ended up. Starting out on my own and starting this company.

On the tremendous environmental and efficiency benefits that food and organic waste hauling and composting provide and closing the “table-to-farm” loop.

Landfills are the number three leading contributor of methane. Fifteen percent of all methane emissions are generated by landfills. So I can make that argument that if you had a finite number of recycling dollars, and sustainability dollars, you want it to have the biggest impact, I can make the case that doing food and composting which is again, 60 or 70 percent of your waste stream, is a better value, is a better economic, environmental benefit than actually recycling glass and plastics. Sometimes I lay that one on there so they almost have to talk themselves out of composting. Because if they've talked themselves into recycling, the same line of logic would then say, well we should compost. See you almost have to get them to say, "Look, I don’t know." And then they feel sort of torn by that, as well.

Now I'm saying: Look, I'm going to offer you value. Now you can write a check and know that you're doing something that has great, important value in the community. Not only to extending and prolonging the life of the landfill, but reducing methane emissions, you are helping create a product that, what I talked about and you've probably heard some variant of this in New York and your travels elsewhere, the whole farm-to-table movement. Farm to table. And I simply say, “I'm table-to-farm.”

We focus all about the local farmer and sustainability and getting those local products to the local market, to that table, but then what do we do with it. Well I'm talking about let’s get it back to the farm. And what’s really rewarding to see is when there are local farmers who have been going up to the county facility and loading up on four or five, six tons of compost to bring back to their fields, to use that compost and the growing of their produce which then gets turned around and put back into the local restaurant. If you want to talk about closing the loop, there it is.

On how food waste exemplifies and impacts the food, water, energy nexus.

But what I can say is, "Look, within this corn or tomato or whatever, or whatever it is, there’s a number of BTUs that were used to produce it. Let’s, you know, at least capture some of those resources and that energy and take that and put it back in rather than being incredibly wasteful with it."

I think two-thirds of all water consumption is for industrial agriculture. It’s staggering, those numbers are staggering. So again, if we're expending those resources, and what can we do on the back end to at least capture those and try to reuse them. So that’s really, I think, my focus is - I know there is a lot of advocacy and a lot of groups that are working on the front end of this issue, and trying to figure out ways to use less water and less fuel and all of that. Like I said, that’s not where I'm at right now. I'm on the backside of that. What can we do to at least sort of respect all of the energy and resources that went into producing the food?

But it’s interesting, you know, having never really thought about that nexus of those three until you asked the question and forced me to think about it. It almost makes me want to go and use that now when I'm talking to folks and say, "Hey, just know there’s all these resources going into this, lets at least try to capture them on the backside, as well."