August 23, 2014

U-I hospitals moving to composting program for food

Discarded food from the state’s largest hospital will soon be part of a composting program in Iowa City. Jen Jordan, recycling coordinator at the Iowa City Landfill, says the landfill’s massive mounds of compost disappear as gardeners buy it every spring.

“It’s a hot commodity, no pun intended…currently it’s $10 a ton and we’ve sold out for the past three years,” Jordan says. The landfill will soon see an influx of more material from the cafeterias at the University of Iowa Hospitals. Two months ago, the hospital received criticism after the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported they threw roughly 12 percent of the food prepared in the dining halls – or about$181,000 worth of food in a year.

Scott Turner, an associate director for U-I Hospitals, says they’ve since reevaluated their food preparation methods to reduce the amount they waste. “We’re cooking food in smaller batches to reduce the amount of food that needs to be discarded,” Turner says. “We’ve taken additional steps to make sure food can be safely donated to other organizations.”

Food makes up 14-percent of the waste going into Iowa landfills. Nationally, it’s nearly 21-percent. Dan Nickey, with the Waste Reduction Center at the University of Northern Iowa, says only four public landfills in the state of Iowa have food composting programs.

“It (food) is a growing waste stream and it’s not going down like paper, cardboard and wood waste,” Nickey says. One of the reasons food waste is growing is it’s costly to compost.

“It’s not necessarily profitable for the landfill to do food waste composting,” Nickey says. “It has to be trucked in separately and every time you try to take out waste streams and deal with them individually, it’s more labor intensive.”

Landfills also need to get a permit and comply with environmental regulations to make sure pathogens and pesticides don’t get into the mix. But Nickey says there’s growing interest to making large-scale composting more prevalent in Iowa.

In Iowa City, hospital spokesman Scott Turner says he doesn’t have an estimate of how much the U-I Hospitals will contribute to the composting operation, but as one of the area’s largest employers, it’s bound to be significant.