How to Avoid a Food Waste SNAFU

The idea of composting food waste has a huge appeal.

It’s not surprising since we humans have lived in nature’s expert systems for all time, observing (first-hand, until this industrial age) how anything that once lived is literally decomposed and returned to Earth in a cycle of truly zero waste.

We are, happily, seeing efforts Toward Zero Waste at festivals, and Green Dining Alliance certified restaurants are popping up all over town. In Recycling On The Go systems set up and run by the folks at Earth Day 365, volunteer person-power makes composting and recycling possible at events of all kinds. The Garden has been composting food waste since 2010 at our Sassafras Café, and both recycling and composting Toward Zero Waste at all our Signature Events since 2015.

So it’s not surprising that many Green-hearted people also want to compost the leavings from meals at their school, workplace, personal party, or house of worship.

But think about that waste stream: it’s not just food! Single-use serving ware and packaging of all kinds mingle with edible scraps from every meal. Unless all of this starts out compostable, or people pull all flotsam from the food stream, human-made materials will foul the best-hearted efforts and discourage even “greenies” from trying to compost at gatherings and events.

Clear-eyed awareness and preparation are required to make a food waste composting system work. And, because it’s a system, all the elements are needed to avoid a discouraging compost SNAFU.

Here’s what the Garden’s EarthWays Center has learned from our years of food waste composting. Let our experience help you make composting work for your events.

1. The Whole System Has to Work

Evaluate what will come from every part of food service: preparation, serving ware, food itself, on-site collection logistics, people to coordinate and educate, and a composting service to take the stuff.

You need every element, and the right stuff at every point, to make food waste composting work. It’s a demanding system, with only 3% tolerance for contamination, but it offers a great experience of how a whole system is needed for sustainable results.

2. Product Certification and Labeling

Purchase only single-use serving products that are BPI Certified Compostable. This designation is made by the Biodegradable Products Institute. Labeling can be very confusing. The certification is sometimes only on the case the stuff comes in, not on individual packages. If you’re not sure about a product in a store, ask to see its original cardboard carton. If you’re ordering online, look for BPI certification on the product page, or check the BPI product listings to make sure you’re getting a compostable product. If it’s not on the BPI list, don’t buy it!

Terms like ECO, Enviro, Green, Earth-Friendly and even Biodegradable are NOT reliable guarantees that the product will be accepted by the commercial composter who takes your event food waste. Product labeling is squirrelly! Let our experts at the EarthWays Center double-check before you buy! Email the webpage of product specs to us at

3. Front-Load All Compostable Supplies

If your event wants to have food waste composting, work in advance with all food vendors and servers to help them source only certified compostable serving ware. In our experience at the Garden, only one local supplier of these products, Garrett Paper, gets it and will sell your vendors only Certified Compostable ware. Online sources may not have the stuff you need (review #2).  

It’s still efficient to allow for beverages pre-packaged in bottles or cans that can be recycled, but if you have a mix of recycling and composting from food service, your peeps will be picking through the trash! The rule is Compostable In, Compost Out. Exceptions will crash the system.

3A. Alternatives to the Alternative: prepare to be flexible!

In late 2019, a global shortage of the plant-based plastic PLA began to cause serious shortages of compostable products made from this material. This is a good news/bad news situation on a planetary and industrial scale.

It’s great that consumer demand for alternatives to conventional single-use plastics has boosted sale of compostable plastic items, but until the industries involved can boost production to meet demands, it’s likely that you will not be able to purchase compostable beverage cups, lids, straws, cutlery, portion cups, clamshells, and even hot-food bowls and cups, because these paper goods are lined with PLA.

Your alternative? Stick to reusable serving ware. Or serve beverages in cans or bottles that you can recycle, and use only #1 (PET) plastic cups, which will be acceptable in single-stream recycling.

4. Engage Person-Power  

From a church fish fry to a major community festival, an event of any size needs informed volunteers stationed at all disposal points to:

(A) Tell folks you are composting and why.

(B) Ensure that any rogue items get tipped into the landfill bin so your stream of compostable food waste is clean.

If your system is set up well, this volunteer job will be 95% education and 5% picking. It’s fun and essential! At the Garden, we celebrate these folks as Zero Waste Ambassadors. Join the crew for a 2020 Garden event and learn the system first-hand!

5. Use a Recycling On The Go Sorting System

Our St. Louis Earth Day’s year-round program Recycling On The Go (ROG) will help any group launch food waste composting. Hiring their crews to run your event waste system is a sound investment with reasonable fees. Teaming your organization’s volunteers with their crew leaders is an option that can’t be beat.

For least cost, volunteer with ROG to experience the system and use ROG’s basic rental of a DIY Waste System, including lightweight collection bins with good signs and setup instructions from ROG pros. At every level of this service, your event team will learn how to make Green work on the go with composting, recycling and very little landfill.

6. Be Ready to Pay More

Sorry, but here in the Midwest U.S., where landfill fees have not risen since the dawn of time, your efforts to manage waste through composting as well as recycling will cost you more than “conventional” systems.

If you’re going to invest in a higher priced batch of compostable serving ware, be sure you have your whole system in place (see #1) to get that stuff to a compost processor where it will be turned into soil amendments. Compostable ware is not recyclable! Sorry (again), these systems are not interchangeable!

And a home compost pile can’t handle both animal and plant-based food waste or food serving ware. This scale of waste is geared to go into the system of a commercial composter, like our local company St. Louis Composting.  

If you can’t afford compost collection, consider instead using single-use ware that can be recycled in the system you have, like #1 plastic cups or beverages pre-packaged in bottles and cans, and letting your food serving items go to the landfill. Or jump to #7!

7. Consider All Resuable as a Powerful Route Toward Zero Waste

Reduce-Reuse-Recycle works in this order for a reason! Zapping waste in the first place is the best practice, though it typically gets the least attention. Configure your event to reward folks for bringing all reusable ware that can be taken home and washed again by offering awards for the prettiest, funkiest, most eclectic, etc. sets of serving ware. 

What did people do before we had disposable stuff? We all brought our own dishes and glasses and forks and spoons and carried them away. Encourage potluck contributors to bring some reused to-go boxes so everyone can take some tasty leftovers home. Old-fashioned and proven over time, Reusable is Beautiful!

Our human urge Toward Zero Waste is good! Understanding what makes this kind of system work – and the points at which it will break down – will keep us all encouraged and doing our best.

The Green Event Guide from EarthWays Center details more options for planning sustainable events.

Jean Ponzi
Green Resources Manager

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