IRC tries food waste project

Prime Sirloin in composting program

Blair County waste collection agencies are exhibiting hunger pangs.

Tyrone Borough has proposed construction of a sewer plant digester that would accept food waste, while the Altoona Water Authority, less definitively, has talked of sewer plant changes — maybe a digester — that also could lead to soliciting food waste as fuel.

The Intermunicipal Relations Committee — the four-municipality council of governments that oversees curbside recycling collection here, where mandated by the state — has filled its plate first, however.

Last month, the IRC set in motion a pilot food waste composting program, beginning with an arrangement to take food waste from the Prime Sirloin restaurant at the Meadows.

The restaurant staff sets out the waste, along with biodegradable paper napkins and paper placemats, in bins provided by the committee, which collects the stuff and takes it to the IRC composting facility at the Buckhorn, where it’s incorporated into yard waste windrows, according to IRC education and enforcement coordinator Katrina Pope.

The mixing takes place in a recently constructed pit.

The waste speeds decomposition of the leaves and other yard trimmings, because it adds moisture, Pope said previously.

The IRC is also talking with Weis Markets, Penn State Altoona and Hollidaysburg Area High School about providing waste for the pilot project, which will last six to eight weeks.

The high school will begin sending waste this month.

Prime Sirloin owner Don Delozier is a member of the Blair County Chamber of Commerce Environmental Sustainability Committee, and thinks environmental initiatives are a good idea.

Prime Sirloin creates a healthy share of food waste, given its high customer volume and its buffet-style service — which means that the restaurant can’t help what diners heap on their plates, but that it must prohibit doggie bags, because it would be too easy for diners to take advantage.

In addition to food scraped off plates, the restaurant will supply food prep waste — the tops of carrots, for example — and food that has overstayed its permitted time on the buffet table and can’t be used in a secondary dish like soup.

All leftover fried foods go out the same day they’re prepared, Delozier said.

The restaurant provided 6,000 pounds, or three tons, of waste during one recent — and busy — two-week period, Delozier said.

Despite the large amount of waste, the restaurant has long done its best to minimize throwaways, largely by adjusting its preparation amounts based on past experience, he said.

The restaurant keeps detailed records of the guest count for every date, along with the weather and special factors — like whether a holiday falls on a particular day, he said.

The main decision that will flow from the pilot study will be whether the IRC will continue to collect the waste when the pilot becomes a full-fledged program or whether it will depend on a collector, according to Pope.

One advantage of the IRC using its own staff to collect would be the ability to reject a contaminated load at the source, rather than at the compost facility, she said.

Silverware, plastic spoons and Styrofoam cups are among contaminants that could end up in the waste.

When the program becomes full-fledged, the IRC will begin charging to compost the waste.

Either the IRC or an outside collector will charge for picking up the waste, Pope said.

The total cost for the waste producers presumably will be lower than their cost for landfilling the waste, she said.

The total target price for the food waste service likely would be no more than the cost to the restaurants or other producers of landfilling the material, according to Pope.

A Penn State Altoona intern who is a member of the school’s Enactus team is helping to market the project and to put it into practice.

The Enactus team as a whole will buy bins, assist in collection and analyze the economics of the program, with help from a grant, according to Pope.

Enactus’ mission is “creating a better, more sustainable world through the positive power of business,” according to its website.

As for the potential competition for food waste with Tyrone and the Altoona Water Authority, Pope said, “there’s a lot of food waste out there.”

Besides, “more options are not a bad thing,” Pope said.

Moreover, the digester projects are “in the early planning stages,” she said.

It will behoove all the organizations to work cooperatively, IRC Executive Director John Frederick said recently.