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Repurposing Food Waste

Hopewell Valley School District And Local Business Partnership Handle Food Scraps In Eco-Friendly Manner

Is food waste really waste if it's given a secondary, beneficial purpose? Some local leaders would answer definitely no. Some would even call a "table to farm" approach the best way to go.

To reduce the Hopewell Valley Regional School District's impact on landfills, food waste is collected separately from the rest of the waste stream affiliated with the district.

Even all-fiber lunch trays in the elementary and middle schools are compostable/biodegradable ones. All food waste and biodegradable trays are collected in separate containers lined with special Bio-bags. Those bags are compostable as well, and keep the collection containers clean. Food waste is then collected by a Lambertville-based hauler, OneCompostCan by Terra Preta, LLC, and driven to a local composting operation.

This overall effort pulls more than 20 cubic yards of food waste from the district's trash every week, says Tom Quinn, HVRSD director of facilities.

Before the new reclaiming setup, which started with OneCompostCan by Terra Preta in September 2021, Tom says the staff was composting food waste through trash hauling using their regular bin, however that became untenable when trash/compost services tapered and halted.

“With OneCompostCan, we don’t have to use separate biodegradable bag liners, which are very expensive, and they will accept the lunch trays, which makes it easier,” Tom explains. "Composting food waste definitely saves on what's going into the landfill and helps us with doing things by a more green method."

He says the district uses both 45- and 60-gallon containers. "We have 5 to 10 containers or about 3 cubic yards per school per week. And they actually want the trays for composting, which works out much better," he adds. "We were collecting so much food-related material we had to get more composting containers."

OneCompostCan provides both residential and commercial composting collection services, especially restaurants, generally within 30 miles of Lambertville in New Jersey’s Mercer, Hunterdon, Somerset, Southern Morris, Northern Burlington and Pennsylvania’s Bucks Counties. Company owner Rudolph "Dolph" Geurds composts the scraps at Don Farineau’s 100-acre, Hopewell Township farm called Groundswell reFARMative.

Dolph, a Pennington resident, and Don, an Asbury Park resident, see the collaboration as an immediate opportunity to aid environmental stability by reducing the effects of global warming. Don purchased the farm in May, and has been partnering with Dolph since then. 

Likewise, Tom says school students are encouraged by the overall initiative, and that it fits squarely into the objectives of the HVRSD Green Teams (organized, educational groups for sustainability goals and waste reduction), who make signs about the program's progress and sometimes measure the output of recycling versus trash, he adds. 

"We just want people to adopt the simple habit of composting, which can have a huge planet-positive impact. If they want to do it at home, we sell in-ground, worm-based composter models made from recyclable plastics for consumers' yards and can help them install. Otherwise, we offer a simple and convenient pickup service where they fill the can and we do the rest," Don says. 

"With any recycling service, we encourage everyone to ask where the materials actually end up. People think they're doing the right thing, but some hauling services deliver to a burn facility in Trenton. Food waste should stay in the ground. Our related composting is handled by Mother Nature with help from our pigs and a few hundred laying hens," says Dolph, who is a landscape architect. 

Indeed, Dolph's 20-year-old son, Hayden, serves as the farm's rancher, working to manage rotational grazing and other animal management eco-balancing factors. 

For residential customers, OneCompostCan offers plans between $18 and $36 per month. The company provides a container, and picks it up on schedule, leaving a clean and sanitized replacement bucket and lid to fill with more compost. Don says when a customer needs compost for their garden, the company provides it for no additional charge.

Don, a risk manager, says they weigh each customer bucket/container to monitor how much waste is being diverted from landfills. "We plant one tree for every 10 residential cans that we collect, and provide personalized, year-end impact reports stating the environment benefits from composting," he adds. 

Don affirms they are working with more entities in the Pennington community and the Hopewell Borough farmers market to explore perhaps having a centralized drop-off container with a code lock as a way to collect and process a collective food waste stream for residents who would prefer a drop-off subscription versus a pickup service. He says because food waste is one of the heaviest components for hauling, this new effort could save money for the city while being good for the local ecosystem -- in other words, a win-win.

Dolph and Don say they eventually want OneCompostCan and Groundswell reFARMative to become a full-circle, bio-diverse operation that produces vegetables, herbs, fruit, cut flowers, meat and eggs for sale.

"We like to consider our planet-positive business as combining tried-and-true, older farming concepts with modern technology," Don says. "We like to go with nature, rather than fighting it. Use nature to make sense. And we hope our farm can become a permaculture blueprint regarding how to work with long-established farms, green groups and conservation staffs to regenerate the soil and keep farms vibrant for generations to come."

"A simple habit of being part of a circular food loop can make a huge, positive impact in sustainable living."