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Tina Casey headshot

How Your Business Could Save a Butterfly with Food Waste Recycling

By Tina Casey

The Department of Defense (DoD) has been adopting sustainable practices hand over fist in support of its national security mission, and that is beginning to yield some serendipitous results. In the latest twist, a biomass and food waste recycling operation at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State could end up playing a role in preserving habitat for the Taylor's checkerspot butterfly, which was recently proposed for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

As one of only twelve U.S. joint bases around the world, Lewis-McChord is a highly complex facility that combines Army and Air Force operations. It also serves as a mobilization center for all branches of the Armed Services, and like all federal facilities it is facing enormous pressure from budgetary constraints, which have been exacerbated by the so-called "sequester" mandating drastic across-the-board spending cuts. If Lewis-McChord can take time out from all these travails to tend to the survival of a butterfly, just imagine what your business could accomplish, while saving money on waste disposal costs, to boot.

Biomass and food waste recycling from the DoD

Currently, about 40 percent of Lewis-McChord's waste stream consists of good waste, grass, leaves, manure, chopped wood and other bio-solids, for a total of about 4,000 tons annually. The recycling program started up about six years ago, with food waste being added about four years ago.

As of 2012, food waste comprised one of the largest individual sources of composting material, for about 670 tons annually. The main contributor is the base's main commissary, which saved about $21,000 last year in disposal costs for almost 262,000 pounds of waste. Overall, the recycling/composting operation saves the base almost $300,000 annually.

The biomass and food waste composting operation yields a high quality, natural soil amendment, most of which is used at the base. The rest is sold for use offsite, mainly in stormwater management and construction projects as well as landscaping. A grand total of zero goes to landfills or incinerators.

Now that it's compost, now what?

Lewis-McChord's experience is especially instructive for businesses that can use little or no compost on their own property. You don't want to run a great composting operation and have nowhere to put it, and it's not always easy to line up takers for the product.

To reassure potential off-base users, Lewis-McChord obtained the Seal of Testing Assurance from a trade organization called the U.S. Composting Council, which is an ongoing process involving third-party testing and analysis. The result is a reliable, consistent product that the base has been able to sell off site, using the revenue to help run its recycling programs. Some of the revenue also goes to support family quality-of-life programs at the base.

Saving a butterfly with food waste

Now comes the interesting part. According to writer, Brendalyn Carpenter, last fall a contractor working for the base's Fish and Wildlife division used the compost to establish a 25' x 15' plot as part of a habitat restoration project at the base, intending to grow a number of rare plant species that housed larvae of the Taylor's checkerspot butterfly. The butterfly was proposed for endangered species listing last year.

The mini-experiment has already exceeded expectations. In natural prairie soils, the restoration project has had a "really tough time" getting the plants to establish, but in the composted plot they have already grown to about four times their normal size.

If the experiment succeeds in boosting the butterfly population, it could help offset the habitat impact of the base's artillery training exercises. Composted plots could be established elsewhere on the base as well as in offsite locations.

Over the next two years, Lewis-McChord expects to use up to 5,000 yards of compost for additional habitat projects on the base. You can read more about the projects, which involve the endangered Oregon Spotted Frog, Western Bluebirds and other species, here.

Managing food waste from every angle

Food waste is a significant global issue, and composting only addresses the tail of it. The preventive side involves waste reduction. For the food service industry, that can take a number of different angles including new efficiencies to cut down on excess production, capturing grease and other waste to produce biofuels and other products, and reclaiming edible, excess food for donation to charity, one example being the long-running Darden Harvest program.

All this is by way of saying that it makes good bottom line sense for a food business to take a long look at its opportunities to cut down on waste, not only to save money on disposal costs but also for the potential to participate in community projects that help develop a solid reputation for social responsibility. You never know where it might lead.

[Image: Taylor's checkerspot butterfly, courtesy of Joint Base Lewis-McChord Fish and Wildlife Program]

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Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey