April 20, 2016

Produce intended for landfill ends up in more valuable places

One man’s scraps are another man’s salad.

That’s what Adam Kaye discovered when he visited Baldor Specialty Foods, located at Hunts Point in the Bronx, New York, in 2014. The culinary director for Blue Hill Restaurant in New York City was getting ready to open a popup restaurant called “WastED,” with a menu that relied mostly on foods otherwise destined for the landfill.

“The concept was to create a menu around items that would become sort of wasted food, or by-product or scraps,” Kaye said.

A longtime customer of Baldor, which has its own fresh-cut produce processing facility, Kaye went to see what might be available in terms of fruit and vegetable scraps there.

Workers trim mangoes, and their skins are as likely to end up in juice, salads and as livestock food than in a landfill.
Workers trim mangoes, and their skins are as likely to end up in juice, salads and as livestock food than in a landfill.

“They took me out to their dumpster out back, all of the waste was getting funneled through a high-tech system, into this dumpster,” Kaye said. “There were chunks of carrot and celery and bits of romaine lettuce — you name it, whatever they were processing was in there.

“It looked like chopped salad.”

He took a picture of what he saw and took it back to Blue Hill chef and owner Dan Barber, who saw the same possibilities. Many of those scraps — ribbons of carrot peels, fennel cores, celery cores, bruised apples and pears — became ingredients for a Dumpster Dive Salad that became part of WastED’s menu.

Blue Hill’s experiment was one source of inspiration for Thomas McQuillan. A business analyst for Baldor, McQuillan was tasked to come up with environmentally friendly alternative (to landfill) ways to dispose of the approximately 10,000 pounds of food scraps that Baldor generates daily. The company has set 2017 as its deadline to eliminate taking organic waste to landfills.

“We process fruits and vegetables from their raw state into finished goods like carrot sticks … celery sticks, peeled beets, mirepoix, diced onions — we have 588 live SKUs our salespeople can sell everyday, and about 1,400 SKUS in total,” McQuillan said. “We sell to foodservice companies, restaurants, as a finished product.”

Small undertakings like WastED barely make a dent in the total volume of waste. But the spirit behind such projects, as well as Baldor’s commitment to handling its waste differently, will.

“I thought it would be easy, that I’d have it figured out in a week,” McQuillan said of taking on Baldor President Michael Muzyk’s challenge in 2014 to find a better way. “I was just going to compost it — but when you’re in New York City, that’s a challenge because of the distance.”

mango skins in binA composting facility close by would help make transportation costs more reasonable, and McQuillan is optimistic about that eventuality. In the shorter term, Baldor is talking with Waste Management about providing fresh-cut scraps that would be used in an anaerobic digestion process at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Brooklyn — New York City’s largest. Mixed with sewage sludge, it would be used to generate methane gas to be converted into energy.

Beyond that, McQuillan said, the initiative has prompted the company to change the way it thinks about its produce waste.

“Our inspiration came from Dan Barber and his team when they did their popup, WastED restaurant,” McQuillan said. “It dawned on me … is it really a waste product or is it a food product? We flipped the hierarchy.”

That means not categorizing all those carrot tips, strawberry tops, watermelon pieces, pineapple and cabbage cores and countless other perfectly edible leftovers from the fresh-cut processing line as garbage — but as food. They even came up with a name for it all: SparCs, scraps spelled backwards.

“So the first priority for this food product is human consumption,” McQuillan said. “The second is animal consumption. The third is anaerobic digestion. The fourth is composting.

“You didn’t hear me mention landfill, because the landfill has no place for any of this product anymore. And once we have these pieces in place, we will be zero organic waste-to-landfill.”

Pigs at Flying Pigs Farm in Shushan, New York, get extra nutrition from produce discarded from Baldor Foods.

On the human consumption side, for example, Baldor is working with a startup juice company near Washington, D.C. MISFIT Juicery is sourcing Baldor produce scraps to make fresh bottled juices. (See related story.)

“How could a carrot juice be any worse or better made with a carrot that’s misshapen or a carrot peel?” McQuillan asks. “Certainly, the quality is not going to be compromised.”

A restaurant group that makes kimchi, a fermented vegetable dish, is testing using Baldor’s castoff cabbage cores.

“We’ve been doing testing with a number of customers,” McQuillan said.

As for animal consumption, Baldor has begun delivering loads of its fresh-cut scraps to Flying Pigs Farm in Shushan, New York. Starting with limited loads to work out the kinks and figure out the logistics — packaging, loading, unloading, etc. — Flying Pigs is taking delivery of 7,000 to 8,000 pounds of the scraps twice a week.

“The pros are it allows the animals to have fresh produce … and it puts pigs back into their traditional role on the farm,” said owner and farmer Michael Yezzi. “That’s essentially been pigs’ role throughout the ages — eating everything that was leftover, and turning that into meat and fat and storing those calories.

“The cons are it’s a little bit more work for us. We have to unload the truck in pallets into the field and empty the containers. But other than that, it’s a relatively easy process.”

Yezzi said the cost is comparable to or a little lower than what he pays for other feed.

“By truck, it’s a little over three hours,” McQuillan said. “It doesn’t cost us any more money than it would if we would send it to a transfer station through our regular sanitation, and he is paying us for the product, so we are selling it to him as a feed product for the animals. We’re looking to do more of that.

“The goal is to find a home for all of this product, so it doesn’t even go to transfer stations anymore.”

— Kathy Gibbons, contributing writer