District of Columbia: USDA Whitten Cafeteria Composting Pilot

Washington, DC

This pilot is part of the USDA affirmative biobased procurement model required by the 2002 Farm Bill. The model includes the Federal Biobased Products Preferred Procurement Program (FB4P), a biobased product promotion program and an annual program review. The pilot project was employed to determine how to overcome challenges for and optimize federal facility cafeteria acquisition and use of biobased foodservice-ware and food composting. It also served as a live demonstration of biobased product use and composting. The Jamie L. Whitten Federal Building Cafeteria, which serves approximately 2000 patrons per week, was used as the pilot site. All foamed polystyrene and plastic food service items were replaced with biobased products wherever possible (hot food container lids and hot cup lids were not biobased or biodegradable). Containers were made available for the collection of compostables. The products were composted at the Agricultural Research Service’s (ARS) Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (BARC) composting facility and the compost byproduct was used in the USDA Whitten Building gardens. The project was an interagency collaboration between the Department of Agriculture’s Departmental Administration, the ARS/BARC, the EPA and the Cooperative State Research Education, and Extension Service. The project has partially been reimplemented and will expand as products get approved.

Products and Brands Composted: 
  • Bowls made from bagasse
  • Plates made from bagasse
  • Cutlery for cold food, cups, lids and straws made from corn
  • Cutlery for hot food made from plant cellulose and limestone
  • Hot food container lids and hot cup lids as well as packaging of food items (such as yogurt cups) were not biobased or biodegradable.

Collection System: 

Special containers lined with biodegradable bags were made available for the collection of compostables. Waste bins and separate containers for recyclables were also available. The kitchen staff complied very well with source separation. The project partnered with ARS/BARC and the EPA to educate customers. This included an educational slide show on biodegradability and separation to prevent contamination and an information visual display comparing the lifecycle of foam polystyrene and plastic to that of biobased materials, both were displayed outside the cafeteria during the project. Patrons were monitored and corrected to ensure that compostable items were not thrown in the waste bins. Patrons were also given sample materials and brochures on biobased awareness and composting. Most were comfortable with the change in cafeteriaware and acceptability was noticed as increasing with time. Customers were provided with comment cards to evaluate the pilot project and comments were collected from cafeteria patrons on a daily basis.

Compost Process: 

The biobased products, the source-separated post-consumer residuals from the cafeteria and food preparation scraps and trimmings were collected by BARC personnel on a daily basis and composted at the USDA/ARS BARC composting facility in Beltsville, Maryland, about 18.5 miles away. There was only a trace amount of about 0.18% plastic contamination from packaging sold in the cafeteria that went to the compost facility. The materials were composted for 12 weeks in a bin composting system. The compost was used in landscaping, horticulture, as well as farms and gardens, such as the Whitten Building gardens.

Size of Operation: 

The total composting effort included 11,370 lb of compostable cafeteria materials, (10,945 lb of kitchen trimmings and 435 lb of biobased products); and 168 cubic yards of leaves and grass.

Dollars and Sense: 
  • The experiment yielded 44 cubic yards of compost that would sell at $20-30 per cubic yard at garden centers. By using the compost at USDA’s Whitten Building Demonstration Gardens, the Government saved $880.
  • Biobased products costs $14,367 (incl. freight costs of $952)
  • USDA’s cost = 66% ($9,482)
  • Cafeteria contractor’s cost = 33% ($4,884)
  • Costs were almost 300% more than conventional cafeteriaware
  • Cafeteria operations and services were not adversely affected by the new cafeteriaware
  • Product availability -- availability was a major driver in selection
  • Cost differential from contractor’s existing agreement
  • Currently no products are certified as biobased and only few are certified as biodegradable
  • Some customers complained that the cups became too hot to hold, the bottoms of plates and bowls became too soft, that the products left a bad taste in the food and that the straws broke
Tips for Replication: 
  • Use distributors to obtain adequate quantities of products
  • Require compostability statements
  • More producers/dealers must be found. This will increase competition and reduce overall costs. Already during the pilot an increase in availability of biobased serviceware was noticed.
  • Everyone cannot be pleased, but that is okay, only less than 150 negative comments were received. No comments were so serious that they would call for the discontinuance of the product.
  • Good planning, quality awareness training, constant communications, superior team work and management backing are essential to a successful program.
  • Important to have high-quality education and guidance of cafeteria staff and patrons.
  • Subsidize products to entice cafeteria contractors to adopt biodegradable products.
  • Interagency collaboration was key to accomplishing project objectives.

Patricia D. Millner, Research Microbiologist
USDA, Agricultural Research Service
10300 Baltimore Ave., Bldg. 001, Rm 122
Beltsville, MD 20705-2350
Email: Pat.Millner@ars.usda.gov
Phone: 301-504-5631 x449
Fax: 301-504-8370