When Kristen Baskin moved to Athens, Georgia, in 2012, she was surprised to find there wasn’t a composting service offered to businesses in town.
Composting is a simple process: Businesses place organic material, like food scraps, into a compost container that is collected each week and taken to a compost facility. There, the organic material breaks down and turns into nutrient-rich soil that can be shared with local farms or gardens — or can be delivered back to the business to use.
With no options in sight, Baskin decided to get her hands dirty…literally. Armed with pickle buckets and bicycles, she and a few dedicated friends started collecting compost in the community. Within a few months, her composting servicewas born.
Finding a business in trash
Over the next few years, Let Us Compost grew steadily, expanding into commercial composting and signing up a number of Athens businesses, but its biggest client came in 2017: Chick-fil-A.
Around that time, Chick-fil-A’s Sustainability team was looking to address the highest volume of waste coming from its restaurants — food waste. According to the nonprofit ReFED, the U.S. restaurant industry creates 11.4 million tons of food waste each year, meaning more than $25 billion of food is thrown in landfills rather than eaten. The Sustainability team proposed an idea to pilot a composting program that would reduce the amount of food waste that went into trash bins.
Athens was the perfect fit for the first pilot. It was close to Chick-fil-A headquarters, had a local composting service in Let Us Compost, and had a good partner in Operator Shane Todd, who owned two restaurants in the city at the time.
“Shane Todd has been a great partner with a number of projects, so it seemed like a great opportunity, since it was our first back-of-house test,” said Dawn Rhodes, Program Lead, Sustainability at Chick-fil-A.
Chick-fil-A offered to set up the pilot for three months and train Todd’s staff. He did not know a lot about composting, but was open to learning more.
“I liked the idea, and we’re always looking for ways to do the right thing,” said Todd.
From pilot to program
The pilot was a success. But, because Let Us Compost was accustomed to smaller, mom-and-pop clients, Todd’s restaurants posed a challenge.
“They weren’t used to our volume,” Todd said. “But they were excited and wanted to find a solution.”
Let Us Compost bought extra bins to handle the extra waste and upgraded its equipment to handle larger volumes. Todd also worked with Let Us Compost to troubleshoot issues such as preventing pests around the bins in Athens’ hot summers.
Thanks to Todd’s guidance, Let Us Compost was not only better equipped to serve Chick-fil-A, but it was able to take on other large commercial clients in town.
Growing in 2019
The pilot program was so successful that Todd decided to continue. Since 2017, Let Us Compost has collected 144,000 pounds of food waste from Todd’s two restaurants, and they will soon begin composting at Todd’s third restaurant, which recently opened in downtown Athens.
In addition to Athens, Chick-fil-A has expanded the pilot program to six restaurants in South Carolina and three restaurants in the Seattle area. Over a three-month period, those nine restaurants diverted almost 100,000 pounds of food waste from landfills: enough to fill 5 cement trucks.
Chick-fil-A’s Sustainability team plans to further ramp up this project in 2019.
“Through the pilot, Operators and Team Members are learning how easy composting is,” Rhodes said. “It is not an extra burden or a challenge. It just becomes part of the restaurant’s operations.”
In addition to being easy to do, Todd has seen Team Members and customers respond to the benefits of composting.
And, he has seen the results of his restaurants’ composting efforts first hand. Let Us Compost sells the finished compost to customers, and they recently brought back some of this compost to Todd to help landscape his restaurant.
“I think it’s really cool how it all works together,” Todd said. “We buy products and sell them to customers. We take the scraps and compost them. And then the compost goes back to the farm, which produces the lettuce that comes back to our restaurant. It completes the circle.”