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Greening Leftovers: SORT, Scrape

For a hotel, restaurant or cafeteria, diverting garbage from the waste stream means more than sorting plastics and paper. What do you do with your industry’s largest waste product — the chicken bones, left-over salads and plate scrapings that would normally be destined for the incinerator? You call Spurt Industries and its year-old Specialized Organics Recycling Team program, which converts food waste into commercial compost, soil and mulch for use in gardening, lawns and flower beds.

“We tried to start this about four years ago, but there wasn’t enough interest,” says Rick Menken, Spurt general manager, noting that interest has grown as more businesses look for more sustainable processes. “Now customers find they can save money and send their organic waste for recycling, rather then to the city incinerator or a landfill.”

Founded in 1992, Spurt has headquarters in Zeeland and facilities in Ada, Byron Center and Wixom, northwest of Detroit. It also manufactures and installs a product called PlaySafe, which is ground wood used in playgrounds for a softer, safer surface.

“This is a specialty niche and we’re one of only two firms accepting food waste,” Menken said. “It’s not easy to do because of all the laws you have to meet, but if done correctly the process is fine.”

Organic waste includes everything from food, newspaper, magazines and paper plates to coffee grounds and waxed paper cartons, which can all be ground together as compost. The SORT program collected close to 70 tons of organic waste at last summer’s Rothbury Music Festival, a highlight of a year that has seen the addition of a host of West Michigan clients.

Four star sustainability 
The Amway Grand Plaza Hotel is SORT’s largest customer in organic waste disposal, with 100 percent of the hotel’s food waste, floral clippings and a small amount of paper products filling a large dumpster for pick up four times a week.

On any given day, Amway employees in all of the hotel’s 55 departments can be found sorting organic waste from glass, plastic and metal as part of their daily responsibilities. There are 75 blue barrels designated for SORT “from top to bottom” in the hotel, with kitchens, restaurants and conventions producing the most food waste. Gray barrels get incinerator trash.

SORT is part of the hotel’s “Stay Green” recycling campaign, which launched last Earth Day and has since trained more than 800 employees to “sort and scrape.”

“We knew what garbage looked like, but when 20 of us visited the Spurt facility, we could see what it would be turned into,” says Russ Aubil, Amway Grand Plaza assistant director of human resources and head of the program. “Our executive chef, Josef Huber, and his kitchen staff were the big drivers to get this started. It’s grown from there.”

Amway officials say it’s an ongoing training process to remind an ever-changing group of employees to sort and scrape. For instance, paper coffee cups and grounds can be put into the blue organic waste barrels, but plastic caps must go into a separate container. Food must be removed from the plastic.

“Education is very important, and understanding what to do is two-thirds of the battle,” says Dave Neill, convention services manager, adding that many workers are bringing the increased awareness home, where they are recycling for the first time. “You have to break old habits and you have to keep up on it.”

Language barriers also prove to be a challenge. The hotel’s recycling mission statement, monthly recycling tips and reminders are printed and translated into Spanish and Vietnamese, in addition to the color-coded barrels. One employee for each shift is designated to check and empty the blue barrels. Although up to 2 percent of wrong items are permissible, trash that doesn’t belong must be removed. There’s a barrel washing station where the containers are cleaned and sanitized to ensure a healthy environment.

“There are going to be mistakes and all of us have done some dumpster diving,” Aubil says.

Even hotel guests are being tested. The top three floors have special containers in each room for guests to separate recyclables from trash, says Val Klaver, executive housekeeper. All of the hotel’s rooms contain information about reusing towels and other recycling suggestions.

With the program well on its way, the hotel has reduced its waste by 50 percent. Recycling and organic waste disposal start up costs included about $9,000 for a cardboard compactor, with the bails netting the hotel $11,700 last year. Other recycling containers and retainers had a start up cost of about $12,000.

The hotel pays about $40 per cubic ton to compost its organic waste as opposed to about $80 for the same amount of its remaining trash shipped to the incinerator, according to SORT’s Menken. Most businesses have about 70 percent organic waste that could be used for compost. The typical cost would be around $100 a month for a container and pick up once a week, he added. Since Amway started the program in April, SORT has picked up and processed about 1,150 tons of food waste from the hotel

A growing market
San Chez A Tapas Bistro was the first to jump on board the SORT program, says Menken, who credits Dan Gendler, the restaurant’s owner, as the driving force to put the unique food compost concept in place. Today Steelcase Inc., City High School, Villa Maria Retirement Village, The B.O.B., Cambridge House, Logan’s Alley, JD Reardon’s and Graydon’s Crossings restaurants all participate.

Gendler said his restaurant at 38 W. Fulton St. used to produce over 25 cubic yards of trash, all of which went to the incinerator. Now only 2 cubic yards of unrecyclable plastic ends up there.

“We’ve been able to reduce the waste stream so much and we recycle 45,000 pounds a year,” says Gendler, who’s been a major advocate for recycling in downtown Grand Rapids for several years. “Ninety percent of that is compostable and it does save us money.” He figures a 30 percent savings in disposal costs, which comes to $200-$300 each month.

Gendler said his staff is trained in recycling and three different receptacles stand ready in the kitchen for the separated trash and waste. He’s constantly on the search for more earth-friendly, recyclable products and containers. “It’s all about changing your buying habits,” he said.

His goal for 2009 is to eliminate the restaurant's dumpster and move to a 90 gallon cart similar to weekly residential curbside pick up.

“We’ve come full circle and its part of our responsible restaurant practices to include all recycling,” Gendler said. “Composting is another piece of the puzzle and it’s important you do it and you do it right.”


A veteran journalist formerly of The Grand Rapids Press, Mary Radigan is now a freelance writer based in Grand Rapids. She last wrote for Rapid Growth about the West Michigan film industry.

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

Organic waste dumpsters outside of San Chez Bistro

The Amway Grand Plaza Hotel is the largest organic recycler in Grand Rapids

Dan Gendler of San Chez Bistro (2)

Brian Kelly is a Grand Rapids based commercial photographer and Rapid Growth's managing photographer. You can follow his photography adventures here on his blog.

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