Isaac Sinnott rounds the corner away from the Capitol on his 10-speed bike and pulls into the loading docks behind Graze restaurant. Snaking behind him is a low-slung, 10-foot-long trailer carrying six plastic buckets that serve as a low-tech garbage-hauling system.
A senior at the University of Wisconsin, Sinnott is part of a small army of college students who are trying to connect businesses' interest in composting to an easy system for disposal. He parks his bike and scurries through the loading dock, returning with four containers full of the restaurant's afternoon food prep.
"It is interesting what comes out," Sinnott says as he dumps corn husks and shiny potato peels into the buckets on his bike trailer. "Makes me want to eat there."
Over the past year, Sinnott has volunteered with a program called Full Cycle Freight, which helps local restaurants productively dispose of organic materials. This diverts thousands of pounds of food scraps away from landfills and transforms them into fertilizer for local farms. Once Sinnott finishes picking up food waste from Graze, he bikes to Espresso Royale for buckets of coffee grounds, and then begins an uphill ride to a student-run farm in Eagle Heights.
The city of Madison currently sponsors a pilot program for picking up organic waste - everything from apple cores to dirty diapers - from 500 homes. The program has been hugely successful, reducing waste hauls by 40% and turning that diverted organic material into mulch. It has also reduced stress on bulging landfills and helped curb harmful methane gases.
But the city has yet to figure out how to best manage the mountains of food waste and organic matter generated by area businesses, and until it does, several inventive, self-starting initiatives have moved in to fill the gap.
A month ago, representatives from several prominent businesses gathered informally at the Concourse Hotel to brainstorm ways to start up comprehensive composting programs. Attending that meeting were area heavy-hitters like CUNA Mutual and American Family, both of which are puzzling over how to design a reasonable plan for managing their compostable throwaways and, in the process, do their part to reduce ecological problems.
"American Family's efforts in a composting program are still being developed," explains Maggie Layden, whose internship at American Family is focused on precisely that task. "We certainly have a long way to go. We do compost our yard waste here onsite and allow the gardeners from our employee garden to use that compost on their garden plots."
But American Family, like other businesses, is struggling with challenges - for example, where to store compostable materials that, especially during warm summer months, start to smell bad. There's also the matter of cost. Without the kind of far-reaching and well-coordinated system the city could provide, the price of hauling compost can be exorbitant for an individual business.
"The reason to pay extra to haul compostables away is that it is the right thing to do," says Layden. She admits, though, that such moral arguments do not always sway business owners.
Some businesses, like Whole Foods and Metcalfe's Market, have hired a private company, Purple Cow Organics, which turns their waste into commercially sold fertilizer. Other businesses have fashioned more informal (and free) arrangements. Ale Asylum, for example, dumps its compostables into a bike trailer and, when it's full, contacts local farmer Robert Pierce to take it away.
The city is currently considering how to expand its collection services to include local businesses, and has incorporated pickup at two restaurants into its pilot program: Roman Candle Pizza at the Children's Museum and Fair Oaks Café on the east side. George Dreckmann, the city recycling coordinator, hopes that successes with these two will help expand the collection program for local businesses.
"We have found that it's something employees like to do," notes Dreckmann. "It's a chance to not completely waste a half-eaten portion."