Food trash to garden treasure. Photo credit: Veteran Compost

Every September at my church, The Church of the Redeemer, we host an annual parish picnic out on the front lawn. About 400 parishioners get to enjoy a delicious barbecue lunch, cooked and served by Boy Scout Troop 35.

But the fun inevitably means waste–and lots of it. We’ve traditionally used plastic plates, cups and cutlery, simply because it’s tough to haul out 400 people’s ceramic plates and glasses to the lawn and back.

Hosting larger events like these often means using disposable, single-use plastics, but most of those goods and food scraps wind up in the local landfill (or, are burned in the incinerator, in Baltimore’s case). Recycling is a worthy option for glass, aluminum cans and certain plastics (labeled #1 or #2), but most single-use cups, along with dirty plastic plates, napkins, plastic straws, tablecloths and more aren’t recyclable.

Fortunately, there’s a surprisingly simple, affordable and more sustainable alternative: commercial composting.

In an effort reduce the picnic trash in our case, the church “green” team tried it out, calling in help from a local commercial compost company, Veteran Compost.

We learned that with a few simple changes–and a $50 fee–it’s much easier than expected to compost a larger event. The party experience was unchanged for our guests; most were actually amazed that the cups and cutlery, that looked just like plastic versions, were actually compostable. 

The picnic’s trash was picked up on Monday and delivered to Veteran Compost’s facility in Aberdeen. In about one month’s time, our six huge trash bags of food scraps and party waste will become garden soil fertilizer, destined for local gardens and farms.

Commercial composting is different from backyard composting, noted Veteran Compost’s owner, Justen Garrity. What most people do out back of their homes is known as “cold composting,” he said, because smaller bins don’t get hot enough to break down items like meat, bones, fats and dairy.

“At our facilities, food scraps are mixed with wood chips in large piles and aerated and mixed using bulldozers,” he explained. “Our compost piles reach about 140 degrees Fahrenheit. At those higher temperatures, we can compost items that aren’t ideal for backyard compost bins.”

If we had gone the usual single-use plastic route, those bags of party trash would’ve been burned at the BRESCO trash incinerator off I-95, sending unhealthy toxins like lead, arsenic and mercury into the air.

Six bags of picnic detritus will be broken down into garden soil conditioner, not bound for the incinerator.

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to compost an event.

1. Hire a local compost outfit to pick up your trash. Here are a few: 

Veteran Compost: Garrity, an Army veteran, launched his company 10 years ago. It offers commercial pickups for any size business and school, and also for homeowners in the Baltimore-area and D.C. The organic compost is sold to the public.

Compost Cab: Also serving Baltimore and D.C., Compost Cab offers a residential and commercial pickup service for a monthly fee. Have you noticed plastic buckets left outside near your neighbor’s stoop or front door? Compost Cab picks them up weekly and leaves behind a clean container.

Compost Crew: Launched by two graduates from Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Compost Crew offers residential, commercial and multi-unit compost pickup service for a fee. They’ll also pick up your party or event’s garbage.

2. Purchase compostable party products.

You can find a limited selection of compostable items at Whole Foods, MOM’s Organic Market, and even Target and Party City. If you need to buy larger volumes of products–or want something more decorative–the internet is your best bet.

Note: Make sure to choose items labeled compostable rather than biodegradable. Not all biodegradable offerings break down into soil. Visit this website to double-check whether your choice makes the compostable cut.

Bamboo and corn resin materials often make up the compostable cups and cutlery. These plant-based products look and feel just like plastic, but they break down in commercial composting facilities (don’t try it at home, I did, and nada). 

Garrity said as more schools, businesses, municipalities and homeowners are composting these days, it’s become much easier to find affordable, attractive compostable partyware. “The quality and availability of compostable items has exploded in the last three to five years.”

“Pricing is a wash for plates, cups, straws and cutlery,” he added, though to-go containers are still more expensive.

Mark Schroeder, The Church of the Redeemer’s facilities director, said he was able to order compostable plates, cups, utensils and napkins from our church’s usual supplier, and found the pricing was on par to plastics.

Compostable partyware looks and feels the same as plastic disposables, but it’s made of plant-based materials that convert to soil when broken down. Photo by Laurel Peltier.
Compostable partyware looks and feels the same as plastic disposables, but it’s made of plant-based materials that convert to soil when broken down. Photo by Laurel Peltier.

3. Throw the party–and plan ahead.

A few tips to make composting run smoothly at your event.

  • Think ahead and plan to only offer compostable items. Caterers, cooks or pot luck, you can request that compostable items are used.
  • Place regular trash and recycling cans out of view. Guests will naturally toss compostables into the trash can out of habit.
  • Make a simple sign to explain the idea behind it all. Maybe a few will be inspired to bring composting to their home or another event.
  • To be extra safe–and to reduce any risk of having to sort through afterward–consider finding a trash monitor to subtly watch over the compost cans. That could reduce the amount of trash contamination to zero.

While I was happy our bags of trash were headed to a commercial composter, I could not tamp down the depressing thought that our little picnic had generated so much trash. Those six bags are a minuscule fraction of what we humans generate at the gazillions of events around our globe.

But making everything compost-friendly is a helpful start, and for us, composting a large picnic was no big deal.

Laurel Peltier writes the environment GreenLaurel column every Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl.