Top senior living providers have elevated their dining services in recent years, offering more sophisticated fare and in some cases using more organic, locally sourced ingredients. But from an operational standpoint, providers have to not only offer beautifully prepared meals in the dining room, but deal with the organic waste — those carrot peels and coffee grounds — that inevitably is produced in the kitchen.
As Holiday Retirement has discovered, being more strategic about waste disposal, particularly recycling of organic waste, can be a big cost-saver. At one community, Holiday was able to cut monthly waste disposal costs nearly in half. And as more local and state governments begin mandating organic recycling, these programs also can keep a provider on the right side of the law.
The push to streamline waste disposal began in 2012, and involved Holiday extending its relationship with Ecova, an energy and sustainability management company.
Holiday — the second-largest senior living provider in the United States — already had reduced its utilities spending and billing by working with Ecova, so it made sense to see what results the company could achieve on waste management as well, Holiday’s Senior Buyer for the Procurement Services Group Bob Briody tells SHN.
To understand some of the issues driving waste management changes, and the approaches devised by Holiday and Ecova, it’s useful to zero in on one particular 116-unit independent living community near the Twin Cities: The Lodge at White Bear, in White Bear Lake, Minn.
Waste management emerged as a crucial area for cost management at the community after the county imposed a steep landfill tax, to discourage items from being sent there. Fortunately, the county also made grant money available to businesses being hit by the tax, to help them expand recycling programs.
Holiday was able to partner with BizRecycling, an organization started by Minnesota’s Washington and Ramsey counties, to take advantage of that grant money and receive other types of support, Briody says.
The funds went toward organic recycling containers and compostable products for organic recycling, as well as more single-stream containers for non-organic recycling and on-site training with an environmental consultant.
Ecova tracked the data that The Lodge at White Bear will have to share in a report as a participant in the grant program. This data has shown that the program, still in progress, has been a success.
“Between March 2013 and the end of 2014, by right-sizing the equipment and downsizing the service level by pulling more out of the dumpster into recycling, we are able to achieve quite a hefty cost savings,” Briody says. “That really helps us buy the compostable products we need for the organics, which are pricier than normal garbage bags. The financials really prove this is the right program for White Bear.”
In fact, The Lodge at White Bear was able to slash monthly waste disposal costs by almost 50%, from $1,016 in March 2013 to $569 in December 2014, according to data made available by the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council.
Scaling Up Organic Recycling
The Lodge at White Bear provides a case study in the type of waste management program that Holiday and Ecova have implemented at other communities as well, says Briody. Overall, Holiday’s work with Ecova has reversed a 10-year trend of increasing waste disposal costs, with a 13% savings at Ecova-engaged sites.
The organic recycling piece has been especially critical, says Ecova’s Cynthia Forsch, program manager for Waste Solutions.
“We did a number of audits for Holiday, ” Forsch tells SHN. “The audits revealed over 40% of trash is from organic food waste. There’s a huge amount of consolidated waste that is kitchen scrap, such as trim and plate scrapings. It’s not like they’re wasting food, per se.”
Diverting this organic waste presents a cost saving opportunity because there’s a “tipping fee” to put waste in a landfill, while recycled materials have actual value, so the cost of taking it away from a facility is lower, Forsch explains.
Organic food waste typically is taken to a compost facility, where it is converted to soil augmentation material that is sold to farms for spreading on fields, she says.
However, there are costs related to organic recycling, such as having the right supplies on hand. Holiday uses compostable bags in the kitchen, which are placed in wheeled toters that go to a collection area for pickup, Briody says.
Local organizations such as BizRecycling can help offset equipment costs for organic recycling programs, further adding to the savings, Briody point out. In scaling up organic recycling, it’s important to focus on the markets — like in White Bear Lake — where these sorts of programs can create efficiencies, and where there is infrastructure in place to keep organic waste disposal reasonably priced.
“There are some locations where there is not a requirement that organics be recycled, and those can be a little spendy,” she says. “But as [organic recycling] becomes more popular, it will be more cost-effective.”
Seattle is one prime location, because one of the premier composting companies in the country, Cedar Grove, serves that market, Forsch says. California is another prime area; the state has actually mandated a certain level of diversion. Each county has implemented different plans to meet the state goals. Some counties mandate recycling of compostable materials, which has created new opportunities for compost companies.
California is a bellwether for the country, instituting these types of mandates that other states then imitate, Forsch points out. Therefore, senior living providers would be wise to be on notice that they may have to increase organic recycling in the coming years.
Holiday, for one, believes that organic recycling can be a “big game changer,” Briody says. And the provider’s work with Ecova is just beginning.
“We’re using this [time] as an opportunity to baseline and to have beta test sites for the program to make sure it’s sustainable, with the right metrics in place so that we can use these as templates going forward,” Briody says. “It’s a collaboration between corporate — with Ecova’s help — and the community implementing the program. It’s about the data, right-sizing the equipment, then fine-tuning the recycling activities that can hopefully lead to cost savings on the back end.”
Written by Tim Mullaney