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HUMAN COMPOSTERS Brett Richardson (left) and Greg Williams of Resurgam Zero Food Waste.

You — or your neighbor — may do it at home, but now area restaurants, hospitals, schools, and grocery stores are also reducing their waste and producing rich soil by turning food scraps and paper products into compost.

Brett Richardson, 34 and Greg Williams, 41, met as graduate students at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service. Three years ago their business proposal — to create a company that would reduce food waste, divert recyclable materials from landfills and incinerators, and create enriched soil — took first place in the USM Student Business Plan competition. They received $25,000 in start-up money and in-kind help to form the company they now call Resurgam Zero Food Waste.

"Portland is an ideal place for composting," Richardson says. "It is a community with good consciousness, 250 restaurants, universities, hospitals, supermarkets, and expensive solid-waste costs. It is a nice stew of incentives for folks who want to do the right thing."

About 20 restaurants and coffee shops — including Fore Street, Street and Co., Arabica, Bard, Crema, El Rayo, Duckfat, and Twenty Milk Street — are now composting their food scraps. The Portland public school system, Hannaford's corporate cafeteria, and Mercy Hospital are also on board.

Each restaurant is provided with a narrow, green compost bin; staff are instructed to compost not only veggie scraps, but also paper napkins, meat, and fish. Williams and Richardson pick up the bins, replace and clean them, and bring the food waste to their commercial composting facility at the city's Riverside recycling center.

Williams said the service makes it convenient and easy for restaurants, supermarkets, hotels, hospitals, and schools to do the right thing.

El Rayo on York Street has been composting with Zero Food Waste since the beginning of the program. Chef Karl Okerholm of El Rayo's Cantina said the restaurant recycles cardboard, plastics, and foil. "It was natural for us to compost," he says. "We have compost and recycling bins, but no garbage bins."

Duckfat on Middle Street has also embraced composting. General manager Ashley Shane is known by her staff as the compost/recycle cop: She monitors the bins to make sure there is no contamination. Duckfat now uses compostable cups and lids; Shane plans to switch to compostable straws and portion cups soon. The restaurant recycles paper, glass, cardboard, plastics, and metal — and now with composting, Shane says about 90 to 95 percent of their materials stay out of the conventional waste stream.

She says when Zero Food Waste starts producing compost, she'd like the farmers who work with the area restaurants to be supplied with the compost so they can grow more produce for the restaurant.

For executive chef Alan Cook, the food cycle is part of the reason Twenty Milk Street at the Portland Regency composts. The restaurant has diverted about 80 percent of its waste — including toothpicks, lobster shells, and chicken bones. His vision is to use Zero Food Waste's compost to enrich the soil at the hotel's Cumberland farm, which raises chickens, cows, and pigs. "I like the idea of taking the waste from our kitchen to make compost and then using that to grow vegetables on our farm to cook in the kitchen," he says.

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