Waste handling is not a glamorous issue. Getting rid of waste economically and in an environmentally sound way is a major challenge. Waste hauling charges in many large metropolitan areas are rising at a rate above that of food and labor. The increasing cost is due, in part, to increased governmental regulations on disposal of waste.

Waste has become a political and community issue as well as a cost concern. Mishandled garbage can impact your guests’ experience, especially when there are odor, insect and rodent problems. How you dispose of your restaurant waste can impact your perception among your guests and in the community.  

Some waste issues occur after garbage leaves the kitchen, but here we will examine what types of equipment you’ll need inside to reduce concerns and costs. Using the most effective equipment can greatly help the overall waste challenge. Disposers and pulpers are two types of kitchen equipment to consider.

Grinders/Waste Disposers. Garbage grinders or waste disposers grind food waste into particles small enough to go down the drain and directly into the municipal sewer system. The advantage is that you never have to touch the waste. But there’s a rub: An increasing number of counties and cities are banning their use for environmental reasons or because municipal waste systems can’t handle the added load of organic waste. If there is no ban in your area, use a grinder.

Disposers can be used in several locations in the kitchen. They also provide the convenience of getting rid of some of the bulk waste where it’s generated, including the dishwashing room, at prep sinks and potwashing areas.

Disposers all work in essentially the same way. Food waste is broken into small particles when protruding bars inside the machine attached to a rapidly revolving rotor collide with the waste. The food waste is continually shattered until it is broken down into pieces small enough to be washed through a sizing ring, a fixed ring around the perimeter of the disposer cavity.  As the waste is being shattered, it is being mixed with water to form a slurry to help wash it through the unit and into the sewer system.  

Most manufacturers make units that can be adapted to fit in the bottom of a sink, at the end of a dishtable trough or in their own cone-shaped basin. All manufacturers make grinders in a variety of horse power ratings, one of which will match your application. In most restaurant applications, a range of one to five horsepower units will be adequate for the operation’s needs. Generally, the dishroom will require a three to five horsepower model, while a preparation sink may only need a one or two horsepower machine.  

A drawback to a disposer is that they use a lot of fresh water in making the slurry of waste that goes down the drain. A hybrid system that is available uses a disposer with a recirculating water trough. The unit separates the water from the waste and reuses the water. The system recirculates a large amount of water that can be used for scrapping dishes, but then allows only about half the water a traditional disposer uses to go down the drain in the waste slurry.

If you don’t currently have a disposer in your operation, check with the local plumbing department first to be sure they can be used in your area. Areas vary widely on their support of garbage grinders, based primarily on the adequacy of the municipality’s sewage system. Many city sewer systems can no longer handle the bulk of food waste from restaurants. These cities have either banned disposers or placed excessive sewer taxes on the operation when disposers are used. Certain other areas like island resorts ban disposers because of the scarcity of fresh water and lack of treatment plants. Other cities, however, see disposers as an environmentally sound way of reducing health hazards associated with food waste and reducing waste going into landfills. A few cities require new restaurants to have waste disposers in each kitchen area where food waste is generated as a means of reducing waste to landfills.

Foodservice professionals and workers generally agree that disposers are a beneficial labor-savings way to reduce waste-associated hazards and odors, but what if disposers are not permitted? Pulpers are the answer.

Alternative disposers

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Pulpers. A pulper is a disposer which, rather than dumping the waste slurry into the sewer system, operates in a self-contained environment. The waste is separated from the water with a piece of equipment called a water press, which extracts water from the waste while allowing water-soluble matter to be flushed down the drain. Waste odor is reduced significantly since many odor-causing materials, such as proteins and milk solids are, for the most part, washed away. The result from the water press is a damp, grayish, pulverized material that can then be removed from the building. Depending upon the makeup of your waste, this pulverized material can often be composted. There are vendors in many cities that will pick up the pulp and compost the material, sometimes at no cost to you. Your operation winds up saving money and helping the environment by reducing landfill waste at the same time.  

There are also elaborate pulper systems that transport the ground slurry mixture from the point of generation to a remote trash room. The water press is situated in the trash room, where the extracted waste is dumped directly into containers that can be removed from the premises. This engineered system saves some labor and can be much more sanitary than typical systems. However, the system needs to be well maintained, which is why it’s sometimes reluctantly recommended except in very large institutions.

Another advantage to pulpers is that they typically use less water than disposers because they recirculate most of the extracted water.  Recirculating allows a pulper to use only a small fraction of the water of a disposer.  In a dishroom, a large volume of water can flow in a dish trough to rinse dishes without dumping it all down the drain.

Scrapping collectors are made primarily for areas prohibiting disposers. The collector is, in simple terms, a perforated pot in a sink with water recirculating through it. Some units are made to fit the end of a dish trough and others are made to use as a scrapping sink. A good location for the collector is in a dish room where a trough is used to scrape dishes. The collector eliminates the additional time needed to scrap dishes into a garbage can and rinse them before washing. With a collector the entire dish-scrapping operation can be done in the dish trough. The perforated basket of the unit must be periodically removed and dumped in a garbage can. For the right application, collectors can be an inexpensive alternative to a costly pulper, although not nearly as effective in waste volume reduction.

Compostable Waste Decomposers. One of the newest items on the market is the compostable waste decomposer. This type of unit is essentially a large stainless steel box that takes pulped, compostable waste and in a period of usually less than 24 hours turns it into what is called a humus-rich soil amendment. That means it is similar to products you might buy for your home garden. The equipment does this change in waste by reducing volume and moisture and allowing natural organic decomposition to occur and speed up by applying heat to the material. In one type of unit, no other chemicals or enzymes are used. Other similar units use an enzyme mix to aid in the decomposition. This equipment is perfect for use in conjunction with a pulper to create a truly “green” waste reduction system in your establishment.

Waste disposers, pulpers and collectors are not the type of equipment every chef dreams of, but there are some advantages and cost savings that can be attributed to making proper choices in units. Disposal equipment can really reduce the amount of odor causing waste in trash bins or compactor/container units outside your establishment. The objective always is to reduce waste at the point it is generated in your kitchen.

Dan Bendall (dbendall@foodstrategy.com) is a principal of FoodStrategy, a firm specializing in planning foodservice facilities.