As the kitchen staff at Dupree Catering cleans fruits and vegetables in meal preparation, they toss the potato peels, lettuce leaves and apple cores into plastic buckets, capped with a lid.
The buckets are set by the back door. Three mornings a week, Ryan Koch, executive director of Seedleaf, arrives in his pickup to collect the organic material to take to one of several community garden compost piles.
The catering company generates as much as 90 gallons of vegetable and fruit scraps each week.
"Everybody wants to recycle. But it's a huge deal for us to have Seedleaf, in that they make it so seamless," said Cooper Vaughan, a Dupree manager. "There is training involved to get your staff on board. Then all we do is have everybody throw stuff in the buckets and we set the buckets out back."
Koch does the rest.
Seedleaf is working with the city's division of waste management on a pilot project to compost food waste.
"About 23 percent of the waste stream going to the city's landfill is organic material, in other words, anything that will rot," said Steve Feese, director of waste management. This does not count leaves and grass clippings that the city is already composting.
But 12 percent of that organic matter is food waste.
Lexington has adopted a zero waste strategy by 2020, meaning the city is aggressively working to divert all kinds of waste from the landfill. Food waste is "the last major part we have not dealt with," Feese said.
The city wants to introduce composting for businesses as well as residents, Feese said.
Teaming with Seedleaf for this composting project is a start. The project started in 2008 and was expanded last year.
Seedleaf's primary enterprise is installing and maintaining community and home vegetable gardens, plus helping individuals overcome problems with their garden plots.
"Of course, there is a connection between community gardens and waste management that doesn't seem immediately apparent," Feese said.
Two to three times a week, Koch picks up food scraps — primarily non-meat — in specially-provided five-gallon plastic containers from 12 downtown locations, mostly restaurants but also Sayre School, the city's Government Center and Central Baptist Hospital.
The scraps are taken to five locations for making compost.
One of those is Maxwell Street Presbyterian Church where on Friday morning, Koch dumped scraps he had collected 30 minutes earlier at Doodles restaurant on North Limestone.
In the back of his truck, Koch keeps a bag of straw and shredded cardboard he sprinkles on the food scraps. "You've got to have brown material like straw or shredded newspaper" to help the organic material break down. The pile also has to be kept damp and turned every couple of days.
But in two to three months, the egg shells, spinach leaves and orange peels have decomposed into earthy-smelling, crumbly compost. The compost can be dug into soil to increase its texture and help hold moisture, and used as mulch around plants and trees.
Seedleaf's first compost participant was Pat Gerhard, owner of Third Street Stuff. Koch set up three bins behind the cafe so Gerhard could keep the compost generated by her restaurant's food vegetable scraps and coffee grounds for the many containers where she grows flowers and vegetables.
For Gerhard, and also at Maxwell Street Presbyterian Church, Koch makes compost in Herbie trash containers that the city converted to compost bins.
The city regularly gives away the converted Herbies. "Last month we gave away 60 or 70 in a matter of just an hour or so," Feese said.
The best method for making compost is to have three containers: one for the newest food scraps; a second where no new material is added and the material is decomposing; a third where the compost is ready to use.
All the participating businesses expressed appreciation for the composting opportunity. Victor Buenrostro, executive chef at Central Baptist Hospital, said before the Seedleaf pickup, "We would put all food scraps in the dumpsters." That is not an insignificant amount of food waste.
For a special event Central Baptist had last Tuesday, Buenrostro's staff ended up with 100 quarts of cantaloupe, watermelon and pineapple rinds. "We would rather give the scraps to somebody to do some good, rather than have it go in the garbage," he said.
At Sunshine Bakery on West Main Street, it takes more effort for employees to separate out the scraps for composting, said owner Kristy Matherly. "We have to think not to throw the lettuce and tomatoes in the garbage and to gather all the bread at the end of the day."
But the extra effort is worth it. "Before, all this stuff was going into the trash. We threw everything away. It's a lot," Matherly said. Now it all goes back into "the big recycling circle, so we're glad to help them with composting."
Koch said he hopes the city's composting efforts will grow. "If we had 100 sites with two or three bins, that would put a dent in the waste stream," he said.