DEVENS -- The Hilton Garden Inn on Devens opened for business in late October.

Three months later, the kitchen staff launched a food-composting initiative, diverting food scraps from the hotel's trash stream.

The result has been impressive. Hotel General Manager John Mehlmann says they've halved the number of trash pickups and switched to on-call trash removal.

"We went from four per month to two last month. We cut it in half," Mehlmann said.

The food scraps are separately contained in their own bin stored behind the hotel and hauled away weekly. "We want to avoid smell, if anything," said Mehlmann.

But his fears have been unfounded so far. "We would have seen it last week if it was 83 to 85 degrees. And it was windy, so the smell would have gone one way or another," said Mehlmann.

"It's the same waste if it had been picked up with the regular trash," notes Devens Eco-Efficiency Center Director Dona Neely. If concerned about smell in extreme heat, Neely said sawdust or baking soda atop the food scraps can "settle it down."

It's one of the many composing tips Neely provided the Hilton staff this winter.

"We've seen the program get stronger over time as far as how confident and proficient this staff is," said Neely. "I look in their bins and rarely see any food materials in the trash cans and we see an increase in the amount of food being captured in the compost bin."

The staff greets Neely by name.


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Neely said her follow-up visits to the staff have tapered off. Now, on the heels of the Hilton's successful composting program, Neely's Eco-Efficiency Center will use the hotel as a backdrop for a conference later this month to reach out to other regional, large-scale food handlers.

The free food-composing seminar for commercial entities will take place Monday, April 16 from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. at the Hilton Garden Inn, 59 Andrews Parkway on Devens. Reservations can be made by contacting Neely at donaneely@ecostardevens.com or by calling 978-772-8831, ext. 3304.

The workshop will explore the cost-benefit analysis of composting, program setup and implementation, a primer on the process itself, and a candid talk about the successes and challenges posed by composting on a larger scale. A tour of the Hilton's restaurant kitchen and collection area will be provided and case studies from other programs, including Cooley-Dickenson Hospital in Northampton, Clark University, and Big Y Supermarkets, will be highlighted.

The Devens Eco-Efficiency Center offers free technical assistance for institutions and businesses within a half hour area of Devens. Invitations went out to more than 100 restaurants, corporate cafeterias, grocery stores, and hospital in the area.

"It's difficult to get people to come out of their work for even that long," said Neely. "But they'll have the opportunity to see a program in place. Ideally they'll implement the program and use it as a marketing tool to tell their staff and their customer base that they're taking action to be environmentally responsible."

Mehlmann said he and Neely agreed that the best time to train the hotel's staff was right after the Hilton opened. "It was the best time to do it," said Mehlmann. "No one has gotten into any bad habits. They can start right away. So far, so good. It's gotten better weekly."

"In today's society, people recycle already with bottles and cans and paper. Not so much with composting, but this was just another phase and in step with that," said Mehlmann.

As business travelers embrace green operations, Mehlmann said hotel management company True North, Inc. is using the Devens Hilton composting program as a model example within its 20-hotel corporate family.

"How green are you?' We see it on company questionnaires," said Mehlmann. "We'll toot our own horn."

Mehlmann said there are already recycling bins in each guest room and in common areas by vending machines. Guests can also opt to "recycle" their bath towels by throwing them over the shower curtain rod -- a signal to the staff that they want to help the environment and the hotel tamp-down on the amount of energy used to clean huge hotel laundry loads. 

Neely said the Hilton was the pilot site for large-scale composting on Devens. Neely said she's working closely with the Devens Common Center and the Devens Grill Restaurant and aiding those businesses with a cost analysis of launching their own composting programs.

"They're both very interested in going forward," said Neely. "First they need to make sure it makes economic sense. Businesses want to do the right thing but they have to be sensitive to how their operational costs might be impacted. For those three entities, it will initially be cost neutral with no savings per se."

But the expectation is that, over time, a greater amount of food waste and recyclables will be salvaged from the waste stream, making it less costly to dispose of than their present solid-waste demands.

On an institutional scale, Neely said she's had initial conversations, too, with the Federal Medical Center on Devens, where more than 1,000 inmates are housed and fed daily, and Bristol-Myers Squibb, which has a corporate cafeteria and food service for their 300 employees.

The seminar and information will help food handlers get ready for an upcoming 2014 DEP Waste Ban. Neely said at that time it will be illegal for commercial and institutional sources to commingle food scraps in their waste stream.

"At that point, large generators of food waste will be required to divert this material. The goal is to reduce the amount of material that's going into the landfills."

Neely said state estimates are that 1.2 million tons of food scraps go to landfills in the state, and that organics represent 40 to 80 percent of the solid-waste stream at food service establishments, "so there's significant potential there."

"From an economic perspective, we can decrease the need for landfill space and be converting this material into something that is valuable rather than just trash," said Neely.