NATICK, Mass. (Nov. 19, 2015) -- Realizing that food makes up 21 percent of all the waste dropped into this nation's landfills, three ambitious folks at the Natick Soldier Systems Center, or NSSC, seek to put the installation on a diet of sorts.

Jo Ann Ratto, Danielle Froio, and Rich Valcourt want to curb NSSC's appetite for the styrofoam containers and conventional plastic dinnerware available in the cafeteria, Combat Feeding Directorate sensory laboratory and pilot plant, and the dining facility, diverting those items and food scraps from the solid waste stream into a compost pile at a local farm.

"It's called 'Zero Waste Cafeteria,'" said Ratto of the Combat Feeding Directorate, Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, or NSRDEC. "So, we're replacing all of the styrofoam in the cafeteria with compostable items, whether they're made out of a biodegradable plastic or they're going to be made out of a natural fiber material, or paper."

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts recently announced a ban on food waste in commercial operations if it exceeds one ton per week. Valcourt said as a U.S. Army Garrison Natick environmental engineer, NSSC currently produces three-quarters of a ton per week.

"So we're under the threshold, but … we want to be the stewards of the environment," Valcourt said. "That [maximum] could be lowered in the near future. So we went forward."

Through a "Bootstrap Initiative" sponsored by the NSRDEC chief scientists, Ratto was able to obtain $17,000 in funding for the project earlier this year. Such initiatives are submitted by NSRDEC employees in hopes of streamlining processes and minimizing bureaucracy. A large portion of that money was used to buy biodegradable tableware that will be available in the cafeteria and individual bins that the workforce can use to dispose of food waste in their work areas.

The program will kick off Nov. 23, with Ratto, Froio and Valcourt standing by in the dining areas to answer questions.

"Given that the success of this initiative is largely dependent on the workforce's participation, a significant part of this effort will focus on educating the workforce about the switch over to compostable food service products in the cafeteria, and how this affects the way in which they dispose of their food waste and dinnerware," Froio said. "Visual cues will help guide employees through the sorting process, in an effort to minimize contamination of the compostable bins with non-compostable items, like condiment packets, potato chip bags and other commercial packaging that is either purchased in the cafeteria and PX or brought in from home, and consumed in the dining area."

"We're going to be collecting all the food waste and those compostable items all in one bin," Valcourt said.

"You can take your plate that has leftover food on it and throw it right in the same bin," Ratto added.

Conventional trash bins will also still be available for the collection of all non-compostable items.

Waste from food preparation will also make its way to the compost pile, but what happens when employees take meals back to their offices?

"People in the work area [will] have little bins - they're two-gallon bins - and we're going to have a biodegradable bag in there," said Ratto, noting that the bins are well vented. "They're odorless. They won't smell."

"That's important that people know where to put stuff," Valcourt said, "because there's going to be multiple places to put your trash."

The waste will be picked up and transported weekly to the farm. The program will run three to four months, when data will be collected to assess how much waste has been diverted from landfills and, instead, converted into compost, a valuable product that can be used by the community.

Data collection will also include surveys, which collect employee feedback about the new compostable products and the initiative as a whole. This combination of data will help determine if the cafeteria can be a zero-waste facility.

"We want to collect at least three months of data," Ratto said. "I think it's going to be exciting for the base, and it's going to be educational and environmental."

Valcourt said the garrison will pick up where the program leaves off.

"We're going to move forward with it," said Valcourt, adding that he hopes it will help Natick reach a solid waste diversion rate of 60 percent this fiscal year. "Going to this … program will help out, greatly. This is a great program. It's long overdue."