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Local Residents Team Up To Make Columbus Restaurants Waste Free

A new Benchmarking study shows Columbus lags behind fifteen other metropolitan areas when it comes to fostering small businesses. But local entrepreneurs can find opportunities sometimes in unlikely places. Two such like minded residents, Elizabeth Lessner and Mike Minnix found their business opening literally in the trash. When local entrepreneur Elizabeth Lessner opened her first restaurant Betty's Fine Food and Spirits in the Short North in 2001, recycling was somewhat manageable. But she says as her business grew, recycling became more challenging. "It was all pretty simple except for the food waste hauling component. We weren't able to figure out how to get food waste out of the restaurant and into some place that could use it." So Lessner teamed up Mike Minnix and their recycling company Eartha Limited was born. As an intern at a local concessions company during college, Minnix's waste free efforts helped the company win a contract with the Super Bowl to turn tons of football food waste into compost for organic gardens. But Minnix admits Eartha Limited may have been ahead of the curve when it came to recycling food waste in Columbus. "We jumped the gun a little bit. Just everything from local recycling laws, local trash hauling laws to state trash hauling laws. There were a lot of different things that we had to go through." One of those things was a fee imposed on recyclers by the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio. Using figures from 2003, the latest available, SWACO's John Remy estimates about 15 percent of the trash that comes to the landfill is food waste. "And what do you do with it?" Anything that crosses the scale, as long as it is not a forbidden material, goes into the landfill." Because it makes money on every ton of trash it takes in, SWACO previously levied a nine dollar per ton charge for every ton of food scraps removed from the garbage stream. Through persistence, Lessner and Minnix were able change the law. "Yes and that's something I'm very, very, very proud of. It's something that can never be taken away. We changed this city and this state for the better." Lessner says the amount of food waste generated by her five restaurants alone is substantial: around six tons a week. "A lot of it comes when they're prepping in the morning. If you're cutting up vegetables there's always ends of celery stalks. There are tops of lettuces. There are tops of carrots. There's also unfortunately just waste. You might have bread that goes stale. You might have meat that's just about to turn and you have to get rid of it." In addition, Lessner says because restaurants now serve larger portions, uneaten food is sometimes discarded. Now says Minnix Eartha hauls those food scraps to local landscape and recycling centers where they are turned first into energy as they break down and into compost when they fully decompose. Eventually he says food waste will be used in a new kind of power plant, anaerobic digesters, that are being built around the state. "They collect organic scrap. They colllect the gas that emits off of it as it decays. It's methane. They refine it at these facilities and then they sell it on the open market. They use it to power homes. They use it to power cars." Minnix and Lessner are working with local restaurants, universities, and businesses in their efforts to recycle food waste in a way that is relatively easy and inexpensive. Lessner says the potential is there to make Columbus a region with the highest number of zero-waste restaurants in the country. "We can see really substantial revolutionary change here not only in how we do business but also how we fuel our local economy. If we can actually create energy with the products that come out of our restaurants to support our cities that inspires me that gets me really fired up and excited."