The Circle of Food

TMMK’s garden, whose output benefits local food banks, gets a boost from compost generated by team member waste

April 17, 2019
Growth Potential -- Toyota's manufacturing plant in Kentucky has long maintained a five-acre garden on its grounds. Compost generated in part by team member waste helps to feed the crops.

So, you’ve just consumed your work day lunch and now need to dispose of the remains. But are you completely clear which bits go in which trash receptacle? And, taking it a step further, do you know what happens to your castoffs after you’ve deposited them?

If you’re like most team members, probably not.

But if you’re among those who work at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, the answers to these questions are pretty darn interesting. That’s because since 2002, the plant has taken steps to convert its food and paper waste into compost. And, eventually, some of that organic material comes back around to help fortify a five-acre garden on campus which helps supplement local food banks.

“This came about when we set out to reduce the amount of our waste that goes to landfills,” says David Peel, a specialist in TMMK Project Building Service Support. “So, the initial focus was on reducing waste. But it soon shifted to: What can we do with it?”
A Peck of Peppers -- Local food banks benefit from the garden's wide range of produce, such as cabbage, tomatoes and turnips.

Onsite Composting
Composting emerged as a key part of the plan. TMMK set up a composting facility onsite to process the plant’s food and paper waste.
The first step is to feed the material into a large drum that aims to sift out anything — most notably plastic — that doesn’t belong. The good stuff is then spread out over 10 acres of land which must be turned over periodically. If all goes well, 12-18 months later, TMMK has useable compost for its garden — boosting the soil’s nutrients and its ability to retain moisture.
Over the years, however, challenges have arisen. Particularly vexing are small bits of plastic that don’t get sifted out early in the process and must be addressed further downstream. Another is that the plant’s waste tends to be heavier on paper and lighter on food. As such, the compost has plenty of carbon but not enough nitrogen, minimizing its value as fertilizer. To offset this, TMMK collects produce from local food banks that’s past its sell-by date and then adds it to the mix.
The process is also extremely labor intensive. Peel says it can take 120 tons of waste to produce just one ton of useable compost.
“That’s why we’re now exploring the possibility of shipping our waste to a third-party company that specializes in composting and has the latest technology to maximize the output,” says Jesse Daniels, the plant’s environmental specialist.
Greenhouse Effect -- In addition to the garden, TMMK has a greenhouse where it grows flowers that brighten on-campus workspaces.

The Fruit – and Veg – of Their Labors
No matter how team member waste gets processed, some of it will continue to find its way back into the garden — helping to grow cabbage in the spring, tomatoes in the summer, turnips in the fall and even some pumpkins for decorating the plant at Halloween. The compost also provides a boost to TMMK’s greenhouse where flowers that adorn the campus are grown.
All told, the effort generates some 5,000 pounds of produce annually that is donated to area food banks, most notably God’s Pantry in Lexington, Kentucky.
“Our produce is first rate,” says Peel. “The food banks are very happy to receive it. Team members should feel proud to play a role in helping to make it all possible.”
By Dan Miller

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