Christian M. 6 min read

Composting for businesses

Food waste rotting in landfills is a major source of the UK’s methane emissions (a powerful greenhouse gas) and a major setback for the ‘Net Zero Emissions by 2050’ goal established by the UN.

Despite this, only 20% of food waste in the UK is recycled back into useful products, including the soil amendments generated from composting.

UK businesses are significant contributors of food waste, and the expectation for them to compost on-site or at least arrange for its collection is steadily increasing.

This article covers everything your business needs to know to jump-start its composting program. Let’s dive in!


What is composting?

Composting is the process of decomposing biodegradable organic waste, such as food scraps and garden clippings, into a nutrient-rich soil amendment called “compost” (or “humus”, which refers to its naturally occuring equivalent).

This natural process involves microorganisms breaking down the materials, resulting in “compost” that can improve soil health and fertility.

Unlike the environmentally harmful decomposition in landfills (e.g., rotting), composting emits significantly less carbon emissions because it occurs in the presence of air (i.e., an aerobic process).

Composting in waste management is essentially an adaptation of the natural process that occurs in grasslands and forests.

Microorganisms break down any available dead organic material in the search for nutrients, leaving behind a black, spongy “humus” that improves soil health and fertility.

💡 What does “biodegradable” mean? Any organic matter, including plastics, will eventually degrade into its original carbon molecules. However, only those that can be reasonably broken down within a short period, typically months to a few years, count as “biodegradable.”

What wastes can be composted, and which ones can’t?

Any biodegradable waste can theoretically be composted. However, depending on the specific composting methods, successful composting requires a prescribed combination of these waste ingredients.

Compostable waste

The following organic wastes can be composted under all circumstances:

Waste TypeDescription
Fruit and Vegetable ScrapsPeels, cores, and trimmings from fruits and vegetables.
Coffee GroundsUsed coffee grounds and paper coffee filters.
Tea BagsTea leaves and biodegradable tea bags (without staples).
EggshellsCrushed eggshells (rinse before composting).
Small Garden WasteSmall quantities of grass clippings, leaves, and plant trimmings.
Paper ProductsUncoated paper, cardboard, and newspaper (shredded).
Nut ShellsShells from nuts
Hair and FurHuman and pet hair or fur.
Office plantsDead plants and flowers.
Bread and GrainsBread, rice, pasta (avoid excessive oils and sauces).

💡 Wet cardboard: If your business is earning recycling rebates from cardboard recycling, it is inevitably generating low-quality or spoilt cardboard that it cannot sell. This cardboard (often wet or low quality) is a great addition to a compost heap used to rebalance when there are excess greens.

Non-compostable, biodegradable waste

The following wastes should only be composted in specific circumstances to avoid attracting pests, emitting foul odours, or adding pathogens or pollutants to the final “compost” mix. Here are some principal examples:

Organic MaterialReason to AvoidExamplesExceptions
Meat and dairyAttract pests and produce foul odoursMeat scraps, bones, dairy products, oilsCan be safely processed using Bokashi composting
Diseased plantsIntroduce pathogens and spread plant diseasesBlighted plants, mildew-infected plantsNone
Pet wasteContain harmful bacteria and parasitesFeces from dogs, cats, other meat-eating petsCan be composted using specialised pet waste composters
Treated wood and sawdustContain harmful chemicals and toxinsSawdust from treated wood, chemically-treated lumberNone
Citrus peals, onions, garlicCan make compost too acidic and deter wormsCitrus fruits, onions, garlicSmall amounts can be added if mixed thoroughly and balanced with other compost materials
Biodegradable plastics (some)Often require industrial composting facilities with high temperatures to break down.Biodegradable plastic bags, utensils, and packaging​Some highly biodegradable bags
Cooked or prepared foodCan sometimes have too much grease and condiments, affecting the chemical balance of the compost.Curries, sandwiches with sauces, greasy food, fast foodSmall amounts are OK if mixed throughly.

Setting up a business composting program

Setting up composting for your business has many benefits, including compliance, environment and employee well-being. Setting up composting is simple as long as you follow this step-by-step process:

  1. Initial assessment.
  2. Deciding on whether to compost on-site or outsource it.
  3. Assessment and improvements

1. Initial assessment

This step involves understanding your business’s situation to implement the solution that best meets your needs.

This includes a waste audit, a cost-benefit analysis, and ultimately weighing up your options.

Waste audit

Measuring the weight and volume of your composable organics will help you calculate the size of your waste collection bin or the required size of your on-site composter.

Small-scale composting activities for small to medium businesses are typically exempt from special environmental and health and safety permits, but larger operations processing multiple tonnes of organic waste at any one time will require special permits.

Your mix of compostables is also crucial to assess whether its feasible to do this on-site or simply outsource.

Cost analysis

For a cost analysis, we recommend collection quotes from various food and garden waste collection companies and companies that can help you set up on-site composting.

2. On-site vs commercial composting

There are two composting routes any UK business can take:

  1. Arranging the collection of all biodegradable organics (cardboard, food, garden).
  2. On-site composting (or a mix of composting and collection).

Commercial composting (Outsourcing)

Commercial waste collection providers will pick up your waste and take it to either a licensed composting facility or a biofuel production facility, whichever is more convenient.

In the UK, approximately 272 permitted composting sites process around 6.8 million tonnes of food and garden waste annually from homes and businesses.

The resulting soild amendment is used in agriculture and landscaping, with about two-thirds sold off-site to users​. Here are two notable examples of commercial composting facilities in the UK:

New Earth Solution (Kent, England): This Kent waste management facility opened in 2013, and uses In-Vessel Composting (IVC), a method in which organic waste is decomposed in a controlled, enclosed environment. The facility handles approximately 60,000 tonnes of waste annually and produces PAS-100-certified compost.

Veolia’s Green Energy Plant (Southwark, London): This London waste management site uses Open Windrow Composting, a method best suited for processing garden waste. Organic materials are piled into long rows (windrows) and regularly turned to introduce oxygen and manage temperature. The Southwark plant processes around 20,000 tonnes of green waste annually and produces PAS-100-certified compost.

Unless your business handles hundreds of tonnes of food waste annually, it is recommended that you negotiate with a vetted commercial waste collection provider that operates in your local area.

On-site composting

Businesses of all sizes, settings, and circumstances can legally compost their organic waste on their premises without any additional permits as long as they are not composting animal by-products or large amounts of waste.

There are various methods to chose from:

MethodDescriptionIdeal for
Composting BinsSmall to medium-sized bins for kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, and small garden waste. Requires regular manual turning or tumbling (if available).Small offices, restaurants, or businesses with limited space.
VermicompostingUses worms to decompose organic waste, producing high-quality compost. Does not need turning but requires a constant influx of well-sorted organics.Indoor settings such as schools, small businesses, and restaurants with consistent waste.
In-vessel CompostingEnclosed systems providing a controlled environment for organic waste decomposition. Expensive but highly automated system.Large hotels, hospitals, large corporate campuses, and food production facilities.
Windrow CompostingLarge outdoor composting method where waste is piled into rows and turned regularly. Requires machinery or dedicated labour for turning the piles and managing moisture levels.Agricultural businesses, landscaping companies, nurseries, and large estates.
Bokashi CompostingAnaerobic process using special bran to ferment kitchen waste in sealed containers. Requires specialised bokashi bins and a secondary compost bin, but can process, virtually all organics, including meat.
Urban restaurants, small cafes, and households with diverse organic waste, including meat.

Training and involvement

As simple as composting is (it requires a few minutes of monitoring per week), all on-site composting methods require training and some commitment. This is because the health of microorganisms and their environment needs monitoring to ensure it remains odourless and pest-free.

While each composting method has its intricacies, the following always holds:

  • The compost must be well-aerated to avoid foul smells from anaerobic decomposition (i.e. rotting).
  • The compost must be balanced 1:3 in terms of greens and browns.
  • The compost must remain moist but not water-logged.
  • Avoid adding troublesome biodegradable waste.

These are covered in more detail in our composting process section.

3. Assessment

Once you have established your composting method and gone through the process for a whole year (to control any seasonal variables), it is worth assessing:

  • How much have you saved by composting?
  • Are my employees interested?
  • Have you seen any intangible benefits from composting?

These will help you identify areas for improvement and whether you should consider outsourcing your composting or, alternatively, starting it in-house.

The composting process

The composting process is vastly similar, whether its done at a business’s premises or outsourced to a private or municipal composting facility. The underlying natural process is the same: Microorganisms breaking organic matter down. Here is a summary:

  1. Segregation
  2. Preparation
  3. Composting
  4. Maturation and harvesting

Segregation of organic waste

Organic wastes such as kitchen scraps, garden and plant pot clippings, and other biodegradable items like spoilt cardboard are segregated and stored separately in compost bins prior to composting at the business premises.

See what biodegradable items you should and should not compost here.

Preparation for composting

While not all composting methods require reducing the raw organic waste in size by shredding, chopping or cutting, it is usually very beneficial to do so as it increases the surface area for decomposition.

To achieve a well-balanced compost, green (nitrogen-rich) and brown (carbon-rich) organics should be mixed as close as possible to its optimal decomposition ratio of 1:3 by volume:

Green MaterialsBrown Materials
Vegetable scrapsDried leaves
Fruit peels and spoilt fruitStraw or hay
Coffee groundsShredded paper
Grass clippingsCardboard (non-glossy)
Fresh garden trimmingsWood chips or sawdust


While the composting process begins as soon as the organics become waste, it accelerates once incorporated into the composting vessel.

This could be forming the correct ratios into a layered pile for Windrow Composting or simply mixing them well before adding them to the Vermicompost, Bokashi or In-Vessel bins for composting.

While In-vessel and Bokashi composting is hands-off, moisture and aeration levels must be carefully managed in other methods.

The decomposition process will slow down if the compost pile or waste material is too dry, and if it is too wet, it will stink and potentially harbour pathogens.

Also, ensuring enough organic material is composted together is essential to raising its temperature. Your compost needs to maintain a temperature of at least 55C for several days to kill any introduced seedlings and many pathogens.

Maturation and harvesting

Once the active composting phase slows down, typically after a few weeks or months, the compost ‘cures’ and stabilises, ensuring any remaining organic matter fully decomposes.

The finished compost should be dark, crumbly, earthy-smelling and free of seedlings (if possible). The compost can enrich garden soil, improve plant health, and enhance overall soil structure.

The benefits of business composting

Starting a composting program at your business is hugely beneficial for your employees, waste management costs, and the environment, whether you arrange for its collection or do it on-site:

Cost SavingsReduced waste disposal fees due to less landfill tax, waste cross-contamination and fine avoidance.
Environmental ImpactDecreased use of landfill space, a significantly lower carbon footprint.
Sustainability GoalsHelps achieve corporate sustainability objectives.
Soil HealthProduces nutrient-rich compost for landscaping or community projects, and avoids the need for synthetic fertilisers.
Waste ReductionMinimises the amount of waste sent to landfills.
Brand ImageEnhances corporate image and reputation as an environmentally responsible business.
Employee EngagementInvolves employees in sustainable practices, boosting morale and engagement. Increases wisdom and helps with well-being.
Regulatory ComplianceHelps comply with waste management regulations by following the waste hierarchy.
Resource RecoveryConverts waste into valuable resources as per circular economy guidelines.
Community RelationsSupports local community gardening and farming initiatives.

However, on-site composting programs that require more involvement from your staff have many other intangible benefits.

The added benefits of on-site composting

Composting on-site is more environmentally friendly because it avoids the added environmental impacts of waste transportation, including emissions.

Involving employees in the composting process is educational and team-building because it is a hands-on process in which very few, especially urban Britons, have little to no experience.

Also, you should expect employees to experience improved well-being from working “with nature” and pride from doing “the right thing.”

While these benefits are sometimes difficult to communicate to stakeholders or management because they are “intangible”, “soft”, or difficult to measure, you can be certain they’re a step in the right direction.

The environmental benefits of composting

Composting is arguably the waste management method with the clearest environmental benefit. Not only has it proven simple and doable at any scale, but it also prevents harmful methane emissions from landfills while producing fertile soil, a commodity in global decline.

The best thing, even small businesses like small offices, barbershops or corner shops can do it in-house and achieve:

Environmental BenefitDescription
Reduces landfill wasteDiverts organic waste from landfills, reducing volume and prolonging landfill life.
Decreases GHG emissionsPrevents methane production from anaerobic decomposition in landfills, reducing carbon footprint.
Enhances soil healthProduces nutrient-rich compost, improving soil structure, fertility, and water retention, reducing chemical use.
Supports biodiversityEnriches soil with microorganisms and beneficial insects, promoting a healthy ecosystem and wildlife habitat.
Promotes water conservationImproves soil's water retention, reducing need for frequent watering, and mitigates soil erosion and runoff.
Conserves natural resourcesReduces need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, supporting circular economy principles.
Reduces pollutionDecreases risk of groundwater contamination and reduces air pollution from waste incineration and transportation.
Encourages sustainable practicesPromotes sustainable waste management and environmental stewardship, educating communities and businesses.
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