Check out four facilities that have mastered the art of composting–to great greening and beautifying effect!

Osmosis has used compost since the 1980s!

According to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), yard trimmings and food residuals—materials that can benefit the ecosphere—together constitute 27% of the country’s municipal solid waste stream.

What happens then? Yard wastes decompose within landfills, generating methane (a greenhouse gas) and acidic leachate (liquid containing concentrated hazardous waste). “If methane isn’t controlled at a landfill, it can seep underground and into nearby buildings, where it has the potential to explode,” the EPA reports. “Yard wastes also contribute acidity that can make other waste constituents more mobile and therefore, more toxic.”

In an effort to avoid such potentially damaging consequences, many conscientious spa owners have turned to composting—compiling wet, organic waste and waiting for the materials to break down into soil during a period of weeks or months—as a way to keep these materials at work within the ecosystem and, oftentimes, enhance the beauty of their property.

“Closing the waste loop at the spa is, of course, a huge benefit, but the biggest benefit of composting happens in the garden,” says Michael Stusser, owner of Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in Freestone, California. “Compost serves not only as fertilizer for landscaping, but also as soil conditioner.” Plants also feed off of microbial interactions, Stusser says, making compost a kind of “yogurt for your plants.”

And contributing to a healthier planet while promoting individuals’ wellness allows you to set a positive example for guests, employees and communities.

With so many benefits to reap, some spas have decided to enact their own composting systems. At its simplest level, composting requires heaping waste into a bin. Modern, methodical composting, however, entails multi-step, closely monitored processes requiring measured inputs of water, aeration, and carbon- and nitrogen-rich materials. Here, we look at four spa operations that successfully employ different composting practices.

Jivana Holistic Spa, Burlington, VT

“Spas create a lot of waste, so we compost everything we possibly can,” says owner Cathie Hansen-Barre, who launched Jivana’s straightforward, indoor compost operation in September, 2009. Jivana feeds its compost bags (which are also compostable) tea scraps, flowers (used on trays and in foot baths), employees’ food scraps, and used paper towels and cups. Then, every two weeks (during summer, every week), Hansen-Barre hauls the materials down the block, to a natural foods restaurant where a local company regularly picks up compostable items.

Hansen-Barre’s initial challenges included finding a system for dropping off waste materials (eventually solved by teaming up with the restaurant) and avoiding the fruit flies that tend to gather around the waste in warmer months. To solve the latter, “We now store the materials under the sink of our prep area, in a smaller container, and we don’t have a problem,” she says.

Hansen-Barre recommends that spas begin their composting system by researching local companies that pick up materials. Then, purchase composting containers and bags, label separate garbage cans for compostable materials, and broadcast your efforts to guests (Jivana explains its system on its website). “A lot of materials used in spas could be compostable if owners simply make little switches,” she says.

Absolute Nirvana Spa & Gardens, Santa Fe, NM
Any spa that has “gardens” in its title is a no-brainer candidate for composting. For Absolute Nirvana, the practice jives perfectly with the spa’s commitment to going green in every possible arena.

Owner Carolyn Lee is pleased with the results so far, noting, “Our overall trash load is reduced, and the fruit, flower petals, coffee grounds, and organic vegetable remains break down into a highly nutritious, earthy substance that’s great for garden health.” Lee advises spa owners to look into using compost balls—large, bowling ball-shaped tumblers that heat and help break down waste. These balls minimize the labor involved with composting, such as frequent stirring of waste.

Lee also advises training your staff, via meetings and thorough written materials, on trash material delegation. Like Jivana, Absolute Nirvana facilitates client education by stating its composting efforts on its website.

Staff members must be on board, explains Lee, because the biggest potential problem with composting occurs when employees neglect the tending of the backyard composter: A nasty smell will develop and the materials become more difficult to deal with! However, with regular stirring and maintenance, such issues are avoided. Plus, Lee finds, her composting policy has impacted others. “A number of our staff members now compost at home,” she says. “I like to think the spa influenced this practice in their own lives.”

La Costa Resort and Spa, Carlsbad, CA
In January 2010, La Costa further committed to its historically green philosophy by installing two industrial composting machines, the eCorrect Food Waste Decomposition System, to turn kitchen scraps (including those from the Spa Café) into a nutrient-rich compost that’s suitable for use on the property’s adjacent golf course and many plant and flower beds. “With the exception of bones and a few other items, just about any food waste can be used in the compost machine,” says Hans Wiegand, La Costa’s executive chef.

The system dehydrates the food waste, producing a humus-rich soil within approximately 18 hours. The waste is heated to 180 degrees in a chamber—without help from enzymes, by-product, fresh water or venting—resulting in zero sewer or landfill impact. The unit also uses very little energy and includes an odor-control system that keeps the kitchen free of unpleasant smells. Plus, water extracted from the machine is likewise rich in nutrients, and is used to fertilize indoor and outdoor plants.
Each day, La Costa’s grounds team fertilizes the property, including the spa’s new herb garden, with approximately 40 pounds of homemade compost. As a result, about 180,000 pounds of food by-products will be kept out of landfills this year!

Sam Bumgarner, director of purchasing at La Costa, admits that there were challenges: Determining just the right mix of products to result in optimal-quality compost, was one. The property avoids adding raw meats (they’re too oily) and too much bread, which turns into sugar and doesn’t process properly. Training staff to properly separate the materials took time as well.

Bumgarner adds that even once a spa owner finds a system that works for her operation, she should continue to research composting options. “Conduct an extensive due diligence process,” he says, “because technology is continually advancing, and there may be better solutions available.”

Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary, Freestone, CA
Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary, a longtime green pioneer, has experimented with several systems of composting throughout its decades in business, and has had its current, agricultural-level system in place for about seven years. Behind the spa facility, a large-pile system utilizes a high-heat thermophilic stage and then a slower, lower-heat finishing stage; several waste piles are turned multiple times throughout the decomposition process to ensure proper aeration, and more materials are added to each pile daily.

“It was difficult to find the system that worked best for what we compost the most; many home compost piles become stinky, slowly rotting ingredients, rather than an active pile,” says Stusser. “That doesn’t make very good compost, nor is it conducive to a pleasant spa atmosphere, so we had to take ours to this level.”
Osmosis staff contributes spa waste such as cut flowers, paper towels, tea and food scraps, and liquid by-products from enzyme baths, as well as landscaping waste—then adds rice bran and manures as nitrogen sources. Stusser describes the process of composting as an “alchemy that’s more valuable than turning lead into gold,” because it helps assist in the natural process of return and purification.

To spa owners just getting started, Stusser recommends setting aside a minimum of three cubic yards (although for smaller operations, a hand-cranked device such as Absolute Nirvana’s compost balls may be ideal). Also make sure to use clearly labeled bins for compostable materials—in the kitchen, employee break rooms, etc.—to ensure that staff is kept in the loop. “The three keys are clear communication about what goes into compost piles; a straightforward sorting system; and having one person in charge of the creation and maintenance of piles,” stresses Stusser. Also, Osmosis employees are encouraged to bring in food waste from home to bulken the mix.

Stusser recommends that spa owners peruse the easy guide Let It Rot by Stu Campbell to learn more. (Also visit for easy ways to set up your own composting system.)

“A compost pile is alive,” Stusser says. “It’s so rewarding in the end, and as people become more cognizant of how we interact with nature, composting will someday become a necessity, not an option.”

Tracy Morin is a freelance writer and editor based in Oxford, MS.

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