At Food Loops, Waste ‘Smells Like Money'


At Food Loops, Waste ‘Smells Like Money'
Tom and Therese Rohr want Food Loops to be a “one-stop shop” for companies and individuals who want to recycle. (Marty Cook)

Tom and Therese Rohr can’t wait for big events to return to Arkansas.

Events mean waste and waste “smells like money,” Therese Rohr joked. That’s because the Rohrs are the founders and co-owners of Food Loops in Rogers, a company that takes food and other waste and turns it into fertilizing compost.

Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale announced in July that its partnership with Food Loops had recycled 35 tons of discarded food and containers from its headquarters cafeteria since 2018.

The Rohrs founded Food Loops in November 2017 after Tom Rohr took an early retirement from Walmart Inc. of Bentonville. The company was beginning to make a dent in recycling food waste when COVID-19 hit in March 2020, shutting down offices and public events.

“I don’t want to use the term slow burn but we were just hitting our stride in January 2020 and then the bottom dropped out,” Therese Rohr said. “It’s not like bingo bango bongo. It has been hard work.

“We are at a pivotal point. We want offices and events to come back.”

Food Loops is vertically integrated. It uses third-party vendors to collect and to compost the waste, but the company sells the compostable materials that offices and events use for food service.

In its commercial and office segments, Food Loops collects waste on-site. For example, Tyson Foods’ cafeteria uses containers, bowls and cups that are made of compostable material.

Food Loops also has a residential program in which people pay $5 a month and receive a 5-gallon bucket and compostable bag to store their discarded waste. There are six dropoff locations in northwest Arkansas.

Food Loops collects used material and uneaten food in bins and ships them to a composting facility maintained and run by the city of Fayetteville.

After 90 days of composting, the material is collected by Food Loops and sold for $53 a cubic yard, which Tom Rohr said is about 1,000 pounds. Food Loops sells the composts to customers such as commercial gardeners and landscapers.

“Cannabis farmers have been good customers,” Therese Rohr said.

Showtime

Tom Rohr said the company’s next big event is the LPGA’s Walmart NWA Championship in September. In October, Food Loops will provide serving containers and collect waste at the Food Truck Festival in downtown Little Rock.

The 2020 LPGA event took place without spectators and the Food Truck Festival was canceled a year ago because of the pandemic. Officials said the three-day LPGA event draws 45,000 annually.

Therese Rohr said Food Loops is interested in establishing a presence in Little Rock but, for now, will do select events.

“We’d love to make inroads down there,” she said.

Major events such as the Little Rock festival represent about 20% of Food Loops’ business. Tom Rohr said recycling at events can help make a significant reduction in landfill waste; the Tontitown landfill collects 80,000 tons of food waste annually.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that food waste accounts for about 30% of landfill use nationally, and Tom Rohr said if more compostable materials were used and recycled, then landfill space could be reduced another 30%.

Tom Rohr said Tyson Foods thought it was recycling 20% of its waste but a Food Loops audit revealed it was about 5%. “We want to get them to 90%,” he said.

In a statement to Arkansas Business, Tyson Foods said its goal was to take a “holistic approach” to sustainability.

“This program allows us to operate more sustainably while also supporting local residents, farmers and gardeners here in Northwest Arkansas,” Katherine Pickus, Tyson Foods’ vice president of sustainability, said.

Therese Rohr said Food Loops’ goal is to become a “one-stop shop” for companies and individuals who want to recycle. The company will handle food waste and compostable containers, but also items such as cardboard and glass.

“Tyson was an early believer,” Therese Rohr said. “The demand is out there on every level from the residential customer to the Tysons and the Walmarts. Sustainability, living green, zero waste — a lot of that can be platitudes.

“We have really been fortunate to be planted in the backyard of a Walmart and a Tyson who are truly committed to reducing their footprint. We are just a company that has been able to connect the dots.”