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Composting on Campus

CONTROLLING YOUR WASTE STREAM IS A GREAT WAY TO GO GREEN on campus. Recycling paper and plastic products is a common way to keep material out of the local landfill, but many institutions are seeing benefits as well from collecting food scraps for compost.

Although it may seem like a no-brainer for Green Mountain College (Vt.) and other institutions with on-campus farms to collect food scraps to turn into fertilizer, large institutions are also getting into the act.

Ohio University made a major commitment to composting food waste with the grant-funded purchase of an in-vessel composting system capable of processing up to 28 tons of organic waste.

Landscape waste has been composted on campus in piles for years, explains Sonia Marcus, the university’s sustainability coordinator, but the prospect of capturing 1,000 pounds of material a day meant that a more robust handling system would be necessary. “You don’t even know how much food waste is in your trash until you start composting it,” she says.

The university’s waste collection contract is based on trip, not weight, so any cost savings will come from an overall reduction in volume. However, those savings might offset the composting program’s maintenance costs. “The main justification for this project is not cost avoidance,” says Marcus. “The main benefit is ecological.” Since the vessel just came online in February 2009, its true impact on the waste stream is not yet known.

Currently, food waste is being collected in the central food facility, where all food preparation for campus is done. The next location will be the student center, where biodegradable serviceware has been used since 2006.

Biodegradable serviceware is an important part of a successful composting program, asserts Micheal Meyering, project manager for housing and food services at the University of Washington, who contracts with a commercial composter. If a compostable cup comes with a standard plastic lid, the waste stream could be contaminated if people don’t remember to separate them.

Meyering’s dedication to a successful program resulted in Coca-Cola’s teaming with International Paper to develop a cold beverage cup that can be composted. It will soon be widely available.

“Two and a half years ago there were not a lot of compostable products available in our region of the country,” he says, adding since more compostable options are available, the cost to switch from premium plastic serviceware to compostable versions is negligible.

In addition to keeping waste out of landfills, with the potential groundwater contamination and methane production it brings, composting at the University of Washington reduces the carbon footprint of the food waste, as it travels shorter distances: The landfill is 250 miles away, while the composting facility is only 35 miles away.

As with the programs at Ohio and Washington, student interest is driving the program at the University of Minnesota, which is in phase 3 of a four-phase rollout, says Anne Zehner, the retail marketing manager for student unions and activities. The program, which started in fall 2007, now includes all buildings. The final phase will be encouraging area restaurants to use compostable take-out containers. Six hundred tons of pre- and post-consumer waste are collected annually.

Although there isn’t a cost savings because an outside contractor removes the material, Zehner says, “the university strongly believes that the unquantifiable ecological benefits far exceed the extra money being put into the program.” Soil fertility, water purity, and carbon sequestration are among the ways the ecosystem benefits.

Institutions that have the material hauled away don’t have to worry about dealing with the end product, but schools like Ohio have to make arrangements.

Marcus says current plans for the compost include using it on the campus grounds and possibly selling it to local businesses. Alumni and friends will also have a chance to take a piece of the university home: Seeds from trees on the campus green have been potted in some compost and will be for sale at graduation.

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