BioCycle June 2007, Vol. 48, No. 6, p. 35
Audit at Ohio University dining hall finds food residuals comprise about half of the waste stream generated. The next step is selecting and financing a composting system.
ZODIAC Maslin and fellow classmates were up to their elbows in trash last month – 355.5 pounds to be exact. Maslin and the others are students in a sustainable agriculture class taught by Art Trese, an Associate Professor of Environmental and Plant Biology at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Their assignment – sort trash on the loading dock in the back of the Baker University Center from the West 82 food court.
The students worked under the supervision of the university’s Office of Resource Conservation to conduct the waste audit, which was one of the first steps in implementing what will eventually be the largest full-scale in-vessel composting system at a college in the United States. “I’ve been talking about setting up a composting program at Ohio University since the early 1990s,” says Ed Newman, Ohio University’s Refuse and Recycling Manager. However, the project gained momentum with the creation of the Office of Resource Conservation less than a year ago. “The payoff of creating this office was not coming up with the idea [to compost], but having the time and attention to organize the new project,” says Sonia Marcus, the Resource Conservation Coordinator.
The first step was to evaluate the needs of the university. This stage included waste sorting and the audit. Completed on May 21, the audit began with custodians, who pulled trash bags from the three types of bins at the food court’s waste centers – trash, recyclables, and compost – and labeled them accordingly. Students weighed each bag and recorded the degree of contamination in the bags marked compost.
The audit revealed that users deposited 355.5 pounds of waste into the bins. Nearly 44 percent was deposited into the bin labeled trash, 6.19 percent was in the recyclables bin, and about 50 percent went into the compost bin. Of the 178.5 pounds of compostables collected, contaminants comprised roughly 25 percent. “This is why we’re starting this early,” Marcus says, noting she is pleased with the fairly low contamination levels. “One of the most important aspects of this program is education, and we believe the educational materials on the wall contributed to the relatively low levels.”
Marcus estimates that Ohio University will be able to divert 2.5 to 3 tons/day of food waste to composting. This estimate is based on many factors, such as the size of the student and faculty population (roughly 17,000), the size of the dining halls, and a university audit done by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. She also has looked to other models of university composting at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania and St. Olaf College in Minnesota in estimating the quantities of organic waste to be generated for the composting project. The university spends about $300,000/year in trash disposal costs; diversion of 3 tons/day to composting could lower that cost by $37,500 annually.
The only complaint Marcus had was with the collection containers. “The holes at the tops of the bins are too small for the biodegradable plates that we ordered,” she says. To fix the problem, a counter-based unit was ordered and will be installed this summer. Sorted food waste is not being composted at this time. “Food sorting was launched as a public education process,” adds Marcus. Once the compost facility is on line, food prep residuals will be diverted as well as the postconsumer dining hall organics.
Biodegradable plastic products have been used at the Baker University Center and two campus coffee shops since January. Once the composting site is established, these plastics will be part of the compostable stream.
NEXT STEPS ON JOURNEY
With the audit completed and generation estimates made, Marcus has been working on grant proposals in order to finance the project. Ohio University already received a Market Development Grant worth $250,000 from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), which will go towards purchasing an in-vessel composting system. She also applied for a grant from the Recycling and Litter Prevention Department of the ODNR to finance purchasing of solar panels. The solar panels will offset the utility costs associated with composting. A third grant proposal was submitted to the Energy Loan Fund Grant Program of the
Ohio Department of Development. This would provide the university with a subsidy of $3.50/kW of electricity
produced (a value of $21,525) by the solar panels.
The next stage of this process will be the Request for Proposals for an in-vessel system, which Marcus expects to complete this summer. The goal is to have the system delivered to the university by December 2007 or January 2008, and have the full-scale program up and running in May 2008. The in-vessel system will be installed in an area called “The Ridges” near the university, where grounds waste is currently composted.
Food residuals from all of the campus food courts, dining halls, and food service areas on campus will be collected. Trucks currently used to collect recyclables will also collect the food waste and deliver it to the Ridges.
The composting project has received support from all levels of administration as well as the student body. Some faculty hope to incorporate the program into their curriculum. Marcus and Newman attribute popularity of the project to its economic benefits as well as its environmental benefits. In addition to saving close to $40,000 in avoided tipping fees, trash hauling costs will go down as well. Currently, the dumpsters on campus are tipped twice per day. Marcus estimates that with composting, the dumpsters will only have to be tipped three times per week.
Ed Newman not only expects to reduce costs, but also extract revenues from the composting project via sale of the finished compost to local growers, especially organic growers. He also hopes that university composting will improve relations between the town of Athens and the university. Eventually, he would like to include organic residuals from Athens residents in the university’s program. Once Athens residents are involved, the compost project will be based on an economy of scale, reducing costs and increasing efficiency.