September 21, 2010 | General

College Students Initiate Food Waste Diversion

BioCycle September 2010, Vol. 51, No. 9, p. 65
Second installment in a series visits colleges and universities where students launched the diversion programs. Part II
Dan Sullivan

STROLL through Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland and you’ll find compost tumblers strategically placed around the campus, beckoning passers by to give a hardy spin. The rotating compost barrels are part of an initiative launched four years ago by four students in the Agricultural Co-op. Goucher community members can put their fruit and vegetable waste and coffee grounds into white plastic buckets found at each of these locations. As the buckets fill up, their contents are added by students in the co-op to the tumblers beside them for composting. The tumblers are an extension of the co-op’s food waste composting program started in conjunction with a campus garden.
“Our project was initiated by students in the Agricultural Co-op on campus so that our garden could have a closed loop,” explains co-op leader Jennifer Jordan. “We grow food, sell it to the dining halls, compost food from dining halls for use on our garden and use the money made to buy new seeds.” The co-op also sells the compost – $4 for a 5-gallon bucketful – to faculty and staff and to those who have plots in the campus garden, says Jordan. The program is supported with student government funds as well as with dollars generated by the program itself.
Feedstock for the compost includes some preconsumer food waste – raw fruits and vegetables – collected from two of three dining halls and mixed with wood chips and ground leaves in cinder block bins enclosed on three sides. “We just make sure they are turned everyday by someone in the co-op,” says Jordan, adding that the cycle from introduced food scraps to compost is about six weeks. Getting funding to pay student composters was challenging but ultimately successful, she says. “Our students are paid $8/hour and they work one hour a week. We have two students composting a day; that’s as much as we can get funding for.”
Last year, facilities management set up a large-scale composting program to divert even more campus food waste, partnering with Waste Neutral Group to have it collect pre and postconsumer food scraps and soiled paper from all campus dining halls and composts it offsite. For every ton of food waste collected, the college receives a “compost credit” – two credits equal one yard of compost returned for use on campus.

Le Moyne College has been composting preconsumer vegetable scraps along with yard trimmings and fall leaves for about three years. “We use a composter barrel and take home the rest to compost,” says the school’s Executive Chef Drew D’Angelo. “The program was initiated by the students and myself to help use our kitchen scraps.” Start-up costs were handled in part by small donations generated by the campus environmental club. The compost is used in the campus’ vegetable gardens.
The amount of food scraps diverted varies, says D’Angelo. “It can be as little as 50 pounds a week during the summer and as high as 400 or 500 pounds a week during the school year. I’d estimate it adds up to 10,000 to 15,000 pounds annually. We also collect the chafe from roasted coffee bean shells and incorporate this also in our compost. During the summer months when there is a lot of vegetation and too much nitrogen in the compost, we use this to absorb extra moisture, and help speed the natural process along.”
In peak season, produce from the garden is auctioned off on the college’s website in an eBay style as vegetable baskets, D’Angelo adds. “This money helps sustain the garden, and any extra is held in the student environmental club’s account to use for the garden,” he says.


For the fall 2009 academic year, the State University of New York (SUNY) ESF experimented with a new, aerated microbin system to compost pre and postconsumer food waste from the dining halls, along with greenhouse organic materials, landscape debris, leaf litter and sawdust. Funding for the microbins came from SUNY ESF President Neil Murphy, O2 Compost and the Green Campus Initiative ($600 each).
“Administration was very receptive and supportive,” says Justin Heavey, a research assistant in the Department of Renewable Energy Systems. The campus physical plant was not so cooperative, he says, leaving the effort up to the students. “Previous failed composting efforts had left a bad impression with many people on campus, but most everyone was glad to see this program succeed. We processed close to 5 cubic yards in the first semester. That includes food waste, leaves, sawdust and greenhouse scraps. I think 15 cubic yards a year is a realistic number of what we are on pace to do over the first 365 days of the program.”
Intrinsic rewards, he adds, include “turning waste into resources, making our school greener and more sustainable, gaining real-life experience on real sustainability action projects that make a positive impact, applying what we learn about environmental sciences and natural resources in our classes and getting together with friends and enjoying the process.”

Students at Texas State University have been composting at an off-campus facility they helped start since the beginning of the 2009 semester. Feedstocks include all food-service generated pre and postconsumer food waste (including meat, bones and dairy), cardboard and other food packaging paper products, poultry litter brought in from Tyson Industries, wood chips from a local tree-service company, invasive aquatic plant species from the nearby San Marcos River and grass clippings and leaves from Texas State’s Muller Farm where the compost operation is located.
Students not only gather and haul the campus-generated compostables – including about 13 tons of food waste in the first year – they also don referee jerseys and coach their peers about proper cafeteria composting etiquette. A grant proposal to the university’s Environmental Service Committee, drafted by Jason Sanders (a graduate assistant in the horticulture program) with help from faculty advisor Dr. Tina Cade and campus recycling coordinator Mario Garza, netted $27,540 to begin the cafeteria collection program and pay for additional composting infrastructure. A previous grant written by Cade and another graduate assistant garnered initial funds from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the U.S. EPA to conduct a study on composting invasive water hyacinth as a means of killing the seed.
“Since this study had funded a composting site along with the necessary equipment, it just made sense to apply for additional funding to start up a cafeteria-composting program,” says Sanders, who now directs the “Bobcat Blend” compost project. “We set up the program and had student coordinators teach students how to sort the waste products in the cafeteria. This program has been student run ever since.”
Finished compost is utilized in student gardens around the agriculture department and in research studies, such as one focused on compost as a means of replacing peat moss in soil mixes.
One challenge has been incorporating product stewardship into the cafeteria, says Sanders. “We currently serve with products that are not recyclable or compostable – like polystyrene and plastic wrap. This makes it difficult for the students when it comes to source separating the products at the three-bin ecostations.”

UC Davis has been composting since 2001, initially on-campus via its student-run, student-funded “Project Compost” program and, more recently, off-site in partnership with Jepsen Prairie Organics. Students collect preconsumer food waste from kitchens, greenhouse residues and organics used in agricultural research for composting in windrows near the Student Farm. Postconsumer food waste generated by University Dining Services (UDS) – including meat, dairy, eggs and leftover food – is hauled to Jepsen Prairie, as is compost collected in residence halls, part of the school’s waste reduction goals of 75 percent by 2012 and zero waste by 2020.
UDS partnered with Associated Students of the University of California, Davis (ASUCD), in September 2001 to launch a preconsumer composting program in each resident dining commons, says UDS Sustainability Coordinator Danielle Lee. “The initial goal of this project was to support the Student Farm by providing organic matter for soil conditioning purposes. All four resident dining commons engaged in this practice, which yielded over 22,250 pounds of preconsumer organic matter per month.”
Five years into the project, Lee explains, a team comprised of R4 Recycling, ASUCD Project Compost, UC Davis Department of Grounds, Jepsen Prairie Organics and UDS found more than 80 percent of the dining commons waste stream to be postconsumer organic matter. “A goal was set forth to implement tactics that would eventually eliminate organic matter from entering the landfill, through preconsumer and postconsumer composting, recycling and a reduction in manufacturers’ packaging.”
That goal is fostered by a recent partnership with UC Davis’ Biogas Energy Project, an on-campus high solids digester. “Current and future initiatives will continue to support the Student Farm, provide nutrient-rich material for local farms or vintners through postconsumer compost in partnership with Jepsen Prairie Organics or support the energy needs of campus facilities through methane digesting at the Biogas Energy Project,” adds Lee.

The University of Virginia (UVA) has been composting food waste since November 2008 at Panorama Pay-Dirt in Earlysville, a small composting operation and local family farm a few miles from campus. Pulped postconsumer food waste is windrowed along with yard trimmings collected from city of Charlottesville residents and vegetative waste from local landscaping contractors.
“A student in an engineering sustainability class had to come up with a project idea,” explains Kendall Singleton, sustainability coordinator for UVA Dining Services. “One student laid the groundwork in the fall semester of the class, and in the spring semester another student continued the project, making the connections between UVA and Panorama Pay-Dirt.” The student did all of the work to determine how the program could run and coordinated logistics between the key departments and the composter, she says.
Students oversee collection, monitor operations and maintain documentation for the program and several classes have taken field trips to the site for a tour of the project and the composting operations, Singleton adds.
Regulatory requirements presented some initial challenges. “The regulations are onerous, reflecting the past when little was known or expected of composting operations involving post consumer food waste,” Singleton says. “While the regulators understood what we wanted and the great benefits to be derived, they were bound by the regulations. Composting reduces UVA’s carbon footprint, keeps material out of the landfill and turns it into something useful, closing the food loop by using food waste to grow food and support a local family farm.”

UW La Crosse has been composting food scraps via the static pile method for two years. The program began with the help of a $3,300 Solid Waste Research grant that funded the bins, necessary construction, staffing and the research itself.
While the program was initiated by students, explains graduate student, Jeremy Gragert, “it has had a rough start finding consistent student leadership. Now student staff and funding is provided through University Centers, with help from Facilities staff.” Finding adequate space for composting on a small campus and being able to effectively compost year round in a cold climate have presented the greatest challenges. “Problem solving across departments and divisions on campus, with help of students, faculty, staff and community members/organizations,” has offered the greatest reward, says Gragert. The campus is purchasing a $20,000 vermicomposting system with student funds, adds Eileen Norby, UW Waste Minimization Manager.
At UW Superior, an off-site composting program started a year ago represents a collaborative partnership between students, the dining service contractor, the campus sustainability office and local early adopters of the program, says Tom Fennessey, director of facilities management. Finalizing a contract with the composter and procuring the proper containers for food collection presented some initial obstacles, which were offset by the benefit of sending less refuse to the landfill. Now that the program is up and running, the school composts an estimated 35,000 pounds of food waste annually.
And at the UW Green Bay campus, a student research project is determining the amount of preconsumer food waste generated on campus and exploring composting options through a cost-benefit analysis that will recommend next steps. Similarly, students at UW’s Whitewater campus are evaluating the school’s organics stream and leaning toward recommending a composting partnership with the local municipality on a city-owned site.

Vanderbilt’s composting began in 2007 with a desire to green up a freshman residence hall. “We do basic aerobic composting in wooden containers with the compost turned every day by volunteers of SPEAR – Students Promoting Environmental Awareness and Responsibility,” says Tegan Gregory, SPEAR’s vice-president of dining and compost. Feedstocks include food scraps from the freshman Commons Center.
“A few students realized that composting would be a functional way to use organic wastes,” Gregory says. “SPEAR started the composting program at the Commons because it has ‘Green’ [LEED] accreditation. The new focus on sustainability in the Commons provided a niche for composting. It would be ridiculous to throw away food scraps in a green-centered dining hall.” Finished compost is used for campus landscape and garden projects, including a recently established pollinator garden.
An initial hurdle was educating kitchen staff. “But the Commons kitchen staff and Chef [William] Claypool have been amazing,” Gregory says. “They collect the scraps for us and separate them into buckets to compost and provide us with coffee grounds every day. The fact that produce that would have just been thrown away can be used to create nutrient rich soil that we use in our gardens on campus is amazing. It is a rather small project [about 5,000 pounds of food waste composted annually], but it a great way to have freshman students become involved in sustainability through SPEAR.”

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