This is an archived article.

August 19, 2004

Circle of life: Food to compost to garden to food

With a circle of friends, Karin Olefsky was able to create a small circle in an otherwise linear system.

The system is the University’s food service system, which starts with the purchase of food and ends with food waste going to the landfill. Olefsky, a student in the Evans School of Public Affairs, wondered if some portion of that food waste could become compost to contribute to the growing of more food.

“I heard about a small composting facility on campus that wasn’t being used,” Olesfsky said. “One of my co-workers when I was an intern at King County Recycling encouraged me to look into it.”

The composting facility had been used by Forestry Professor Chuck Henry in a class on soils, but Henry had moved to UW Bothell last fall and wasn’t using the facility anymore. Located near the Center for Urban Horticulture, it consists of a couple of concrete bays in which the waste is piled and a motorized wheel that turns the material as it becomes compost.

Olefsky approached Jean-Michel Boulot, executive chef in Housing and Food Services, with her idea. He had started a small herb and vegetable garden on the patio at McMahon Hall to contribute to the residence hall food supply, and thought the compost she was proposing to produce might be used on the garden. So he suggested a small pilot project: She would collect food waste and compost it; he would use it on the garden.

“At first we were just going to compost coffee grounds,” Olefsky said. “That’s easy because they’re already diverted and cleaned so you don’t have to do much separating. But when we took this to McMahon, the kitchen staff was saying, ‘You only want coffee grounds? We have so much stuff back here. Can we do this? Can we have an extra bin?’ They were really excited. So we started collecting food waste at McMahon.”

By “food waste,” Olefsky means scraps such as vegetable peelings that come from food preparation, not uneaten food left on plates. Starting in spring quarter, the kitchen staff (the HUB and McCarty staff also participated) put the waste into specially-labeled bins and Olefsky and some other students she recruited to help her picked it up and dumped it into larger bins on loading docks.

Enter UW gardener Kristen Spexarth, who oversees work in the McMahon garden. She had access to a truck and was willing to transport the food waste to the composting facility and to supervise the compost’s use on the garden. But she couldn’t do the loading without help, so she turned to fellow gardener Mike Erickson, who had taken a composting class from Chuck Henry and has been involved with another composting project on campus. He helped load the food waste onto the truck and also delivered wood chips to the composting facility.

“To do the composting you need carbon and nitrogen,” Spexarth explained. “The food waste is nitrogen rich and the wood chips — a material we could get free — supply the carbon.”

Once the food waste and wood chips arrived at the composting facility, it was up to Olefsky and her crew to mix the two together and turn it when necessary. Together they processed about 6,000 pounds of food waste, which has now produced a batch of compost to be used on the McMahon garden this fall.

So one small circle has been completed. Food is produced in the McMahon garden which is eaten by students and the resulting waste composted and returned to the garden. And plans are under way to expand the program in a different direction. Pat Kaufman, recycling program operations manager, has been doing his own pilot program with the UW Club, whose food service is run by an off-campus vendor. Food waste there is being hauled to Cedar Grove (where yard waste is taken) for commercial composting.

“I’ve talked to the chefs from Housing and Food Services about expanding this to food services campus wide,” Kaufman said. “They were very positive about the idea.”

The on-campus composting facility couldn’t possibly handle that kind of volume, Kaufman said, so the program Olefsky started will continue using only the food waste from McMahon. Any additional food waste collected would be hauled away for commercial composting.

Composting of food waste — even if it’s done off campus — is cheaper than having it go to a landfill, Kaufman said. Commercial compost fees run about $40 per ton, as opposed to $90 plus for the landfill. But the scheme would require some education of kitchen staff and working out logistics with the hauling company. He’s currently investigating what it would take to make it happen.

Olefsky, who will be graduating soon, turned her project — which started as a personal interest — into a master’s thesis on the feasibility of food waste diversion at the UW. She has recruited another student, Teri Butorac-Lee, to run the on-campus composting effort in the coming year.

“To me, the most exciting part of all this is how we students were able to bridge the gap between the departments and get this program going,” Olefsky said. “None of this would have happened if it wasn’t for me and my fellow student helpers’ hard work. At first I was told many times I was too ambitious and food waste recycling wouldn’t happen anytime soon. But we were persistent and now have developed momentum for the rest of the campus food waste composting efforts to build from.”

Spexarth is thrilled at the way it all came together. “Like so many things, everybody wants to do the right thing but it’s very difficult to do it by yourself,” she said. “So often you hear in the media that sustainability is not possible. But it is possible. It just takes a little bit of effort by a lot of people.”