UW News

April 6, 2006

A sustainable idea: Forest resources team promotes composting in home college and beyond

UW News

First, staffers Ara Erickson and Matt McLaughlin of the College of Forest Resources say, came the challenge from Dean Bruce Bare last October.

“Working with the Dean’s Council, I will award a $500 prize to the person or group who advances the most innovative, cost-effective and measurable idea that helps the UW exceed the 60 percent … recycling goal this year,” Bare wrote in an e-mail to his college colleagues, setting a Nov. 30. 2005, application date for the ideas.

Erickson and McLaughlin, who both work for the college’s Rural Technology Initiative, wanted to respond, but thought the college’s current high recycling level was going to be hard to beat. And they knew about and respected the UW Recycling Program’s ongoing efforts to increase recycling habits, such as providing paper recycling bins to individual work spaces.

So they looked elsewhere for their idea — but they didn’t have to look far. Their own office kitchen area provided the inspiration for an innovative idea that won the challenge and earned its two creators the $500 prize.

Every time someone threw away a banana or orange peel, a tea bag or some coffee grounds, they’d wonder why there wasn’t a better way. “We began to feel guilty,” Erickson said. Whenever someone tossed another potentially compostable item, she said, they’d grumble something like, “I can’t believe I am throwing this banana peel in the trash!”

So Erickson and McLaughlin decided their approach — they’d devise a way for such food items and food-soiled paper products to be collected and composted rather than thrown out. This includes food leftovers, coffee grounds, tea bags, paper bags and cartons, napkins and boxes, produce and more.

They got busy last fall, researching current recycling and composting methods and practices, using statistics from the UW’s Waste Characterization Report. They defined the scope of their surveying to the science and lab buildings on campus, not including the Health Sciences complex. 

They took notice of UW Recycling’s pre-existing Food Waste Program, which has so far only targeted campus restaurants and coffee carts and shops, and has about 30 locations on campus — one of them at the C-10 parking lot, near Bloedel Hall, the woodsy campus home of Forest Resources. All the compostable materials from the UW are taken to Cedar Grove Composting, in Maple Valley.

“We piggy-backed on them,” said McLaughlin of UW Recycling’s expanding Food Waste Recycling Program.

Erickson and McLaughlin completed their proposal, titled it “Compostable Paper Proposal for the College of Forest Resources,” and submitted it to Dean Bare. The project’s stated goal is, “to decrease the amount of paper ending up in the landfill-bound waste stream, with a cost-effective, innovative and measurable solution.”

In an informative five-page description, complete with charts and graphs, the two set forth the arguments for and ways to implement their plan.

They reported, for instance, that:

  • About 25 percent of the total non-recycled waste generated in the study area, including soiled paper, glass and some plastic, could be captured by existing recycling programs. UW Recycling is already at work trying to bring up recycling totals.
  • The total of compostable soiled paper products in the studied area amounts to 22 percent of all the non-recycled waste generated there. That is, compostable materials and soiled paper amounted to more waste than all other forms of waste.
  • Fully 44 percent of everything that gets thrown out in the studied area is compostable, and could be diverted from the landfill by such a program.

Erickson and McLaughlin’s composting program, which is specific to the College of Forest Resources, would feature:

  • Providing 7.5-gallon food waste collection pails with charcoal filter lids for offices, labs and common rooms with kitchens. Additional 18-gallon food waste collection containers would also be available, for use during college events.
  • There being a need for someone to collect the containers, the proposal suggests the hiring of a work study student for about 10 hours a week for such work, or providing limited scholarship money to a student taking on that job. This position could be called the college’s Sustainability Coordinator.
  • Supervision would be needed; Erickson and McLaughlin offer to oversee the work to start, but they add, “Ideally, the program would eventually be self-sufficient, with little interaction needed from the supervisory team.”
  • Up-front costs for the college-specific program could run between $2,000 and $6,000 — including pails, stickers and educational posters, depending on how much time is required for the student worker.

Of all the paper products used campuswide, Erickson and McLaughlin said, the largest single source of potentially compostable paper is in coffee cups — but not those with plastic linings, because they can’t be composted. So the two will likely be lobbying their college to begin using exclusively paper cups with wax linings for its official get-togethers.

Pat Kaufman, program manager for UW Recycling, praised the staffers for their composting plan, and said the Food Waste Program is ready to be expanded wherever it is needed.

“In each building on campus, folks could certainly reduce their landfill-bound waste by organizing efforts to collect food waste in their lunch rooms and at special events. I think it’s great when people see that a litle extra effort can make a difference.”

He added, “In fact, we just delivered a food waste collection bin to Gerberding Hall to give staff the opportunity to participate in the program,”

Kaufman added that any staff members who want a food waste container for their building should contact UW Recycling. He said the composting program is voluntary and is similar in theme to the City of Seattle and King County’s recent decisions to start taking food waste in its yard waste containers.

And it seems fitting that such innovation would come from the College of Forest Resources, which has sustainability on its mind all the time. Of the award winners and their project, Dean Bare said, “The recycling contest and the winning project submitted by our staff members are a tangible demonstration of the unifying theme of sustainability throughout our College. All of our programs are focused on the sustainability of natural resources and environmental services so that they are managed in a productive and healthy way for future generations.”

Erickson and McLaughlin say they know that making the change to composting is a matter of changing people’s long-held habits. And they know such change doesn’t happen over night.

“We’re trying to make it as easy as possible,” Erickson said. “But we also want people to have a sense of responsibility. I want people to be aware and engaged. This is a fairly small community — it’s an ideal situation to start a proposal like this.

And what of the $500 in prize money? “That will pay for the first round of pails,” said Erickson. “And then we’ll have a celebration and composting expo party — using compostable paper products, of course.”