UW Today

This is an archived article.

July 5, 2007

Corn cutlery? Composting is growing at the UW

News and Information

Kitchens at the UW have been composting their food waste for some time — but now composting is coming out front, and becoming everybody’s business.

Just as with recycling many years ago, much of the UW community is coming to accept composting as a daily habit and a powerful way of reducing the University’s waste stream. And as with many progressive elements, the students are among the campus leaders in the new trend.

Composting, of course, is the collection of food scraps and food-soiled paper and cardboard in containers separate from the garbage or recycling, plus the new disposable products made from renewable resources. Materials gathered at the UW are sent to Cedar Grove Composting in Everett. In a 90-day process, Cedar Grove transforms the food scraps and yard waste into nutrient-rich compost, mulch and other products that it then sells for use in gardens.

The gathering of food waste from kitchens is called “pre-consumer” collection. That’s been under way since 2004 and now includes virtually all restaurants on campus. Recently, The Rotunda Café, in the Health Sciences Complex, as well as Eleven 01, McMahon 8 and Ian’s Domain, have been collecting “post-consumer” compost — plate waste, biodegradable cups, plates, napkins and stir sticks.

In his job as recycling manager for Property and Transport Services, itself part of Facilities Services, Pat Kaufman has an excellent view of the advance of composting at the UW. Composting is growing across campus, he said, “because of the increase in bio-degradable food packaging now being used by Housing and Food Services (HFS). They’re really making huge strides in finding compostable products.”

Michael Meyering, project manager for Housing and Food Services, agreed: “As more and more of the traditional disposable products are replaced with available biodegradable tableware, the potential to reduce the waste stream becomes even more significant,” he said.

Composting at home also has gotten easier in the last year or so for many Puget Sound residents, as some local governments have started allowing food scraps and other compostable materials to be included in yard waste bins for curbside pickup.

It’s an ongoing effort. Meyering said, “My main thrust has been through purchasing — seeing what’s available and approved by Cedar Grove.” One of the biggest parts of this, he said, is the hunt for biodegradable tableware that fits well with the customers, campus restaurants and cafes and the composting facility.

The UW community will soon be eating with cutlery made of corn, he said. Yes, corn. Meyering said there have been tests of wheat, potato and corn-based cutlery. He said Cedar Grove has approved a corn-based product that will be introduced soon at the Eleven 01 Café.

But tableware is just the beginning, he said. “If you go to the espresso bar at Eleven 01 and get a cold drink or a fruit cup, you will get it in a clear container that’s compostable, too,” Meyering said. Biodegradable cold drink cups are made of polylactides, or PLA, a polymer derived from corn that breaks down in 47 days, well within the 90-day process used by Cedar Grove.

Students are helping to promote and raise awareness of composting, too, especially in their residence halls. J.R. Fulton, capital planning and sustainability manager for HFS — a relatively new position, he said — works with student groups to identify the best strategies for sustainability in many ways, including composting and recycling. He said HFS teamed with the student group Students Expressing Environmental Dedication (SEED) to create a pilot composting program in four floors of the Lander residence hall. Meyering said they even formed a group on the social networking Web site Facebook called Compost Compadres.

A compost bin was placed alongside the trash bins in the Eleven 01 Café and posters were put up to advise students of the composting option. SEED volunteers even went from table to table spreading information about the new composting option. The student group also lobbied successfully to have food servers in the Eleven 01 Café ask customers “here or to go?” to minimize the unnecessary use of to-go containers, thus diverting them from the landfill.

Of the pilot program, Meyering said, “It showed so much promise that we expanded the program to McMahon 8, Ian’s Domain, and Balmer Café, and just recently Rotunda. The Husky Den, located inside the HUB, will soon start up a front-of-the-house composting program as well.” Meyering added, “Our goal is to get everything the students eat with in the dining room to be compostable.”

Special events generate much waste, as Kaufman, the recycling manager, knows. But the amount of waste going to the landfill can be reduced by using special event containers. These include recycling and composting bins and “toters” — large, wheeled plastic bins. Requests for these can be made online at http://www.washington.edu/admin/recycling/event_req.html.

Composting is slowly becoming more of a habit at the UW, but there still is no uniform, campuswide policy or system for composting. Fortunately, many departments, colleges and units are proceeding with composting in their own way and at their own pace.

Employees at the Program for the Environment — an ecologically friendly UW unit if ever there was one — have become used to composting their food scraps, said Terry Rustan, the program’s associate director. She said her department arranges for composting and recycling bins for special events, something available campuswide. “We recently had compost bins available at our graduation ceremony and capstone event.” Staff said the bins were easy to set up and work with. Rustan added, “One of the things we’ve been doing is, when we use a catering service, for example, a lot of the time they provide plastic plates and we swap those out for paper.”

The College of Forest Resources also has made efforts to compost on a regular basis, including providing compostable cups for special events. In early 2006, staffers Ara Erickson and Matt McLaughlin won a $500 prize in answer to a challenge from Dean Bruce Bare for innovative ways to help the UW increase its recycling and reduce waste. They suggested a composting program, saying it could reduce nonrecyclable waste by about one-quarter, and that about 44 percent of everything that gets thrown out could be diverted from the landfill by such a program. Erickson said it started when people began feeling guilty about throwing a tea bag, coffee filter or banana in the garbage. The college even formed an all-volunteer group to promote composting and other changes, called the Sustainability Council.

After a good start, however, the college’s composting program has slowed a bit,” Erickson said. “Right now, composting is mainly at the individual level, given a lack of staff time and resources that can be devoted to the program.” But she said the new school year may bring a renewed effort. “On the positive side, the Sustainability Council is taking the summer to develop an action plan that can successfully be implemented at the start of the next academic year.”

As each department and unit starts to compost its food scraps, Kaufman and the people in UW Recycling stand ready to help. They will provide compost containers for special events, are ever ready with information, and look forward to the day when composting takes hold campuswide. Food waste toters are located across campus at the loading areas of more than 40 buildings. Kaufman encourages employees to use these toters for their compostable materials; employees should use the toter closest to their building, or UW Recycling will deliver one “if the distance is too great.” To find out where your nearest food waste toter is located, contact UW Recycling at recycle@u.washington.edu.

Composting is just one of many ways in which the University is, as Meyering of HFS said, “striving to reduce the waste stream down to a trickle.”
And it seems likely that in just a few years, the composting of both “pre-consumer” and “post-consumer” materials will be as natural as recycling used paper. And all those banana peels and used tea bags and coffee filters will go where they belong — instead of the landfill.