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Composting the U

Alecs Barton, the garden composting intern, mixes organic materials to the proper carbon-nitrogen balance. (Photo by Ross Chambless)

The University of Utah has resolved to reduce almost 50 percent of its overall waste – as stated by the 2010 Climate Action Plan.  This is a pretty substantial goal, as the U currently diverts only about 27 percent of its solid waste stream through recycling or waste-reducing measures.  This is the third essay in a series focused on recycling and waste reduction efforts at the University of Utah.

Most students never hear the clashing sounds of bulky trash bags against dumpster metal, or see the piles of refuse collecting at the back loading docks of the Union building each week after several days of hungry students consuming burritos, greasy pizzas, and sugary soft drinks.

But Abi Salmon does.

Abi Salmon collects food scraps from the Union Food Court cooks for weighing and transporting to the gardens.

While the University’s Union building tosses 80 bags of trash each week, Salmon, a graduate student in Environmental Communication, has found ways to divert valuable food waste from the Union kitchens away from the landfill and into the ancient practice of composting, a process as old as life itself.

As part of its Sustainability Mission Statement, Chartwells, the U’s corporate food service provider seeks to reduce their environmental footprint through creative and innovative ways.

In the fall of 2010 Chartwell’s Resident District Manager Reggie Conerly encouraged Salmon to become the composting coordinator for the cafeteria.  Salmon began carefully measuring and collecting all of the cantaloupe rinds, avocado skins, potato peelings or otherwise “pre-consumer waste” that pile up in the Union’s kitchen each week.

 

Under coordination with the kitchen staff, Salmon comes through three days a week and collects buckets of food scraps set aside at the Union’s Food Court and catering services.  She then delivers the “goods” to the campus gardens near the Pioneer Theater when classes are in session. On average, she says she delivers more than 400 pounds of coffee grounds to the garden each month, along with 1,650 pounds of fruit and vegetable scraps.  This adds up to about one ton per month.

Salmon says the food scraps are usually similar each week. “Our menus always include items such as veggie crudite, fruit cups, sandwiches, fresh salsas and sauces, and many types of salads,” she says.  “Diverse catering orders and differences in seasonal produce can add some variety to the scraps, but we always have scraps from items like cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, pineapple, cantaloupe, potatoes, avocados, squash, peppers, onions, and cilantro.”

Kelsey Pudlock, another composting intern, collects scraps from the UMFA Café for the upper campus Sill Gardens.  On average, she collects 40 to 50 pounds of pre-consumer waste a week using four gallon-size buckets.  Yet Pudlock says she’s adapted her approach to getting the scraps from the Café to the gardens this past year.

 

Only two days of scraps weighing about 150 pounds, plus 70 pounds of spent coffee grounds. (Photo by Abi Salmon)

“At the beginning on the internship I would walk two filled bins to the Sill garden,” she says. “However with an increased workload later in the semester and, at times, an increase in the amount and weight of the compost, I began to question the efficiency of this routine.  I began to drive the heavier bins, however this was not efficient at all, especially in terms of sustainability.”  Luckily for Pudlock the U has new “Recycle-Bikes” now available for use.

“It’s been somewhat shocking to see the amount of waste that is produced by a ‘small café’, yet somewhat rewarding knowing that this is being integrated into local food production for the university,” says Pudlock.

Pudlock says she’s noticed a shift in the cafe staff’s attitudes towards more sustainable practices such as attempts to reduce the waste streams of plastics and packaging.

“I have even had employees tell me that they have started composting at home, and some have asked me about campus garden involvement,” says Pudlock.

Let the Composting Begin

Many varieties of food scraps are returned to the campus gardens as compost. How many fruits and veggies can you identify? (Photo by Abi Salmon)

Once the food scraps are delivered to both campus garden sites a crew of composting engineers takes over.  Alex Parvaz, the U’s new Campus Gardens Coordinator, oversees the operation while Environmental Studies intern Alecs Barton, also helps process the materials into six, 4-foot cubed compost bins.  Meanwhile Kelsey Pudlock works the compost bins at the upper campus Sill gardens.

 

In total they’re processing around 500 lbs of food scraps per week, which they mix with piles of leaves and other carbon-intensive materials collected by the campus grounds crew.  Applying the general formula of 30 parts carbon for every part of nitrogen, Parvaz says compost can generally be generated in one to two months with regular turning. During the winter the break-down can be slower even though she says temperatures in the pile itself can reach up to 60 degrees Fahrenheit on the coldest days.  (Pile temperatures can reach 110 to 140 degrees in warmer weather).

Regarding the smell factor, Parvaz says except for those brief moments when the piles get stirred the compost rarely wafts an organic fragrance.  She says when the carbon-nitrogen mix is properly balanced the compost does not stink.

A student volunteer helps mix the compost piles. (Photo by Ross Chambless)

“It’s not intended to be a smell-sore, or an eye-sore on campus,” says Parvaz.  “More awareness is needed about the benefits of composting so that passersby don’t misunderstand it.”

Parvaz says they’re working on getting signs out to explain the garden-composting process.

Fortunately so far the composting crew’s labor is coming full circle.  Parvaz says that once incorporated into the soil, the compost adds fertility and key nutrients to help foster a healthy and productive garden.  She and other campus gardeners are excited about the freshly composted soil emerging for spring planting.  And Chartwells plans to continue purchasing campus-grown produce for Union cafeteria foods in the fall.

Reggie Conerly of Chartwells says he hopes to expand the composting program next year to incorporate the Heritage dining facility.

“What I have been happy with is that we stopped dreaming about it and pulled together to make it happen,” says Conerly. “Our biggest challenge is to get students involved and to actually help out with the work load.”

Still, since the 2005 waste audit found that roughly 18 percent of the U’s waste was compostable, the University of Utah and a handful of students have made significant progress towards putting that number to good use.

Kelsey Pudlock says she’s pleased by the changes she’s seen just in the past few months.

“It’s great to see the social and cultural impacts [of this initiative] through feedback from employees, as well as the economic impacts affecting more demand for sustainable products in the food industry,” says Pudlock. “Most of all we’re seeing the positive environmental impacts this project has brought to our community.”