Recycling Food Waste: It’s Academic

Don’t even try trashing that half-eaten salad at the University of Oregon’s (UO) Annual Folk Festival, the University of Vermont’s (UVM) Orientation Picnic or Humboldt State University’s Spring Fair. The trash stations are manned, making sure you recycle everything from your food-smeared paper plate to soy sauce-soaked chopsticks.

University of Vermont students make sure their food scraps get recycled.© University of Vermont

Meet the food waste bin. You can find it at a growing number of college campuses. Students, faculty and staff are waking up to their wastefulness. The nation’s colleges throw out approximately 4.5 million pounds of food waste per meal, according to the environmental research group Inform Inc. These campuses feed their excess to soup kitchens, pig farms or let it rot in the compost.

"Composting is the new frontier in waste reduction and recovery," proclaims Karyn Kaplan, UO recycling program manager. Last year, UO recovered 80 percent of the waste at the folk festival—40 percent being compostables.

From aerated piles to bins of worms, the benefits are clear. Banana peels and coffee grinds add up and colleges cash in. Ithaca College recovers 350 tons of food waste per year, saving $20,000 in landfill tipping fees. Washington State University (WSU) saves $5,000 a year by using the composted end-product—nutrient-rich soil—in landscaping. WSU gains another $50,000 a year by selling its compost to local garden stores and landscapers. Colleges also use compost for biological research, local school field trips, course curricula and demonstration projects.

Collecting and composting isn’t always easy, though. "Expecting students to separate the waste themselves proved a disaster," says Mark Darling, Ithaca’s recycling coordinator. Sorting by the kitchen staff keeps contamination down and compliance high in most dining halls. Erica Spiegel, UVM’s recycling manager, adds "How does the carrot peel from the kitchen end up at the compost site? Make it easy for the guy peeling the carrots to participate."

But don’t be fooled: students participate! At UVM, they asked for biodegradable bags to compost in the dorms. A student research project at Middlebury College yielded a greenhouse heated by composting piles, keeping fresh greens alive during the winter. And students give workshops to the local community at Humboldt’s Compost Festival.

The key to success is collaboration. University recycling coordinators share information on the College and University Recycling Council’s listserv and at national and regional conferences.