Food court waste audit helps prepare for composting system
May 23, 2007
By Elizabeth Boyle
On a bright May day, you're likely to find many students outside passing a football, playing Frisbee or snoozing in the sun. But Zodiac Maslin, a member of Associate Professor of Environmental and Plant Biology Art Trese's sustainable agriculture class, began her week on the loading dock in the back of Baker University Center sorting trash. She may have been far from the volleyball courts of South Green, but it was for a good cause.
Maslin and her classmates worked under the supervision of the university's Office of Resource Conservation to conduct a waste audit at Baker University Center's West 82 food court on Monday. The audit was a vital step in implementing a full-scale composting system, says Sonia Marcus, the university's resource conservation coordinator.
"This is pretty key information so we can estimate the amount of waste coming from the food court on a daily basis," Marcus says. "This is also our first chance to assess the success of waste sorting at the Baker food court."
Supported by a $250,000 grant from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the audit is an initial step in plans to institute the first full-scale composting project at a college or university in Ohio and install what is believed to be the largest in-vessel system at a college in the United States. An in-vessel composting system allows for the processing of biodegradable waste to a fertile soil additive in just 14 days with the help of a large machine that speeds up the composting process. The university will use the grant funds to purchase and install the system.
Monday's audit began with custodians, who pulled trash bags from the three types of bins at the food court's waste centers -- trash, recyclables and compost -- and labeled them accordingly. Students weighed each bag and recorded the degree of "contamination" in the bags marked compost. Potato chip bags, salad dressing packets and foil aren't biodegradable, Marcus says, so when those and other non-biodegradable materials go in the compost bin, they're considered contaminants.
The audit revealed that users deposited 355.5 pounds of waste into the bins on Monday. Nearly 44 percent was deposited in a bin labeled trash, 6.19 percent was deposited into a bin labeled bottles and about 50 percent went into the compost bin. Of the 178.5 pounds of compost collected, approximately 73 percent had little or no contamination.
"This is why we're starting this early," Marcus says, explaining that she's pleased with the contamination levels. "Now we have the space and time to try things out and to get people better at sorting before this contamination issue actually affects the function of our composting unit."
For Trese and his students, the composting project plugs into the goals of his sustainable agriculture class.
The value for students, he says, is in the opportunity to get involved in the process and see the challenges associated with it. The composting of plates, cups and cutlery -- all of which in Baker are biodegradable -- makes this initiative stand out from others that simply compost food waste, he adds.
Trese says some of his students are interested in the resource conservation field, and seeing the nature of Marcus' work firsthand helped them envision possibilities for a future career.
"It's really setting a great example to essentially develop a prototype," he says of the university's composting program. "We are not following something that's been done over and over and saying, 'us too.'"
Maslin, a senior African studies major, appreciates the university's leadership in this area.
"It's a good example for the students who go here to see the problems going on in the environment and that the university is doing something," she says.
Melissa Evans contributed reporting for this story.