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Getting dirty with cafeteria leftovers

A new class composts food from Rollins Dining Hall

For the members of Sustain Mizzou’s new composting class, the day starts and ends with some old-fashioned manual labor to advance a newfangled ideal: sustainability.

Twice daily during the semester, three of the 10 class members meet at Rollins Dining Hall to transport up to 300 pounds of pulped food scraps — by bicycle — to local community gardens and the Sustain Mizzou Research Farm. On site, they combine the pulp — by hand — with manure donated by the stables at Stephens College. Thrown into a bin and topped with straw, the mixture will compost until spring, when it will be used to improve the soil at community gardens around Columbia.

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Examining soil sustainability

Through this project-oriented class — Sustainable Development in Downtown Columbia, Mo. — students earn one or three credit hours and help the nonprofit, 60-member organization Sustain Mizzou promote sustainability on campus and in the community.

The composting class is the brainchild of graduate student Adam Saunders, BS, BSF ’08, Bobby Johnson, BS ’08, and Daniel Soetaert, BA ’08. “In particular, this class looks at soil sustainability,” says Saunders, former president of Sustain Mizzou. “We want to remove this organic matter from the waste stream and put it to use in the local food system. Before we think about the food we grow, we need to think about the soil. Healthy plants need healthy soil, and the key to healthy soil is organic matter.

“By recycling — composting — food, it remains clean, usable organic matter. In a landfill, it would become toxic and lose much of its benefit for society,” Saunders says. In fall 2008, class members collected 17,000 pounds of food scraps and mixed approximately 33,000 pounds of compost.

Leftovers head for landfills

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food leftovers are, by weight, the single largest component of waste produced in the United States. Americans toss 96 billion pounds of food per year, and the vast majority of it ends up in landfills, where its decomposition causes additional problems for the environment. As food decomposes without oxygen, such as in a landfill, it produces methane gas, a greenhouse gas more effective at warming the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Landfills now account for 34 percent of methane emissions.

In October 2008, Campus Dining Services initiated a program in the residential dining halls to measure how much food MU students waste every meal. At each meal, a student throws away an average of a quarter- to a half-pound of edible food and beverage (not counting, for example, chicken bones or banana peels).

“We serve approximately 2.2 million meals in one year,” says Steven Simpson, associate director of Campus Dining Services. Simpson’s numbers indicate that MU students waste a total of 550,000 pounds to 1.1 million pounds of food a year. In an effort to increase student awareness and decrease waste, Campus Dining Services posts the plate-waste measurements in the dining halls.

At Rollins Dining Hall, the plate-waste average is 9.1 ounces per student, per meal.

“Adam and his group are going to heroic efforts to make sure the Rollins plate-waste doesn’t go to a landfill,” says Nancy Monteer, manager of Rollins Dining Hall. “There has never been an outlet for the waste, and now that there is, this partnership has the potential to benefit the entire community.”

From cafeteria to compost

As the food travels from tray to compost pile, one gadget helps ensure the process runs smoothly: a food pulper. Without it, sorting, bagging and transporting plate waste would be nearly impossible. “A pulper is a machine that takes the food waste, mixes it with water, grinds it up and spins it in a centrifuge,” Monteer says. “You’re left with a pulp, and that is compostable.”

According to Simpson, a pulper costs an estimated $20,000, not including 

Rollins Dining Hall is the only residential dining hall on campus that has a pulper, which was installed in 1995. Before Saunders started the composting effort, the pulped food was bagged and thrown away.

“Part of what we hope to do is make the case for installing pulpers in the other dining halls,” Saunders says. Since the university pays for trash collection according to how many times trash compactors are emptied, “MU can reduce costs if they take steps to remove organic matter from the waste stream and compost it instead.” In addition, Saunders says, “Mizzou generates thousands of tons of compostable material each year. If this material is collected and composted, we would have a significant opportunity to generate revenue by selling compost to area farmers and gardeners.”

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