BioCycle Magazine

College, University and Correctional Facility Composting

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Courtesy of Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

DURING THE summer of 2006, BioCycle launched a survey of food residuals composting activity in the United States. Survey groups were divided as follows: Institutions, including colleges, universities, correctional facilities and school districts; Commercial and municipal composting operations processing food residuals; and Supermarkets. It had been six years since BioCycle had undertaken a food residuals composting survey, although many individual projects have been reported on in the magazine over that time period.

Part I of this survey report provides the results “to date” of food residuals composting in the institutional sector. We use the phrase, to date, because the data reported is a snapshot in time. There is rapidly growing interest in food residuals recycling. New projects, especially on college and university campuses, appear to be starting on a regular basis. Jack DeBell, with the University of Colorado Recycling Services in Boulder, helped pioneer campus recycling programs many years ago. “There is a groundswell of activity across the country,” he notes. “The sheer growth rate of composting operations is perhaps the most startling trend I'm seeing. And it's across all sectors, both large institutions and small colleges. I attribute it in large part to sustainability initiatives that colleges and universities are adopting, which include composting.”

Cost savings are another significant factor, especially at colleges and universities with comprehensive materials recycling programs. “When you remove so much cardboard, newsprint and other recyclables from the waste stream, what you primarily have left is food waste,” he adds. “It's ironic that food waste is the remnant because trash collection frequency can't be reduced because of it. Once you take the food waste out, you can really achieve disposal savings. For the University of Colorado, we crossed a significant threshold when food waste composting was initiated. The collection fee is $40 to $45/ton versus $90/ton for solid waste. We've been able to eliminate some dumpster sites all together, and minimize collection at others.”

For correctional facilities, cost savings are a significant motivator. The article in this section by James Marion of the New York State Department of Corrections (with 56 prisons involved statewide), notes an annual avoided disposal cost of $2.2 million by diverting food and wood wastes.

Table 1 lists the correctional facility composting projects identified during the 2006 survey, conducted primarily in July and August. New York State's program, which is over 15 years old, has by far the most number of prisons involved. Ten projects were found in California, six in Washington State, five in Indiana, and two projects each in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

In the majority of cases, correctional facilities are composting source separated food residuals on-site. Various processing methods are employed, ranging from windrows to in-vessel technologies. Because most states exempt on-site composting operations from their permitting processes, there isn't a formal tracking process at the state level. We suspect the number of projects we are reporting - 81 in total - is conservative.

Over the years, BioCycle has reported on composting projects at elementary, middle and high schools. In some cases, multiple schools within a district are involved in the food residuals composting program; in other cases, such as in King County, we identified only several (e.g., Briarwood Elementary and Crestwood Elementary have composting units funded by an on-site composting program initiated by the county).

The San Francisco Bay area has a number of programs. San Francisco's schools diverted about 500 tons of food residuals in the last year. There also are food residuals composting programs in the surrounding cities of Berkeley, Oakland and Emeryville (Emery Unified School District). The City of Plano, Texas has had a school district composting program for a number of years.

Thanks to “one very energetic student,” several very supportive faculty and staff, availability of land on the perimeter of the campus, and leaves from a nearby town, the State University of New York (SUNY) in Binghamton is embarking on a food residuals composting program. “It took a while to get established, but now plate scrapings from the dining hall are taken to the garden and composting project,” says advisor Dr. Richard Andrus. “There isn't much food prep that takes place in the dining hall kitchen, so we're only getting plate waste.”

Food residuals are mixed with leaves and loaded into bins made out of recycled pallets. Material is moved from bin to bin, and then eventually into windrows. “It's amazing how inexpensively this was set up,” adds Andrus. “We have acres to work with and as long as it looks good from the road and doesn't smell, we are in a good situation.”

The critical ingredients that helped launch the SUNY Binghamton composting program - dedicated and energetic student(s), supportive faculty and physical plant staff and a cooperative dining service - appear to underlie many of the campus composting initiatives. Based on the 40 projects listed in Table 2, a little more than half are composting on-site, using windrows, aerated static piles or vessels. The remaining programs are serviced by off-site composters. “As a general trend, schools that cross a threshold of about 100 tons/year of food residuals have the composting outsourced, with the exception of schools with a large agricultural presence or a lot of land,” says Jack DeBell.

About one-third of the programs listed in Table 2 are using compostable plastic bags, plates, cups and/or cutlery. The SUNY Binghamton project, for example, is using corn starch-based plates for carry-out items. Other schools are using the carry-out “clamshells” made of PLA. Generally, however, it appears that the majority of campuses are using compostable plastic products for special events. For example, the University of Colorado sponsored a “Global Jam” for 5,000 students in August. The picnic, billed as a zero waste event, used only compostable and recyclable materials. Over two tons of materials were collected for composting.

Hannah Clark and Cristina Olivares were summer interns at BioCycle. We appreciate their assistance with this survey.

AS NOTED in the beginning of this article, this report provides a “snapshot in time” of food residuals composting activity. Our goal with the 2006 food residuals composting survey is to continually add to the database as the current listings get circulated and people provide information about projects we missed on this first go-around. To facilitate this information exchange, Tables 1 and 2 in Part I, as well as the tables to be published in the December issue (Part II), will be posted on the BioCycle website ( There will be instructions on how to submit new information, as well as to update and/or correct existing information. In this manner, we hope that this access to programs and projects will stimulate new activity in the arena of food residuals recycling.

Copyright 2006, The JG Press

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