At colleges and universities across the United States, residential hall composting programs are becoming more prevalent, especially when following the successful adoption of pre and postconsumer food scraps collection in their dining halls. The higher rate of organics diversion contributes to these universities’ initiatives to achieve Zero Waste, and to encourage environmental stewardship.
The majority of organic waste generated in residence halls comes from take-out food, campus eateries and paper towels from bathrooms. The amount generated depends on a variety of factors including the number of residents with access to the program, size of the school, and emphasis on community engagement. Of the programs implemented in residence halls, some universities have chosen to integrate organics collection as part of the buildings’ infrastructure, while others require volunteers to collect and drop-off their organic materials.
Organics diversion programs at residence halls described in this article are divided into the following categories:
Opt-In: Covers a broad range of programs where students who are interested in composting in their dorms have to go to another location other than their dorm floor to drop off their organics. A subset of opt-in programs are student-run, where student volunteers and/or work study students run the programs and take the organics from a collection point of their choosing in the dorm (e.g., the kitchen) to a more centralized location, either in the dorm or elsewhere on the campus.
Collection for Community Gardens: Organics diverted from the dorm are composted in an on-campus community garden. These may be opt-in programs that are student run.
In-Room and Centralized: Program is integrated into larger campus organics collection service. Students can opt in to participate, and sometimes are given collection containers for their dorm rooms.
Several other approaches are described in the last section of this article. Table 1 summarizes general information about 35 residence hall programs. Table 2 reports on the collection and composting services.
Student Volunteer And Opt-In Programs
Opt-in programs require less effort from school administrators and custodial staff. The success of the program relies mainly on students who manage the logistics and student outreach. At Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, approximately 10 freshman volunteers, some new to composting themselves, act as point people for their kitchen’s 2-gallon organics collection bin. These students are responsible for taking the full bin, as needed, to a location near their dorm, where Farm Services collects the material and delivers it to the university’s on-site composting facility. Each week, about 80 lbs of organics are collected from five freshman dorms.
Volunteers provide compost education to their “hallmates” to help limit contamination. “Cornell’s goal is to develop a strong program that not only diverts waste from the landfill, but is also educational, community building, and helps ensure safe and healthy compost collection,” explains Spring Buck, Associate Director of Facilities Management. The university focuses on first-year students in hopes that they will continue to separate organics correctly throughout their time at Cornell and beyond. Upperclassmen houses have their own dining halls where Cornell Dining staff diverts postconsumer organics.
Oregon State, Wesleyan, Dickinson, Linfield and Luther colleges and universities utilize a similar volunteer approach where student volunteers or employees manage collection in their residence halls by removing and cleaning bins and educating their peers.
University of Vermont (UVM) Recycling offers 12-inch by 7-inch by 4-inch Bag to Earth brown paper collection bags for students who opt into its program. Once filled, students deposit the bags into a 13-gallon, compostable plastic lined container at the front desk of their residence hall complex. Each Tuesday and Friday, two work-study students take the full containers from the 15 residence hall complexes to the main collection area, a temperature controlled walk-in cooler in UVM’s main student center. Casella Organics picks up the material and delivers it to Green Mountain Compost in nearby Williston. UVM’s Eco Reps promote the program and educate students about acceptable materials through in-dorm posters, bulletin boards and peer-to-peer education tables in hall lobbies.
The University of North Carolina (UNC) Asheville utilizes a similar approach. Students wanting to participate are given their own 2-gallon collection container, but some students choose to use their own collection containers. The Student Environmental Center has distributed about 80 collection bins to students, who put their organics into an indoor central compostables receptacle, which is collected by paid student Eco Reps and emptied into an outdoor tote for pick-up. Eco Reps also inform students about organic waste collection.
Tufts University has a similar program, where students living on or off campus can deposit their organics in outdoor collection totes. The 2,527 students living in residential advisor (RA)-run residence halls also have collection containers in their kitchens, which are then emptied into the collection totes by Eco Reps.
Collection For Campus Community Gardens
Oberlin College, University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill and the College of the Atlantic (COA) utilize similar volunteer programs but haul their organics to on-campus community gardens where finished compost is used to grow fruits and vegetables.
Eight student employees who form the Resource Conservation Team (RCT) run the program at Oberlin, a small college in northern Ohio. Each year, the RCT selects about 14 volunteer Compost Captains to facilitate collection programs in their halls. Compost Captains place 5-gallon organics collection buckets in a central location in the dorms, typically their floor’s kitchen or lobby, and educate hallmates about the program and accepted organic materials. Meat, dairy and compostable products are not accepted although a certain amount still are found in the buckets. Once weekly, the RCT collects the buckets from the dorms, picks out any visible contaminants, and brings the material to the Johnson House Garden, where bins are emptied, cleaned and returned to the halls to restart the cycle. About 25 to 30 gallons of compostable materials are generated in the residence halls and delivered to the garden each week.
The RCT manages a “3-stall” composting system — essentially three bays divided by concrete construction barriers — with materials moved from bin to bin, using pitchforks and shovels. The Grounds Service Manager mechanically turns the pile with a Bobcat as needed, usually twice a semester. In three to ten months, depending on the season, compost is available to apply to the garden. Each season from March until October, students grow a variety of vegetables, such as tomatoes, basil, squash, broccoli, and cucumbers. Produce is sold to student dining halls and cooperative houses on campus. Proceeds from these sales help fund the RCT.
UNC Chapel Hill’s residential hall composting program is completely voluntary. UNC’s Office of Waste Reduction and Recycling (OWRR) offers 87-ounce airtight collection bins at eight residence halls. In the 2014-2015 academic year, 212 students checked out these bins. Students who opt in empty their vegetative food scraps in a 32-gallon outdoor community collection cart. Once a week, OWRR takes the food scraps to the Carolina Campus Community Garden (CCCG), where student and employee volunteers turn the food waste into compost. All of the produce harvested at CCCG is donated to the UNC housekeepers for their personal use.
COA provides 5-gallon bins in all residence hall kitchens. Students who opt into this program bring their organics to the drop-off location by the community garden once or twice per week. Two to six work-study students manage composting at the garden, and are also responsible for the program’s research, planning, documentation, outreach and follow up.
Skidmore College offers a collection program in its two on-campus apartment villages. Each of the 218 apartments has a small bin lined with a paper Bag To Earth bag. Apartment residents are asked to place the bags in a large Rubbermaid tub outside of the laundry room for collection. Student employees take the organics to the campus community garden and manage the composting piles.
In-Room And Centralized Composting Programs
Other universities have similar opt in programs that require less effort from residents and more by the university by integrating organics collection into residence hall infrastructure. Although students are still responsible for bringing their own organics to a centralized location, having custodial staff service the bins eliminates the need to find student volunteers or employees willing to do the job. Having custodial staff empty bins allows for more residential halls to participate in organics collection programs.
Seattle University provides a collection bin — which varies in size from 1.2 gallons to 7 gallons depending on the number of students in the living space — along with trash and recycling bins in all of the 1,000 residence hall rooms on campus. Seattle University estimates that about 80 percent of students living in these rooms use their collection bins daily. Students are responsible for bringing their organics to the recycling room on their floor, where custodial staff collect and take them to a centralized location for Cedar Grove Composting to pick up. As for education, the college’s Recycling Coordinator trains RAs and Orientation Assistants at the start of the year and provides flyers in students’ mailboxes to describe materials that can be placed in the “compost bin.”